The Real Housewives meets Molière in GBTS’s hilariously delightful The Learned Ladies

Ensemble. Set & costume design by Brandon Kleiman. Lighting design by Siobhan Sleath. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

The George Brown Theatre School (GBTS) graduating class opened its 2019-20 season at the Young Centre this week with a hilariously delightful take on Molière’s The Learned Ladies, translated by Richard Wilbur, directed by Sue Miner and choreographed by Bob McCollum. It’s The Real Housewives of Paris meets Molière as the translated text combines with a contemporary backdrop in a razor-sharp send-up of attention-seeking celebrity rich people and the famous poseur artists they fawn over. Plus ça change…

We are introduced to the characters in etalk red carpet style, complete with director (a hyper-efficient, clipboard-bearing Amelia Ryan), and self-involved celebrity hosts Joshua (sunglasses-wearing cock of the walk Jack Copland) and Salique (Siobhan Johnson, with runway model fetching fierceness). The parade of artifice and authenticity gives us a glimpse at the nature of the people we’re about to meet as they walk, stroll and pose across Brandon Kleiman’s colourful pink explosion of a set (think Barbie meets Dr. Seuss).

Left behind the glamourous clamour is the bespectacled, introverted Clitandre (an adorkably sweet turn from Barry McCluskey), trying to catch up with his sweetheart and intended bride Henriette (played with vulnerable resilience and independence by Cait MacMullin). When Henriette meets with her more popular older sister Armande (a hilariously vain and self-absorbed performance from Hannah Forest Briand) in a café, we learn that Clitandre was once smitten with Armande, who has sworn off traditional relationships like marriage in the interests of academic and artistic learning, and rejected his love.

Of course, the young intended couple have barriers to overcome, chiefly Henriette’s overbearing, judgmental mother Philaminte (a domineering Kardashian-esque philosopher turn from Jessica Pellicciotta), who boasts a small army of “learned ladies” in a self-directed academy of their own making: Arganiette (wacky, woo bottle carrying Ilona Gal), expert in Health and Health Trends; Violette (an imperious, verbally agile Renisha Henry), expert in Government and Justice; Dorimene (a fastidious, unforgiving librarian-esqe Amy Leis); and Lucillia (a spacy, star-gazing Lauren Merotto), expert in Stars and Other Worldly. They are joined by Philaminte’s sister-in-law (her husband Chrysale’s sister), self-proclaimed heart-breaker Aunt Belise (played with outrageously funny, delusional panache by Jane Neumier).

On Henriette and Clitandre’s side are her brow-beaten father Chrysale (played with goofy cowardly lion kindness by Kareem Mark Vaude) and his other sister, lawyer Aunt Ariste (Nastasia Pappas-Kemps, with brilliant, level-headed good sense and wide-eyed energy). Rounding out the group are Chrysale and Philaminte’s household servants: Martine the maid (a cheeky, forthright and irreverent Iris Hallman) and Butler Lepine (Ian Williams, with a combination of uptight decorum and the enthusiasm of one who’s swallowed the poseur Kool-Aid).

Philaminte has other plans for Henriette, choosing celebrity boy wonder poet Trissotin (a hysterically classic, physical poseur artist turn from Brian Le) as husband for her youngest daughter. Trissotin has his eye on someone else; and problems of his own, when his talent and reputation are challenged by poetry performance power couple, lovers Vadius (Sansom Marchand, in a proud, haughty cypher turn) and Mademoiselle Fosina (an intimidating, sensual turn from Jacqueline JD Plante). Adding insult to injury, Philaminte gives her blessing when the jealous, attention-seeking Armande decides she wants Clitandre back!

Finally finding the gumption to stand up to his bossy wife, Chrysale hatches a plan with his sister Ariste to make it right for Henriette and Clitandre. And, as this is Molière, things have a way of working out—in some unexpected, surprising and wacky ways.

The Learned Ladies, George Brown
Ensemble. Set & costume design by Brandon Kleiman. Lighting design by Siobhan Sleath. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

The razor-sharp satire pokes great fun at the fond and foolish rich people who become celebrities for no apparent reason other than for their over-the-top antics and ridiculous wealth; and those among the art and media glitterati who achieve fame with their mannequin good looks and artiste du jour popularity. And it rips into those who are slavishly and superficially dedicated to learning, their noses stuck in books and their heads up their asses—intolerant of and excluding those who don’t meet their unforgiving, idiotic standards. Through the red carpet galas; spa days; poetry tableaux; and yoga classes that are part yoga, part Tai Chi, part voguing—we see how artificial and disingenuous these idle rich folk are. Thankfully, authenticity, acceptance and inclusion win the day.

The Learned Ladies continues at the Young Centre until November 16; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

Check out GBTS’s 2019-20 season, and keep up with this year’s graduating class on Facebook.

 

Literary family snapshots told with unflinching candor & wry humour in Pamela Williams’ Evelyn’s Stories

Cover photo of Evelyn by Pamela Williams.

 

I had the pleasure of attending the launch of Pamela Williams’ new book Evelyn’s Stories at a reading to a packed room on Sunday at the Tranzac Club. Known mostly for her beautiful, haunting black and white photographs of cemetery sculpture, Williams has assembled a collection of brief stories, as told to her by her mother Evelyn—and some handed down to Evelyn by her mother—in a series of short vignettes. Evelyn’s Stories are literary snapshots of family across time and space, ranging from 1900s Glasgow, to 1930s Thornbury and into the 1970s and beyond.

Told with unflinching candor, sharp detail and wry humour, Evelyn’s Stories is a window on moments of personal history and experience; inviting us for brief peeks (the stories are postcard-sized or slightly longer) inside the world of Williams’ family, as told to her by her mother, and to her mother by her grandmother.

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Pamela Williams reads at the launch of Evelyn’s Stories

It’s family biography as comedy and drama, with eyebrow-raising tales of marriage and infidelity (“When Hector Married Stella” and “Keep Toby Out, England, 1907”); charming and funny childhood shenanigans and observations (“Bathtub Visitor” and “Divorce”); memories of brutal and sweet elementary school teachers (“Mrs. Pinch” and “Miss Chalk’s Replacement”); tragic loss (“New Spectacles, Glasgow, 1906”); hilarious social interactions (“That’s Why I Asked You” and “At the Cinema”); and harrowing but comical senior driving mishaps (“Two Motorcycles” and “A Ride on the Wild Side”).

As the family tales shift from poignant, to comic, to tragic, to saucy, Evelyn’s Stories captures the heart, lives, loves and experiences of generations of family who crossed the ocean from Glasgow, Scotland to settle in rural/small-town Ontario, Canada.

Check out Williams’ book collection online, including her photography books; order via email.

 

 

Mystery & memory in the delightfully whimsical, darkly funny, compelling DIANA (I Knew You When We Were Fourteen)

Ian Goff & Alexa Higgins. Photo by Barry McCluskey.

 

Falling Iguana Theatre Co., in association with The Centre for Drama, Theatre & Performance Studies (CDTPS), University of Toronto, presents the delightfully whimsical, darkly funny and compelling DIANA (I knew you when you were fourteen), by Falling Iguana co-founders Alexa Higgins and Ian Goff, with contributing playwright Sarah Higgins. A physical theatre, dark comedy mystery journey—weaving movement, memory, fantasy, fact and fiction in a fairy tale-like detective story—when Diana disappears after a high school dance, Michael is determined to find out what happened to her. Supported by consulting director Gillian Armstrong and dramaturg Sharisse LeBrun, DIANA opened for a short run in the Robert Gill Theatre at U of T last night—presented as this year’s CDTPS Alumni Performance Project.

Inspired by a footnote at the end of Michael Ondaatje’s poem Elimination Dance that read: “Diana Whitehouse, where are you?”, DIANA traces the individual paths of high school classmates Diana (Alexa Higgins) and Michael (Ian Goff) as they grow into adulthood—with Michael determined to find out what happened to Diana when she disappeared after a high school dance when they were in grade nine. Stretching out across the years, across Canada from small-town New Brunswick, to Vancouver, to Toronto—with side trips in Europe—we’re introduced to the cast of characters they cross paths with; all set to a sparkly, rockin’ 80s soundtrack.

Fact, fiction, fantasy and memory intertwine in a tale that is part dark comedy mystery and part fairy tale. Incorporating music, dance, movement and a cast of characters, we watch Michael investigate as gossip and recollection merge in the stories and perceptions about Diana and her parents. And we see events unfold from Diana’s perspective; confirming, denying and refining what people think they know about her and her family. Darkly funny, at times tender and compelling, lyrical and balletic, the audience gets caught up in both journeys as Michael searches for the truth, and Diana reaches out for a life away from the small-town rumour, judgement and assumptions about her and her parents.

Outstanding work from Higgins and Goff in this 60-minute marathon of storytelling; conveying character, emotion, action and place through monologue, dialogue, dance, movement and practically zero props/set pieces with energy and precision. Higgins brings a sardonic sense of humour with an edge of loneliness to the pragmatic, restless Diana. An enigmatic presence at school—which is what draws Michael to her—Diana struggles with flying under the radar of the small-town gaze while at the same time longing to break free. Goff is delightfully awkward, earnest and curious as Michael; unlike Diana, Michael is an open book, and his sharp focus and positive demeanour keep him on his mission to find Diana, in spite of his own personal heartbreak. And the two are hilarious as honeymooning couple Steve and Sarah; experiencing comic misadventure during a tandem bike tour around Paris. And as assorted elderly and/or gossiping neighbours, telling tall tales of the family who used to live in that house.

Memory can really be a funny thing; and can often say more about us than about the actual events we’re recalling. Tainted by judgement and assumption, and eroded by time, we may not really know what we think we know.

DIANA continues at the Robert Gill Theatre until September 15, with evening performances at 8pm, and matinées at 2pm on Sept 14 and 15; tickets available online or at the door.

SummerWorks: Pick-up artistry meets consent culture in the hilarious, disturbing, eye-opening Safe and Sorry

Lauren Gillis. Photo by Peter Demas.

 

Lester Trips Theatre presents a provocative multimedia workshop production of the hilarious, disturbing, eye-opening Safe and Sorry. Co-created and performed by Lauren Gillis and Alaine Hutton, co-performed and choreographed by Angela Blumberg, and directed by Chelsea Dab Hilke, we’re invited into the world of Keith Much, who leads workshops aimed at helping men with their dating and pick-up game. His process, a combination of pick-up artistry and consent culture, amasses a lot of fans; it also finds detractors—and Keith begins to see the darker side of male desire as he reads the comments on his message board. Safe and Sorry had its second performance in the Franco Boni Theatre at The Theatre Centre last night.

The audience becomes part of a Keith Much (Lauren Gillis) dating workshop, where our affable facilitator mixes up quick lecture bites with Q&A and one-on-one sessions on stage with a variety of participants (Alaine Hutton)—from overly enthusiastic bro’s like Mike to painfully shy dudes like Stu. His unorthodox methods make for hilarious, but instructive moments, as he teaches men about respectful approaches, consent, body language, verbal and non-verbal cues, personal hygiene and kissing.

Keith’s helpful and progressive teachings aim to make sure that both the man and woman are having good, safe, sexy fun times; but as his popularity grows and his message board gets more traffic, so too do the darker responses from the toxic masculinity side of the straight male spectrum. And he comes face to face with the dark side when an aggressive, frustrated participant disrupts a workshop Q&A, forcing him to call a break have a sit-down with the guy. This man wants to find a wife, settle down and have a family, but finds women only want to party and will dump a good guy like him for the next best thing. Angered and entitled, he believed that his excellent socioeconomic status would make a difference, but it isn’t; and he eventually identifies as incel. The toxic responses online begin to turn on Keith, as some of these men begin to question his credibility.

In between workshop scenes, we see a trailer for a movie (film design by Peter Demas, with lighting and video design by Wesley McKenzie, nicely supported by Steven Conway’s music arrangement/performance) in which four men (played by Gillis and Hutton), unknown to each other, have been abducted and chained up in a concrete bunker. As they try to figure out why they’ve been taken, they realize what they each have in common: they’ve all committed rape—and the psychological thriller scenario implies that a woman (or group of women) is out for revenge. And while the men in the trailer are forced to confront what they’ve done, women are placed in the position of being a threat, the enemy—this becomes a parallel of sorts to the dark side views that Keith sees emerging in his message board comments.

Excellent work from Gillis and Hutton in this multimedia, multi-layered trip into the male psyche from a consent culture perspective. Gillis is amiable, warm and confident as Keith; knowledgeable, professional and helpful, Keith creates a safe, supportive environment for men to share their issues, work out problems and improve their dating game. Hutton’s multi-tasking role as the various workshop participants ranges from the hilarious and goofy, to the extremely awkward and shy, to the everyday, to the angry, entitled and menacing. The movie trailer adds an interesting level to this exploration of male desire and toxic masculinity, but it’s the interaction between Keith and the men, especially the incel guy, that makes for the most powerful and compelling moments. Looking forward to seeing the evolution of this timely, thought-provoking piece; part two of Safe and Sorry is coming Spring 2020.

Safe & Sorry has one more performance in the Franco Boni Theatre at the Theatre Centre: August 16 at 5:00 p.m. Tickets available online or in person at the box office; it’s a very short three-show run, so advance booking or early arrival at the venue is recommended.

Toronto Fringe: Madcap comedy & love a winning combination in the playful, mercurial The Taming of the Shrew

Chris Coculuzzi & Alexandra Milne. Photo by Kathy Plamondon.

 

Aquarius Players bring Shakespeare to the Fringe stage with their madcap, playful production of The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Nicole Arends and running in the St. George the Martyr Courtyard.

Baptista (Scott Moore) has two daughters: the wild Katherine (Alexandra Milne) and the sweet Bianca (Greta Whipple). Bianca has a few suitors on the scene: older locals Hortensio (Chris Irving) and Gremio (Daryn DeWalt); and a new face in town, the young Lucentio (Michael Pearson), who is smitten on sight. Problem is, Baptista is determined to marry Katherine off first—but no one will have her.

Enter Petruchio (Chris Coculuzzi), who has recently inherited his father’s estate and is out in the world looking for adventure. Hortensio and Gremio convince him to woo Katherine—exulting her great dowry and father’s wealth—so they may continue their suits with Bianca. Meanwhile, Lucentio has hatched a plan of his own, switching places with his servant Tranio (Paige Madsen), who will run interference with the other suitors and press his suit to Bianca while he inserts himself into Baptista’s home as a tutor. Here, he winds up in hilarious competition with Hortensio, also in disguise as a tutor.

Petruchio marries Katherine and takes her to his home, assuming extreme, erratic and bizarre behaviour himself to gradually calm her and get her rage under control. His servants Grumio (Elaine O’Neal) and Curtis (Christina Leonard, who also plays Lucentio’s sax-playing servant Biondello, who leads us around the courtyard as the scenes change) are both in on and puzzled by all of this. It all becomes a crazy game of ‘Petruchio says,’ and he and Katherine fall in love as her cold, hardened heart melts.

Lucentio and Tranio have a few more tricks up their sleeves, including disguising a wandering Pedant (Irving) as Lucentio’s father Vincentio, who will vouch for Lucentio’s character and station to Baptista—a decision that blows their cover when the real Vincentio (DeWalt) shows up. By then, Lucentio and Bianca are already married; and their agreeable fathers forgive them as they host a wedding feast for friends and family. And, with the mad cap craziness of the Petruchio/Katherine dynamic, Katherine’s final speech advising wives to follow their husbands’ lead—though still challenging by today’s standards—becomes an argument for wives to take the lead on maintaining peace and serenity in the household.

The cast is an entertaining delight in this lively 90-minute outdoor Shakespearean romp of love, disguise, competition and well-meaning manipulation. Coculuzzi and Milne are nicely matched as the patient, meticulous rogue Petruchio and the enraged, neglected wildcat Katherine; her extreme internal rage boiling over to the surface, she behaves like a wild animal—and he applies a remedy appropriate to taming a wild creature, with great care and calculation. They are nicely supported by the ensemble, especially Whipple’s bratty favourite daughter Bianca; Pearson’s lusty, love-struck Lucentio; Madsen as the puckish wise servant Tranio; and Leonard’s awkward child-like Biondello. And Irving and DeWalt give great comic turns as Bianca’s thwarted suitors, with Irving doing hilarious double duty as the saucy, likely drunken, Pedant.

With the mercurial word play, and imaginative physicality and comedy, this Shrew is a mad world of rage and love—with wacky desperate situations requiring equally wacky desperate measures—and love wins in the end.

The Taming of the Shrew continues in the St. George the Martyr Courtyard, with two more performances: today (July 13) and July 14 at 2:00; check the show page for advance tickets. Chairs are available in and around the courtyard for those who need them; otherwise, there are blankets to sit on.

Missed a show or want to see it again? Check out the latest Fringe announcements: Fringe Awards & Patron’s Picks and Best of the Fringe.

Toronto Fringe: Fear & loathing in the workplace in the razor-sharp, brutally honest dark comedy The Huns

Breanna Dillon, Cass Van Wyck & Jamie Cavanagh. Set & costume consulting by Alexandra Lord. Photo by Steven McLellan.

 

One Four One Collective presents The Huns, a razor-sharp, timely new play by Michael Ross Albert, directed by Marie Farsi and running in the Streetcar Crowsnest Guloien Theatre. It’s all hands on deck, after a break-in at a tech company office; and an international conference call meeting devolves into local power plays and startling revelations in this darkly funny, brutally honest workplace comedy.

It’s Friday morning and office manager Iris (Breanna Dillon), recently returned from leave, has gathered colleagues Pete (Jamie Cavanagh) and Shelley (Cass Van Wyck), a contract interim office manager, into a boardroom for an international conference call meeting to communicate and troubleshoot last night’s office break-in at their location. Ironically, this is a tech company; and Iris, who is not happy with the technical issues thwarting her attempts at projecting her presentation onto their flat-screen TV, is having a terse conversation with IT. Pete, who was in the office during the break-in, is technically on vacation and has a plane to catch for his destination bachelor party; and Shelley is calmly standing by, playing peacemaker, smoothing over rough patches, and ready to jump in to assist in any way she can.

Dialled into the meeting are colleagues from offices in Montreal, Texas and London (voice-over by Claire Armstrong, Blue Bigwood-Mallin, Izad Etemadi, Marie Farsi, David Lafontaine, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, Emilie Leclerc, Daniel Pagett, Tyrone Savage, Andy Trithardt, Jenni Walls and Richard Young—sound design by Trithardt). CEO Roman is otherwise engaged in London, so his VP wife Leanne has dialled in from a windy outdoor location, adding to the technical comedy of errors. On top of all of this, the office dealing with broken A/C, a garbage strike and various other issues around having just moved into an old building.

Things devolve pretty quickly once it’s revealed that the meeting is about something way more serious than just a handful of stolen laptops. And things get even more brutal for the gang around the table when—believing everyone has left the conference call—Iris comes after Shelley in a power play aimed at destroying any favour or credibility that Shelley has garnered during her few weeks in the position. This is exacerbated by Pete’s confirmation of Iris’s suspicions that everyone likes Shelley and wants her to stay on, including Roman. And things go from bad to worse when other, deeply personal, revelations emerge.

Outstanding work from the cast, including those on the phone, bringing sharply drawn, fully-rounded performances that could easily descend into caricature. Dillon does a remarkable job with Iris’s tightly wound, controlling edge—offset by her fears of being usurped by a new, younger employee. Iris’s put-on, chirpy corporate tone and take-charge demeanour belie her dread of being replaced and resentment over being undervalued. Cavanagh is a likeable goof of a bro as Pete, who may come off like a jack-ass who only cares about himself, but actually does care about his job and his colleagues. If Pete really didn’t think he needed to be there for this meeting, he’d be heading to the airport. And Van Wyck’s performance as Shelley unpacks a calm, cool, professional vibe that gradually reveals feelings of desperation and being adrift, not to mention brutally honest insights about the corporate world in general. Shelley’s “good servant” but circumspect professionalism contrasts nicely with Iris’s sense of entitlement and resentment. And does Iris really love her job—or is that just something she tells herself to make all the pain and sacrifice bearable?

While a corporate office environment may talk the good talk about a collegial professional attitude of teamwork, loyalty and meritocracy, this can often be a bullshit façade for the office politics realities of back-stabbing, power-grabbing and favouritism. Knowing and accepting this may help ease the soul-sucking nature of workaday life—but, despite needing to work for a living, we all need to ask ourselves how much toxicity we can suck up for a paycheque.

The Huns continues in the Streetcar Crowsnest Guloien Theatre for three more performances: July 11 at 5:30, July 12 at 10:15 and July 14 at 4:00; check the show page for advance tickets. Book ahead for this one folks; these guys are selling out.

Toronto Fringe: Victorian bicycle tour shenanigans in the hilarious, entertaining Three Men on a Bike

David DiFrancesco, Matt Pilipiak & Victor Pokinko. Costume design by Nina Okens. Photo by Mark Brownell.

 

Pea Green Theatre Group is back with our favourite fun-loving Victorian man-boys in Mark Brownell’s hilarious, entertaining Three Men on a Bike, adapted from Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men on the Bummel, On the Stage and Off and The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow. Directed by Sue Miner, with musical arrangements/vocal coaching by J. Rigzin Tute, this time our intrepid travellers go on a bicycle tour of Germany—which you can experience from the safety of your seat in the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace.

Following the unprecedented success of his first book, Three Men in a Boat, idler and sometimes author Jay (Matt Pilipiak) is under pressure to produce a successful sophomore effort—by no means an easy task. He, his even more idle friend and roommate George (Victor Pokinko) and his other friend Harris (David DiFrancesco)—who’s now got a wife!—put their heads together and come up with a three-week bike tour of Germany. Their ultimate destination: the Black Forest.

Shenanigans and hilarity ensue, starting with convincing Harris’s wife to let him go; this followed by the acquisition of tandem and single rider bicycles and some dodgy DIY bike repair. Jay hires a yacht from an ancient, hump-backed man down at the docks (Pokinko); then the agreeable but vague skipper (DiFrancesco) can’t seem to find the right wind to set sail upon. After waiting a week, they book passage on a steamer and finally arrive in Germany, where they individually run afoul of the local constabulary; get lost in the Black Forest; and encounter Montmorency’s (Jay’s terrier, who had to stay home) evil German twin.

Top notch performances from this outrageously funny and talented trio, who conjure up scenes almost exclusively with movement, gesture, a cappella harmonies and hysterical facial expression—plus Nina Okens’ smart period costumes. Pilipiak’s Jay is an amusingly arrogant wordsmith, often breaking the fourth wall to address us as scenes shift, their adventure broken up into chapters. Pokinko is a slapdash delight as the wry-witted bachelor George, who enjoys doing as little as possible. And DiFrancesco is endearingly dense as the somewhat dull-witted but affable and well-meaning Harris.

Not to worry, it all works out in the end—and it’s a jolly good ride.

Three Men on a Bike continues in the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace until July 14; check the show page for exact dates/times and advance tickets. Advance booking strongly recommended; audiences love these guys and the house was packed full last night.