The irrepressible Marie Dressler’s life, love & career in Alumnae Theatre’s delightful, entertaining Queen Marie

Naomi Peltz, Katherine Cappallacci, Siena Dolinski & Seira Saeki. Photo by Bruce Peters.

 

Alumnae Theatre Company closes its 100th anniversary season—with heart, moxie and rip roaring good fun— with Queen Marie, a musical by Shirley Barrie, directed by Rosemary Doyle, with music direction by Paul Comeau and choreography by Adam Martino.

Queen Marie is a biographical musical about Canadian-born 1930s Hollywood star actress/comedienne Marie Dressler. Director Doyle takes us to the vaudeville stage, complete with proscenium arch, a live band on one side and stall seating on the other. Using minimal set pieces, projected images up centre present show posters and images of various locations as we travel through Dressler’s storied life and career.

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Catherine Ratusny & Tess Keery. Photo by Bruce Peters.

Born Leila Koerber in Cobourg, Ontario, we witness Dressler being bitten by the acting bug at the age of five (Tess Keery), performing in tableaux realized by her mother (Catherine Ratusny, who also plays Dressler in her 40s). At 14, she lies about her age (Gabriella Kosmidis), saying she’s 18, and gets a job with the Nevada Travelling Stock Company and changes her name to Marie Dressler; launching her career and landing in the U.S.

From tableaux, to theatre, to vaudeville to the silver screen, Dressler’s career is a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs as she weathers the highs and lows of the business, embracing her ‘big girl’ brand with self-deprecation and good humour—and giving her all, and then some, to any part put upon her.

Shifting from theatre to movies, Dressler gets a break, working with fellow Canadian Mack Sennet (Adam Bonney); she goes on to work at MGM with Irving Thalberg (Conor Ling) and Louis B. Mayer (Rick Jones). Performing with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Lionel Barrymore and Wallace Beery, Dressler packs movie houses with her comedic antics, and poignant, gutsy dramatic performances—receiving a Best Actress Oscar at the age of 60 (Leslie Rennie) for her performance in Min and Bill in 1930, and a nomination for Emma in 1932. A top box office draw in America at the time, she becomes the first female actor to appear on the cover of Time Magazine.

Embracing romance along the way, she meets and beings an affair with the charming Jim Dalton (Rick Jones), a married man with a wife in Boston who is smitten with Dressler, and woos her with gentlemanly manners and oysters. While happy to live the unorthodox life of an actor, Dressler longs for the stability and respectability of marriage, and she gets her wish; they later divorce after a series of unpleasant revelations regarding her shrinking bank account. Well into middle age, Dressler becomes smitten with Claire (Nina Tischhauser), a young nurse turned actress who she meets at an Oscar party. The two move in together and set up a cozy domestic and professional partnership, with Dressler acting as Claire’s acting mentor; but the relationship takes Claire away from her own dreams and aspirations—and Claire is faced with a hard decision.

Betrayed and cheated throughout her life—both personally and professionally—it is noteworthy that Dressler finds her primary source of support with her close network of women: her friend, astrologer Nella Webb (Siena Dolinski and Nance Gibson, playing Nella at different ages); her no-nonsense, fastidious maid/assistant Mamie Steele (Fallon Bowman and Indira Layne, playing Mamie at different ages); feisty cub reporter/fan turned screenwriter/Hollywood casting advocate Frances (Katherine Cappellacci); and her companion in later life, the tender, loyal caregiver Claire (Nina Tischhauser, who also plays Dressler in her 20s).

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Jessica Bowmer, James Phelan & Tess Keery. Photo by Bruce Peters.

It’s an ambitious production, imaginatively staged with a cast of 25 enthusiastic multitasking actors that includes 21 women, 10 of whom play Marie at various ages and stages of her hard-working, determined, never dull life. Paula Wilkie plays Dressler in the final scenes; despite a serious cancer diagnosis, Dressler eschews her new role as bed-ridden patient, opting to work on three MGM films in six months before dying at the age of 65. Shouts to all the Marie Dresslers (not previously mentioned: Michele Dodick, Katrina Koenig, Stella Kulagowski & Naomi Peltz) for their energy and panache! Other stand-outs include Ling’s snobbish Brit actor Dan Daley and hilarious turn as a petulant Hollywood film director; Jessica Bowmer’s adorably precocious Boy, who hawks newspapers, peanuts and oysters, and gets into scrapes with his competition; Tischhauser as Dressler’s supportive but conflicted lover Claire; and Rick Jones does a mean tap dance bit.

She’s the Queen! The life, love and rollercoaster career of the irrepressible star Marie Dressler in the delightful, entertaining Queen Marie.

Queen Marie continues on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage until April 28. Get advance tickets online or by calling the box office: 416-364-4170, ext. 1 (cash only at the box office). Performances run Wednesday – Saturday at 8 pm, with PWYC matinees on Sunday at 2:00 pm.

The run includes a final Post-Show Talkback on Sunday April 22. Check out the fun trailer:

 

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Just before I sat down to write this review, I read in an Alumnae Theatre Twitter post that playwright Shirley Barrie had passed away; I’ve since learned that she’d been living with cancer and died on Sunday. I’m not sure if she was able to see this current production of Queen Marie, but Doyle, cast and crew did her proud. Thoughts go out to Shirley’s loved ones.

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New Ideas: The chaotic metaphysics of life, love & monsters in the water in the funny, moving, poetic Week 3 program

Alumnae Theatre Company continues its 30th annual New Ideas Festival (NIF) of short new works, opening the Week Three program last night. It’s the final week of the festival, running up in the Alumnae Studio.

The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea by Natalie Frijia, directed by Kay Brattan. In 1882 Toronto, 39 people have mysteriously drowned in Lake Ontario—and rumour has it there’s a monster beneath the slate blue water. Rookie reporter Marjorie May (Emma Tse) is determined to get the story, visiting Mary-Anne’s (Stella Kulagowski) pub down by the docks to gather some information. Things get real when they’re joined by the terrified Captain O’Connell (Shawn Lall), who’s barely escaped with his life. As the incoming storm batters the pub, there’s something else out there in the night. Is the creature coming after the Captain to finish what it started?

Nice work from the cast building the intrigue and tension in this 15-minute piece of exaggerated Toronto history. Tse brings a youthful sense of feisty defiance to the young reporter, while Kulagowski is fiery and cynical as the voluptuous barkeep; and Lall’s Captain runs the gamut from frozen terror to gritty resolve as the three stand together in the end.

Marty and Joel and the Edge of Chaos by Camille Intson, directed by Lorna Craig. Chaos theory meets romantic dramedy in this delightful and poignant two-hander played out by four actors. You’ll see what I mean. A couple—Marty (Allison Shea Reed/Kim Croscup), a physicist, and Joel (Simon Bennett/Ryan Bannon), a photographer—occupies the same space in two different times: the day they met and the day of Joel’s second marriage some 20 years later. Constructing and deconstructing the relationship, we see them go from first love to finally working toward some closure.

Beautifully acted and staged. Shea Reed and Bennett are adorably awkward as two 20-somethings getting to know, and falling for, each other. Marty and Joel seem to be perfect complements to each other, with Marty’s adventurous nature and nerdy science knowledge, and Joel’s creative, intuitive sensitivity. As older, more world-weary and disillusioned versions of their former selves, Croscup’s Marty is frustrated and angry, still looking for the answers; and Bannon’s Joel has moved on, but still cares deeply for Marty and treasures their relationship.

The Officiant by Francesca Brugnano, directed by Paige Foskett. It’s 1938, and Shirley (Brianna Riché) and William (Jordan Kenny) have stolen off into the woods, where Shirley has decorated a clearing for them to be secretly married. But when the Officiant (Lisa Kovack) arrives, the wedding service gives them a glimpse into their future together, making them think twice. Is it worth all the pain and suffering?

A lovely, poetic dance of text and movement to tell this story, with moving work from the cast. Riché is brave, romantic and practical as Shirley; and Kenny brings an earnest boyish charm to William. Kovack gives the Officiant a witch-like air of mystery and foresight; cruel to be kind, she means to get real with this couple.

Mourning after the Night Before by Chloë Whitehorn, directed by Heather Keith. When Lucy (Mary Wall) and Drew (Dave Martin) decided to move to a small town, they did it to make to make a quieter, more peaceful home for their family. Making friends with brother and sister Everett (Conor Ling) and Fenwick (Tiffany Deobald), locals who help them get settled, Lucy struggles with her relationship with her daughter Pippa (Grace Callahan), as well as emerging feelings for Everett. Everett is falling in love—but is it with Lucy or Pippa? Drew and Fenwick are trying to keep their respective families safe. Did Lucy miss something in Pippa’s dark, teen angst-filled poems?

Lovely work from the cast in this haunting, lyrical family drama. Wall is wounded and desperate as Lucy; heartbreaking in a life adrift and grasping for a sense of self. Martin’s Drew is heart-wrenching to watch; sensitive and supportive, Drew doesn’t know what to do—and finds himself drifting farther from his family. Callahan gives Pippa an ethereal, creative spirit; a somewhat wild and rebellious teen, she finds solace in writing. Ling brings a sweet, shy romantic edge to Everett; while seeing anew with these new relationships, Everett’s eyes may not be wide open. Deobald is an irreverent charmer as Fenwick; tasked with raising Everett after they were orphaned, Fen is just trying to keep it together, but shows genuine concern for the rift between her new friends Lucy and Drew.

The NIF Week Three program continues in the Alumnae Theatre Studio until March 25. Get advance tickets online or by calling the box office: 416-364-4170, ext. 1 (cash only at the box office). Performances run Wednesday – Saturday at 8 pm, with matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 pm.

Coming up: Week Three staged reading on Saturday, March 24 at noon. Animal by Romeo Ciolfi, directed by Liz Best; featuring actors Alexandra Milne, Anton Wasowicz, Steven Vlahos and Michele Dodick.

It’s a very popular festival and an intimate venue, so advance booking is strongly recommended. In the meantime, check out the Week Three trailer by Nicholas Porteous:

 

 

Toronto Fringe: Two men reach out for each other in times of division & change in the intimate, tender, layered The Seat Next to the King

Tanisha Taitt directs Minmar Gaslight Productions’ run of Steven Elliott Jackson’s beautifully compelling The Seat Next to the King, winner of the 2017 Toronto Fringe Best New Play contest, now running in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Mainspace.

Opening in 1964 in a public washroom in Washington, D.C., The Seat Next to the King presents an imagined relationship that develops between two men who work for two of America’s most important political figures of the time.

Bayard Rustin (Kwaku Okyere) and Walter Jenkins (Conor Ling) meet and interact in a beautiful, intricate dance of desire, race, politics and confronting one’s true self unfolds in the push/pull of their initial meeting as strangers, shifting to brief moments of genuine connection and sharing as they get to know each other. Bookended by another washroom meeting years later, we see how their lives have changed—for the world and for themselves.

Lovely, connected work from Okyere and Ling. Okyere’s Bayard is outspoken, frank and charming, with keen, sharp powers of observation; despite being shunned by family and friends, Bayard is out. His choice has cost him, and while he doesn’t appear to regret it, there is profound pain and loneliness beneath his joyful, extrovert manner. Ling goes deep into the layers of Walter’s inner conflict; an introverted man, full of desire and shame, Walter longs for a man’s touch, but can’t bring himself out of his double life. And the chemistry between these two men makes their encounters both beautiful and heartbreaking to witness.

Two men reach out for each other in times of division and change in the intimate, tender, layered The Seat Next to the King.

The Seat Next to the King continues in the TPM Mainspace until July 16. With a standing ovation in a packed house at last night’s 11:30pm performance, advance booking is a must for this one.

Head & heart, & two sisters in love in the delightful, youthful Sense & Sensibility

Photo by Dave Fitzpatrick: Conor Ling, Jackie Mahoney & Tamara Freeman

Amicus Productions takes us to the early 1800s England of Jane Austen with Jessica Swale’s adaptation of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, directed by Maureen Lukie, assisted by Ted Powers, and currently running in the Papermill Theatre at Todmorden Mills.

Mrs. Dashwood (Peta Bailey) and her daughters Elinor (Tamara Freeman), Marianne (Jackie Mahoney) and Margaret (Sara Douglas) have just learned that their beloved husband and father has died. Adding insult to injury, their Norland Park estate is being taken over by the Dashwood male heir John (Andrew Horbatuik) and his wife Fanny (Mandi Sunshine), and they must now find a place to live. During the transfer of ownership, Fanny’s brother Edward (Conor Ling) comes to visit, and an attachment forms between him and Elinor. With high and rich family hopes for Edward’s marriage, Fanny blocks the relationship just as the Dashwood women learn of a cottage that’s available on the estate of a relative in Devonshire. And Elinor and Edward barely have a chance to say goodbye.

It’s an extreme downscale for the Dashwoods; they can bring no horses and only one servant (Horbatuik as Thomas). But they find a great, warm welcome from the high-spirited, eccentric Sir John (Rob Candy) and his mother-in-law Mrs. Jennings (Jenn Keay). And their quiet cottage life gets interesting with the appearance of Sir John’s friend Colonel Brandon (Matthew Payne) and a dashing young noble Willoughby (Rouvan Silogix), who rescues Marianne after a fall. Both have eyes for Marianne, but Marianne only has eyes for Willoughby, who returns her attentions with romantic gestures and implications of marriage.

Marianne’s bliss is short-lived, though, as Willoughby gets sent to London by his wealthy aunt. And Brandon has some distressing information about Willoughby’s history, which he confides to Elinor. Meanwhile, in her never-ending crusade to find husbands for the two older Dashwood sisters, Mrs. Jennings plans a trip to London to enjoy the balls and diversions of the season. And things get even more complicated for Elinor when their travel companion Lucy Steele (Riley Nelson) confesses a secret four-year-old engagement with Edward!

Things go from bad to worse in London when the Dashwood sisters have an unpleasant, awkward encounter with Willoughby at a ball, and learn via neighbourhood gossips (Lindsay Bryan and Sharon Kamiel) that he is engaged to the wealthy Miss Grey (Bryan). On their way home, escorted by Brandon, Elinor and Marianne stop at the home of Mrs. Jennings’ daughter Mrs. Palmer (Bryan) and Mr. Palmer (Horbatuik), where Marianne comes down with a life-threatening infection.

But don’t worry, the girls get home safe and new, happier revelations emerge.

There is a youthful edge to this adaptation; full of heart and charm. For those familiar with the book and the film adaptation by Emma Thompson, directed by Ang Lee, Swale has added some scenes that we would previously have only guessed at. One in particular highlights Willoughby’s misery at his reliance on a rich relation, and his regret at choosing money over love.

With shouts to the design team: Arash Eshghpour (set), Karlos Griffith (lighting), Dave Fitzpatrick (sound) and Lindsay Forde (costume); and to choreographer Karen Millyard.

Lovely work from the cast in this nicely staged adaptation; the scenes weaving in and out, shifting in time and space with well-paced precision—shouts to director Lukie and stage manager Cherie Oldenburg.

Stand-out performances include Freeman’s Elinor; a complex, layering of sensible, kind, discreet and accommodating, coupled with deeply felt emotional responses and heroic efforts to keep them in check. Throughout, Elinor is the confessor; hearing many secrets and troubles, but unable to divulge them, including the secrets of her own heart. Mahoney’s Marianne is the polar opposite of Elinor; high-spirited and stubborn, she has a passionate soul and wears her heart on her sleeve. Her romantic tendencies get a harsh dose of reality, but rather than being destroyed, she is tempered and becomes more circumspect. And Douglas’s Margaret is charming; an adorably precocious, whip-smart naturalist in the making, she sees more than the grown-ups think and doesn’t have their internal editor at play.

Ling gives a great turn as the painfully shy, bookish and affable Edward; and he does hilarious double duty as Edward’s buffoonish younger brother Robert. Candy and Keay are a laugh riot as the dynamic duo chatterboxes—the jolly and sociable Sir John and the one-woman OkCupid Mrs. Jennings—always up on the latest gossip and ready for a party. And nice work from Payne as the honourable, wounded and introspective Brandon; Silogix’s cheeky, handsome romantic Willoughby; and Sunshine’s waspish, greedy Fanny.

Head and heart, and two sisters in love in the delightful, youthful Sense and Sensibility.

Sense and Sensibility continues at the Papermill Theatre until Feb 11; check here for ticket purchase/info or call 416-860-6176.

You can keep up with Amicus Productions on Twitter and Facebook.

Love, revenge & calculated cruelty in the sexy, darkly funny & tragic Les Liaisons Dangereuses

 

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Renee Cullen (Merteuil) & Chris Coculuzzi (Valmont) – photos by Dave Fitzpatrick

Amicus Productions opened its 2016-17 season with Christopher Hampton’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, directed by Victoria Shepherd, at the Todmorden Mills Papermill Theatre last night.

An edgy, erotic, sometimes chilling story of manipulation, desire and social gamesmanship, Amicus’s production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses plays out on a traditional proscenium stage, complete with drawn curtains, on a minimalist but gorgeous chess-inspired set (Alexis Chubb), with stunning period costume and wigs (Lindsay Forde), and sound design that includes original compositions (John Stuart Campbell, ft. Vivien Shepherd on vocals).

The Marquise de Merteuil (Renée Cullen) wants revenge against a former lover, and turns to another former lover, the notorious Vicomte de Valmont (Chris Coculuzzi), with a plan for him to seduce the man’s intended fiancée, the young Cécile Volange (Christina Leonard). In exchange, Merteuil promises Valmont a night of passion. Valmont has seduction plans of his own, however; he intends to bed the pious, loyal and married Présidente de Tourvel (Melanie Leon), a woman equally famous for her virtue as he is for his vice.

When his plans at his aunt’s home (Mme de Rosemond, played by Jenn Keay) are foiled by Cecile’s mother Mme de Volange (Kerrie Lamb), Valmont decides to go along with Merteuil’s plan, as the two also conspire to assist Cécile in her secret romance with the young Chevalier Danceny (Conor Ling). Meanwhile, Valmont has set his man servant Azolan (Andrew Batten) to spy on Tourvel, via his relationship with her maid; all this while paying regular visits to his favourite courtesan Émilie (Lindsay Forde). Constantly put off by Merteuil, Valmont goes to great lengths to procure payment for his services to her – and finds himself tangled in his own web.

Cullen and Coculuzzi are nicely matched as Merteuil and Valmont, who are both cunning as cats and master manipulators. Cullen’s Merteuil is coldly beautiful and ruthless; a woman tired of the second-class status afforded to her sex, she’s learned to take power by making pawns of those around her. Coculuzzi is diabolically charming and witty as Valmont; a sexy beast who’s gained notoriety as a callous rake (i.e., heartbreaking man whore), Valmont enjoys the game – but, unlike Merteuil, he’s more about the chase than the kill. As Tourvel, Leon brings a lovely sense of conflict and repressed lust; a gentle, pious soul, she is drawn to Valmont – and as much as she fights her feelings, she can’t help but succumb to the burgeoning passion between them. Some remarkable two-hander scenes, particularly in Act II, between Merteuil and Valmont (war) and Valmont and Tourvel (beyond my control).

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Chris Coculuzzi (Valmont) & Melanie Leon (Tourvel)

Leonard gives Cécile a great combination of wide-eyed innocence and insatiable lust; schooled by Valmont, she learns things that aren’t taught to nice young ladies. And Ling’s Danceny is adorably awkward and proper; on the brink of manhood, he is innocent and naïve – and he too learns a thing or two.

Excellent work from the supporting cast: Lamb’s prim and trusting Mme de Volange; Batten’s wry-witted and resourceful Azolan; Keay’s wise and kind Mme de Rosemonde, who’s onto more than you might think; Forde’s good times party girl Émilie; and Jeff Burke gives a nice turn as the Major-Domo, who’s seen so much and says so little.

Love, revenge and calculated cruelty in the sexy, darkly funny and tragic Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses continues at the Papermill Theatre until Nov 19; check here for ticket purchase/info or call 416-860-6176.

You can keep up with Amicus Productions on Twitter and Facebook.