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.

Riverside&C-photobyDahliaKatz-Jai Jai Jones, Alexander Thomas, Nabil Rajo
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.

 

Doctor/patient relationship gets real as they exorcise demons in Criminal Girlfriends’ razor sharp, intense, darkly funny Fierce

 

Emmelia Gordon (top) and Marisa Crockett (bottom). Photo by John Gundy.

 

Criminal Girlfriends opened its intimate production of George F. Walker’s Fierce to a sold out house at Red Sandcastle Theatre last night. Directed by Wes Berger, assisted by Martha Moldaver, the new play bears all the classic Walker trademarks of tight, mercurial dialogue; quirky, complex characters; edgy, dark comedy; and surprising revelations.

Set in a psychiatrist’s office, Fierce puts us into a court-mandated session between patient Jayne (Emmelia Gordon) and doctor Maggie (Marisa Crockett). In order to avoid jail time for repeated disorderly and dangerous behaviour while on multiple drug-induced benders, Jayne must put in some couch time and get signed off by the doc. Jayne begrudgingly—and full of skepticism, insisting that she’s not an addict—attends the appointment, immediately throwing up walls of resistance as Maggie tries to get to the bottom of why the benders and the subsequent wandering into traffic.

Over the course of the next 75 minutes, the power dynamic shifts back and forth, and revelations emerge from both sides. Pushing for some personal give and take, and armed with some deep-dive research on Maggie, Jayne coaxes Maggie to tell her own story—which, while initially appearing to be a pain-in-the-ass move, becomes more about building trust. As each woman tells her story, they realize they have a lot in common: Both are survivors, with troubled pasts and criminal records. And both were drawn to occupations aimed at helping people (Jayne worked as a high school guidance counsellor). And while Maggie withholds details that come out later in the conversation, Jayne plays around with her story to the point that it’s hard to tell what’s true. And the session takes an even more unorthodox turn and, in a bizarre way, cements the bond that took root during their initial verbal sparring.

Brilliant, complementary performances from Gordon and Crockett, playing characters that are perfect foils for each other. Crockett brings a tightly controlled, almost prim, edge to Maggie; but, as we soon discover, there’s something more bubbling just below the surface there. Whip-smart and suffering no bullshit, Maggie is a straight-talking professional who gives as good as she gets; she’s tougher than she looks and genuinely wants to help. Gordon’s Jayne is part professional smart-ass, part unpredictable wounded animal; tough-talking and cagey, and deflecting with sarcasm, Jayne’s hard edges don’t entirely cover the deep-seated pain and denial. And when that mask starts to come down, we see a woman haunted by personal tragedy and in despair over not being able to do more.

It’s a complex, intense, at times disturbing, dance of revelation, confession and being real—as poignant as it is funny, and so very true to the mark. Walker is famous for writing about characters on the fringe of society, and while Jayne and Maggie are both what could be considered as white collar professionals, their shared histories of substance abuse, run-ins with the law and struggles with mental illness are a stark reminder that there’s more to people than meets the eye.

Bonus points for including Blue Oyster Cult’s Don’t Fear the Reaper in the rockin’ pre-show soundtrack.

Shifting power dynamic and a doctor/patient relationship gets real as they exorcise the demons in Criminal Girlfriends’ razor sharp, intense, darkly funny Fierce.

Fierce continues at Red Sandcastle Theatre until March 3. Check here for dates, times and advance tickets. It’s an intimate space and getting good buzz, so advance booking strongly recommended.