Toronto Fringe: An intersectional heart-to-heart on the state of manhood in the candid, funny, brave We The Men

Sunday Muse, Mercy Cherian, Rachel Brophy & Sundance Nagrial. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Sam’s having the guys over at his cottage—and we’re all invited!

The back room stage of the Cadillac Lounge is transformed into the living room of Sam’s cottage as Soulo Theatre takes us behind the scenes of a heart-to-heart gathering on the state of manhood with its Toronto Fringe production of We The Men. Co-created by director Tracey Erin Smith and an ensemble of Dude for a Day workshop participants, and inspired by hearing men’s stories during Soulo Theatre’s Step To The Line events, women portray male characters—and the sexes come together from the other side of the gender divide in the hopes of bridging the gap and coming to a greater understanding.

The storytelling, which includes stories that emerged from male Step To The Line participants, draws on important and timely ongoing issues: Debates about complicity—direct or indirect—in #MeToo scenarios; societal, familial and cultural challenges and pressures; physical abuse and bullying; and struggles with identity, sexuality, loneliness and finding love. Heartfelt anecdotes and confessions emerge from the cocky, fart-filled party atmosphere as the men confront themselves and each other with their experiences, beliefs and perceptions—giving us a fly-on-the-wall perspective of men’s lives. And one is struck that, while women will naturally open up and have these kinds of conversations—revealing shame, vulnerability and confusion—it’s maybe not so easy or as common for men. And we all need to have those conversations.

Featuring energetic, entertaining and poignant performances from Rachel Brophy, Mercy Cherian, Jacqueline Dawe, Savoy Howe, Sunday Muse, Sundance Nagrial, Silvi Santoso, Savannah Binder and Todd, We The Men is a candid, funny and brave intersectional exploration of what it means to be a man in the 21st century.

We The Men continues at the Cadillac Lounge until July 15; check the show page for exact dates and times. For the inside scoop on the inspiration and creative process, check out this great interview with Tracey Erin Smith by She Does the City. And check out the show’s Facebook event page for bios and character descriptions.

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Culture, identity & the meaning of the blues in Soulpepper’s powerful, entertaining Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Top: Alex Poch-Goldin. Bottom: Marcel Stewart, Diego Matamoros, Beau Dixon, Neville Edwards & Alana Bridgewater. Set & lighting design by Ken MacKenzie. Costume design by Alexandra Lord. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper takes us to 1920s Chicago, where the race, power and creative exploitation collide in a lively, tension-filled recording studio session in August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, directed by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu. This is the first time Ma Rainey has been performed in Canada since 1985, shortly after its 1984 premiere on Broadway.

A faint haze hangs over the dark, empty Chicago recording studio, conjuring visions of musicians and singers smoking between—or even during—takes (set and lighting design by Ken MacKenzie). Gradually, the space is peopled with the steady, quiet pace of familiar routine. Cranky, gravel-voiced studio owner Sturdyvant (Diego Matamoros) and Ma’s put-upon, ingratiating manager Irvin (Alex Poch-Goldin) get set up in the booth and on the floor. Then the boys in the band arrive: the bookish, philosophical piano man Toledo (Beau Dixon); the quiet, no-nonsense bassist Slow Drag (Neville Edwards); and fastidious, practical band leader/banjo player/trombonist Cutler (Lindsay Owen Pierre). Last to arrive is the energetic, stylish Levee (Lovell Adams-Gray), the new whiz kid on the trumpet, arriving late and showing off a new pair of shoes. The band hangs out in the rehearsal room downstairs (downstage), shooting the breeze and rehearsing a bit while they wait for Ma to arrive. The tension is already cooking, as Ma is running late, the play list is ever-changing, and the ambitious new kid—who has his sights set on starting his own band and recording his own music—doesn’t seem to think he needs to rehearse.

When the big energy, take-charge Mother of the Blues Ma (Alana Bridgewater) finally arrives an hour late, resplendent in a green dress (costumes by Alexandra Lord) with her young flapper girlfriend Dussie Mae (Virgilia Griffith) and sharp-dressed nephew Sylvester (Marcel Stewart) in tow, there’s more arguing and scrambling. An irritated policeman (Derek Boyes) has followed them into the studio, charging Sylvester with reckless driving and Ma with assault; Irvin quickly “handles” the situation, then finds himself under orders to arrange for repairs to Ma’s car. And then there’s the ongoing debate over which version of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” they’re going to record: the original or Levee’s version. And Ma wants Sylvester, who stutters, to do the spoken intro on the recording; a decision that’s greeted with thinly veiled annoyed cynicism. Irvin continues bouncing like a ping pong ball between Sturdyvant, Ma and the band, playing peacekeeper, and taking care of all the concerns and issues. Young Levee has eyes for Dussie Mae; Cutler is trying to keep the band on track, especially Levee; and Slow Drag just wants to get it over with and go home. Toledo has his books to keep him company, while Sylvester and Dussie Mae are thrilled to be there—and Dussie Mae has taken notice of Levee’s attention.

Conversations among the band range from the comic to the tragic, from day-to-day shenanigans, to stories of personal struggle and the lived experience of being Black in America. And though she comes off as a diva, Ma is a shrewd businesswoman; she knows what she does and does not have control over. Where she can have a say, you can bet she’ll have it! Commanding respect with her seemingly unreasonable demands, Ma navigates a world where artists—particularly artists of colour—are used up for their creative talents then cast aside; in the meantime, they’re paid a fraction of what they’re worth while white producers, managers and studio owners profit handsomely from their work. And, for Ma and the band, the blues are more than just a money-making music genre—it’s “life’s way of talking.”

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Virgilia Griffith & Lovell Adams-Gray. Set & lighting design by Ken MacKenzie. Costume design by Alexandra Lord. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Outstanding, compelling work from this tight, multi-talented ensemble. Bridgewater shines as the unstoppable, talented Ma—a force to be reckoned with. A large woman with a larger than life personality, Ma is an exacting professional; a fierce mamma bear when it comes to protecting loved ones; and a tender, generous lover. Like most women in her situation, a respected and highly popular artist like Ma has a reputation for being “difficult”—a charge that would never be levelled at a white male artist in her shoes.

Adams-Gray does an amazing job peeling back the layers of Levee. From a traumatized child to a volatile young man, Levee is confident in his talent and eager to make a name for himself as a composer and band leader—but, unlike his more seasoned bandmates, has yet to learn how the game is played. Stewart is a delight as the shy, child-like Sylvester; wide-eyed, and filled with wonder and joy to be in the studio. With Ma’s support and encouragement, and bolstered by his plan to send money home to his mother, we see Sylvester’s self-confidence blossom as he works hard through his speech impediment to do the best he can on the recording.

Though set in the 20s, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom speaks to the situation of artists today. While artists have gained more control over their work and working conditions, the industry still has work to do with regard to cultural and creative exploitation, and assigning labels of “difficult” on women and artists of colour. And we only have to look at Ma and Levee to see that artists must learn to play the game and be at peace over that which they cannot control—or be swept up in the undertow of their own frustrated ambition and expectations.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom continues in the Michael Young Theatre at the Young Centre—now extended by popular demand to June 9. Get advance tickets online or give the box office a shout at: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

Family legacy, identity & repressed anger released in the sharply funny, biting Bad Jews

Rebecca Applebaum, Kristopher Turner & Daniel Krantz in Bad Jews—photo by Dahlia Katz

 

We’re all invited to crash at Jonah and Liam’s as we pay our last respects to their grandfather in the Koffler Centre of the Arts’ production of Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews, directed by Michèle Lonsdale-Smith. Bad Jews opened last night in the Small World Music Centre at Artscape Youngplace.

Set in an shoe box-sized NYC studio apartment, which Jonah (Daniel Krantz) and Liam’s (Kristopher Turner) parents bought so they could have a place to stay in their building during the funeral, Bad Jews takes us on an emotional journey as we get a taste of the repressed anger, hidden resentments, judgements and expectations of this family. The apartment becomes a physical representation of the claustrophobic, everyone in everyone else’s business that is the family dynamic—especially potent among this group of 20-somethings, who are in the midst of establishing their own lives and identities while they navigate parental, cultural and religious expectations.

We first meet Jonah, lounging on a double air mattress in his dress shirt, boxers and yarmulke, playing video games. The brothers’ cousin Daphna (Rebecca Applebaum) has been staying with him on the pull-out couch. It’s just after the funeral and there is a quiet, exhausted atmosphere as Daphna hangs up their clothes and attempts conversation. She’s pissed that Liam missed the funeral; he was in Aspen with his girlfriend, lost his phone and didn’t get the message in time, and is due that night, girlfriend in tow. There’s something of their grandfather’s that Daphna desperately wants; a precious family heirloom, a piece of jewellery given to their grandfather by his father and kept safely hidden during the Holocaust. She wants Jonah’s blessing; he doesn’t want it, but he’s unwilling to take sides and wants nothing to do with the decision.

When Liam arrives with his non-Jewish girlfriend Melody (Julia Vally), Jonah learns that not only does Liam want the treasured family heirloom, he’s already got it. Both Daphna and Liam have very good reasons for wanting the necklace; and both have very different approaches and perceptions toward their family’s Jewish traditions and faith. Coupled with perceptions of entitlement, family loyalty and being a ‘good’ Jew, things get ugly between them pretty fast. It’s clear these two already don’t like each other and the battle over their grandfather’s jewelry is steeped in long-term, ongoing resentment. Melody tries to act as mediator, but ultimately can’t break through—no wonder, as she’s just been introduced to the family and has no idea about the history behind the verbal savagery she’s witnessing. In the end, we’re left with just Jonah and Daphna again—only now, the tone and atmosphere of their conversation is quite different. And further revelations emerge after the cathartic blow-out.

Lovely work from the cast in this claustrophobic and caustic dark comedy. As director Lonsdale-Smith pointed out during the post-show talkback, anger is motivated by fear; the fear of letting people go, death, identity, how we may take a different path from our parents—and these characters are angry. Krantz does a beautiful job with the soft-spoken, mild-mannered Jonah’s complexity and inner conflict. Jonah gives the impression of being checked out and disinterested, and perhaps even not as smart as his older brother and cousin, but he’s aware and listening—and he feels things more deeply than you might think as he struggles with his grief. Applebaum, who identifies as mixed race (half Asian, raised Jewish), used her lived experience to bring scope to her laser-focused performance as the sharply intellectual, self-righteous Daphna. A super observant Jew, and a Vassar student bound for Israel, rabbinical school and the army, Daphna is always looking for a debate, if not an outright fight. Constantly on the lookout for fault in others, Daphna’s devotion is of the holier than thou, selectively fundamentalist variety—but much of this is a shield for a deeply wounded, lonely soul.

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Rebecca Applebaum, Julia Vally & Kristopher Turner in Bad Jews—photo by Dahlia Katz

Turner brings a ferocity and intellectual vigour to Liam, who’s chosen a more secular path and even changed his name. The eldest son of a well-off family, there’s more than a whiff of entitlement about Liam, and his anger is vicious when it erupts; however, his wish to mirror a gift their grandfather made to their grandmother reveals the depth of his love and appreciation for family and for Melody. Vally gives a great sense of firmness and strength to the sweet-natured, genuinely good Melody. A former opera student who loves music, but in the end decided that career path wasn’t for her, Melody is an administrator at a non-profit organization—helping others is in her blood, but she can’t seem to help Liam’s family issue. How could she?

Ultimately, as Turner mentioned toward the end of the talkback, this is a play about family—the history, the love, and intellectual and emotional dynamic that twists and turns across generations and through time. And nothing brings out the good, bad and the ugly like family, especially during meaningful, emotionally fraught family gatherings.

Family legacy, identity and repressed anger released in the sharply funny, biting Bad Jews.

Bad Jews continues in the Small World Music Centre at Artscape Youngplace until June 4; get your advance tix online via the show page or through Eventbrite. Advance booking recommended; it’s an intimate venue, fitting with the cramped space of an NYC studio apartment.

Charmingly funny, moving & thought-provoking insight on identity & culture in Mahmoud

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Tara Grammy in Mahmoud – photo by Nir Bareket

Why Not Theatre’s 2015 edition of the RISER Project continued its programming last night at the Theatre Centre with previews of its two final shows – I saw Mahmoud.

Produced in partnership with Pandemic Theatre, written by Tara Grammy and Tom Arthur Davis, directed by Davis and starring Grammy, Mahmoud is a one-person whirlwind of storytelling – the highs, lows and in-betweens of three seemingly disparate characters that eventually cross paths.

Iranian electrical engineer turned Toronto taxi driver Mahmoud is a congenial host in his cab, keenly interested in people and always up for a conversation, especially when it comes to talking about his homeland. His love for home is palpable – he adores Persian culture and poetry, and misses the food. But it’s been 25 years since he’s been there, and the Iran he longs for no longer exists – and past events, the ones that brought him to Canada, continue to haunt him. Emanuelos is a fabulously flaming gay Spanish perfume salesman with a hot Iranian boyfriend, Behnam, who’s currently back home in Iran on a family matter. It’s a complicated relationship, as Behnam’s family is very traditional – and more conservative than Emanuelos wants to admit. And we see self-described Iranian-Canadian Tara go from an awkward, earnest tween aspiring actress to a driven young woman working to establish a career in the industry.

Identity, and cultural perceptions of women, sexuality and relationships play strongly in Mahmoud – each character is conflicted and layered in such a way that you can never tell the whole story from just looking on the surface. Assumptions and stereotypes are highlighted. Emanuelos’ feelings for Behnam, his own personal Prince of Persia, feed off the sexy and erotic draw of the exotic other. Tara wants to distinguish herself as an actor – and not as a doctor or some other white-collar profession that her parents would like her to be – but also just wants to blend in with her more western-looking peers. Her perceptions of outward beauty – blonde and hairless – are turned upside down when an agent wants to capitalize on her “exotic” natural look. And Mahmoud’s conservative views towards women and relationships may seem at odds with an educated man who has the heart of a poet, but his values ground him and help him to make sense of an otherwise senseless world.

Grammy is a delightful and engaging storyteller, shifting in and out of each character with style and clarity – and, above all, with truth and respect. No one is perfect – and that’s definitely the case with her three characters, which each have a delightful quirkiness of his or her own. And in each character’s individuality, she shows us the commonality – all want to be loved, work, belong and connect.

Mahmoud is a charmingly funny, moving and thought-provoking look at identity and culture.

Mahmoud continues its run at the Theatre Centre Incubator space until May 24. Check out the RISER Project and it’s exciting 2015 program. You can get advance tix online here.

 

 

 

Adventures in arts & culture in Nuit Blanche Toronto 2014

Arts adventures continued last night at Nuit Blanche Toronto 2014, as audiences roamed the night to view and engage with various arts and culture exhibits around the city.

A lot of the exhibits I saw (along with pals Lizzie Violet and Zoltan Hawryluk) were part of the Night Circus series. Here’s what we saw last night, followed by a slide show:

All Together Now – Group Exhibition @ Hart House. Video and live performance with choirs, featuring LGBTQ choir Singing Out, among others.

Queen’s Park was rockin’ with a cosplay rave vibe, with a DJ, fire juggling and eating, peeps in animal costumes and clowns. Dancing, music and a fun, energetic atmosphere.

8th Wonder – Michael Oatman and Brian Kane @ Union Station

A very cool interactive light box installation (will see if I can find title/artist).

Un/natural History: Drowning Captiva 2014 – George Bolster

The Melodious Malfeasance Meat-Grinding Machine 2014 – Dana Sherwood

Night Suite – lightsweetcrude

Big Top Grand Stand 2014 – SuttonBeresCuller

Cascade – Ananadam Dance Theatre, Brandy Leary, Eamon MacMahon, James Burton

Impressions – Mina Vedut, Alice Song, Andrea Ng, Alice Chen @ Wychwood Barns

Hive (2.0) – Hopkins Duffield @ Wychwood Barns

Dried Beans Models of the Universe from the Department of Household Sciences and Advanced Proverbs – John Shipman @ St. Matthews United Church (which also included a helping of very tasty vegetarian chili)

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Raoul Bhaneja & Divine Brown take us to the Church of the Blues in Life, Death and the Blues

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A young boy with a dream – and the harmonica is his ticket.

Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM), in association with Hope and Hell Theatre Co., opened Raoul Bhaneja’s Life, Death and the Blues in the TPM mainspace last night – and wowed a packed house.

Directed by Eda Holmes and associate director Kate Lynch, Life, Death and the Blues is a journey of music, culture, history and personal discovery. Bhaneja, Divine Brown, and The Big Time band members Jake Chisholm (guitar), Tom Bona (drums), Chris Banks (upright bass) take us on a trip through time and space, across Blues – and personal – history, traversing cities, countries and continents as Bhaneja continues his Blues education.

While Bhaneja challenges the audience’s preconceived notions of who and what a Blues man is, Brown is the perfect Devil’s advocate for Bhaneja’s assumptions on the cultural significance and place of the Blues today. Throughout this theatrical/music hybrid journey, Bhaneja gets schooled on the true meaning and placement of the Blues. More than a technique or a style or an expression – Blues is about roots and about rooting yourself in the music.

Life, Death and the Blues features stellar performances for this ride. Bhaneja is highly engaging, a slightly cocky but extremely likeable and funny guide on this trip, not to mention a talented showman, bringing it with strong vocals and musicianship (dobro and harmonica). Divine Brown is a fabulous foil, standing for no nonsense from Bhaneja, and taking us to heaven with her incredible vocal range and power. And those Big Time boys were cookin’. In addition to the live performances, we were also treated to the sights and sounds of some Blues greats, including Paul Oscher, Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker and Bad News Brown. I dare you to not be bopping your head and tapping your feet – and even shouting out “Damn!” – during this show (I know I did).

Every performance of Life, Death and the Blues will feature a special finale: an interview and jam session with a living Blues legend, including Chris Whiteley, Jay Douglas, Paul James, Rita Chiarelli and others. Last night’s opening featured the cool sounds of Chris Whiteley & Diana Braithwaite.

TPM also launched a Youth Blues Challenge in conjunction with this production, and sought out some talented young blues artists (25 or under) to perform during intermission up in the cabaret space near the bar. Last night’s young guest was Dov Beck-Levine, who wowed the audience with a solo performance on guitar and vocals.

Life, Death and the Blues is a remarkable theatre/music hybrid, featuring an outstanding cast of actor/musicians – taking us to the Church of the Blues.

Life, Death and the Blues runs on the TPM mainspace till October 19. Do yourself a solid and get yourself over there to see this. You can purchase advance tickets online.

In the meantime, check out the promo vid: