Tea time at the end of the world in the surreal, intimate, unsettling Escaped Alone

Clockwise, from bottom left: Brenda Robins, Clare Coulter, Maria Vacratsis & Kyra Harper. Set & costume design by Teresa Przybylski. Lighting design by Jennifer Lennon. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper and Necessary Angel, with an all-female cast and production team, take us to the edge of calamity—in a suburban backyard where four 70-something neighbours chat over tea before the impending apocalypse—with the Canadian premiere of Caryl Churchill’s surreal, intimate and unsettling Escaped Alone, directed by Jennifer Tarver and running at the Young Centre.

Gathered in a backyard, Mrs. Jarrett (Clare Coulter), Vi (Brenda Robins), Lena (Kyra Harper) and Sally (Maria Vacratsis) share gossip, memories and catch up. There are children and grandchildren to update about, and changes to the landscape of local shops to recall and relay—especially for Vi, who’s been away for six years. And amidst the candid and intimate conversation, where one can finish another’s sentence and the short-hand is such that sentences sometimes don’t even need to be finished, each woman breaks out to share her inner world. Her fears, her regrets, her reminiscences.

It is in these moments that we see another side of these otherwise sociable, animated women. Mrs. Jarrett is a walking, talking 21st century Book of Revelations, in which the everyday and the terrifying combine in an absurd, horrific and dark-humoured alchemy. Vi, a hairdresser by trade, may or may not have killed her husband in self-defence; and, while Sally acknowledges the complexity of their situation, she has a different take on that fateful moment. Sally struggles with her own demons: her efficacy in her career as a health care professional and her fear of cats. And the sensitive Lena looks back on her life as an office worker with mixed feelings of vague, wistful regret and amazement at time flown by.

Told through a collage of conversation, memory, musings and peaks into these women’s interior lives, the mundanity and complexity of everyday life—juxtaposed with the absurdity of meeting over tea in the face of impending catastrophe—is both darkly funny and chilling. The uncertainty of what comes next—whether it’s impending calamity threatening the world at large or the aging mind in a life of transition—while these four women are gathered together in friendship, each faces her mortality alone.

Compelling, sharply drawn work from the ensemble, from Coulter’s grouchy, pragmatic Mrs. Jarrett; to Robins’ edgy, irreverent Vi; Harper’s nervous, child-like Lena; and Vacratsis’ earnest, uneasy Sally. Teresa Przybylski’s minimalist set combines four ordinary, but different, chairs with hundreds of white paper birds, frozen in murmuration, suspended above; and is nicely complemented by Verne Good’s understated, haunting sound design. The effect is magical, disturbing and ultimately theatrical.

Escaped Alone continues at the Young Centre until November 25. Get advance tickets online or call the box office: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

Check out the production teaser:

And have a look at this great Intermission piece by actor Maria Vacratsis, as told to Bailey Green.

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Freedom of expression & political oppression in a digital age in the chilling, intersectional, provocative Theory

Sascha Cole. Set & lighting design by Joe Pagnan. Projection design by Cameron Davis. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Photo by Cylla von Teidemann.

 

Under what circumstances should freedom of expression be censored or policed? At what point does politics, however liberal or progressive, become unforgiving and oppressive? Tarragon Theatre’s production of Norman Yeung’s Theory, directed by Esther Jun, assisted by Stephanie Williams, examines the impact of film and social media on modern-day discourse through an intersectional lens, where academia meets art—with chilling and provocative results.

I saw the genesis of Theory, first as a reading at Alumnae Theatre’s New Ideas Festival and then as a full production at SummerWorks, back in 2010. It appeared again at Alumnae during FireWorks Festival 2013—at which point, at the suggestion of dramaturge Shirley Barrie, lead character Isabelle’s boyfriend was re-written as a female character. I missed the 2013 production, but was happy to see the evolution of the piece in the current Tarragon presentation, where Isabelle has a wife who is also a person of colour.

Rookie film studies prof Isabelle (Sascha Cole, in the role from the very beginning) has set up an online message board off the campus server—a bit of a rogue move that becomes even more so with an ‘anything goes’ policy. Her film theory students will self-moderate and there are no plans for censorship. And, in a classic Dead Poets Society moment, she has her students tear out the film screening list from the syllabus—full of white male directors—and replaces it with a more diverse, contemporary list. Even her core group of vocal, engaged students—Davinder (Bilal Baig), Safina (Asha James), Richard (Kyle Orzech) and Jorge (Anthony Perpuse)—have questions and misgivings about the nature of the message board and revised film list, which includes the controversial Baise Moi, translated into Rape Me in an English release.

Isabelle’s wife Lee (Audrey Dwyer)—a Black, tenured prof at the same university—also has reservations about the student message board; and like her, one can’t help but wonder if Isabelle is trying too hard to look cool and connect with her students as adults and academics. Racist and homophobic remarks begin to emerge on the message board—presented onstage via projection (design by Cameron Davis)—some of which are directed at other students.  And, while Isabelle insists that nothing offends her and refuses to censor the board—viewing the remarks in the context of fodder for adult, academic conversation and exploration—some of her students don’t see it that way.

Video messages start appearing, at first referencing films the class is studying, then getting increasingly graphic and violent, and directed toward Isabelle. Becoming obsessed with finding out who the perpetrator is, the strain on Isabelle and her relationship with Lee starts to show; she keeps putting off their plans to have a baby and starts spending an inordinate amount of time on the message board.

As the messages get more personal and close to home, showing up in her personal email, text messages and even on her doorstep, Isabelle blocks a user called @Richard69 and turns to department head Owen (Fabrizio Filippo) to see if she can launch a complaint or investigation to learn the identity of the student. It’s during this meeting that she learns there’s been a complaint launched against her. Isabelle begins to suspect the culprit is among her core group of students, but has no solid proof.

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Sascha Cole & Audrey Dwyer. Set & lighting design by Joe Pagnan. Projection design by Cameron Davis. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Photo by Cylla von Teidemann.

Outstanding work from the cast in this chilling multi-media psychological thriller. There’s a taut scholarly edge in Cole’s performance of Isabelle; and an awkwardness in Isabelle’s attempts to connect with her students on a laid back, personal level. Under pressure to make tenure, Isabelle must walk the line between provoking thought and keeping her students and  superiors happy. Dwyer’s good-humoured academic veteran Lee goes beyond being a great foil and complement to Cole’s Isabelle—she’s the sociopolitical conscience in the relationship and in the piece. A supportive and nurturing partner, Lee has no trouble calling Isabelle out when she’s neglecting their relationship or forgetting to check her privilege. Filippo gives a great turn as the cool guy department head Owen; like Isabelle, he’s invested in keeping everyone happy—but his flip, hip dude exterior belies the institutional administrator who must also answer to higher powers in the university.

Really nice, sharply drawn work from the student chorus. Baig’s sassy, queer South Asian Davinder and James’ earnest, politically aware Safina (Asha James), who is Black, are particularly aware of and sensitive to the homophobic and racist remarks posted online; and Safina is uncomfortable with some of the course content. Both are open and willing to expand their minds and engage in debate; but they understandably draw the line at hate messaging. Perpuse brings a fun class clown energy to Jorge, who posits that porn should be given equal consideration with other genres. And Orzech’s nerdy, curious Richard seems affable enough, but there’s a dark undercurrent to this curious, white kid as he pleads “context” to his observations on films featuring storytelling filtered through a racist lens.

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Bilal Baig, Anthony Perpuse, Asha James, Kyle Orzech & Sascha Cole. Set & lighting design by Joe Pagnan. Projection design by Cameron Davis. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Photo by Cylla von Teidemann.

Isabelle realizes that she’s underestimated the power of a digital media and the accompanying anonymity of user names, which make for an easy, consequence-free platform for hate speech and intolerance; and she’s forced to examine her inconsistent handling of conversation that veers toward hate speech. Her progressive feminist liberal politics and attempts at provoking thought have pushed buttons and opened a Pandora’s box of alt-right ill will. Is she complicit in fostering oppression by holding back on deleting racist and homophobic comments? Timely in its recognition of alt-right backlash, Theory reminds us of the inevitable pendulum backswing on progressive sociopolitical change.

Theory continues in the Tarragon Extraspace until November 25. Get advance tickets online or by calling the box office at 416-531-1827.

Love, sacrifice & the heartbeat of time in the delightful, poignant Sisters

Laura Condlln & Nicole Power. Set design by Michelle Tracey. Costume design by Erika Connor. Lighting design by Kimberley Purtell. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper opened its striking world premiere of Rosamund Small’s delightful, poignant Sisters—a story of love, family, sacrifices and the march of time—to an enthusiastic full house last night. Inspired by Edith Wharton’s novella Bunner Sisters and directed by Peter Pasyk, Sisters is running in the Michael Young Theatre at the Young Centre.

It’s the turn of the century in New York City, and sisters Ann (Laura Condlln) and Evelina (Nicole Power) live quiet, regular lives, working and living in a small shop, selling notions and jams, and providing sewing services. Both are single at an age that would label them as spinsters; and their small, humdrum workaday lives get a spark of excitement when Ann buys a clock for Evelina’s birthday—and both become enamoured with the quiet, charming clockmaker Ramy (Kevin Bundy). Adding to the fun is their observant friend and neighbour, Mrs. Mellins (Karen Robinson), a widowed dressmaker who lives upstairs.

Torn between her feelings for Ramy and love for her sister, Ann steps aside to make room for a match between Ramy and Evelina—a decision made all the more heart-wrenching when Ramy takes a job in St. Louis, taking his new wife with him and leaving Ann to run the shop alone. Dependant on return customers and referrals from more privileged ladies—like the affable Lady with the Puffy Sleeves (Ellora Patnaik) and the wealthy, entitled Customer (Raquel Duffy)—Ann and Mrs. Mellins are also facing a new wave of industrialization; one in which much of the textile industry will be mechanized, with factories churning out large amounts of pre-made, less expensive off-the-rack goods. Dealing with the separation as best as she can, when Evelina’s letters stop coming and her letters come back return-to-sender, Ann sets on a search for Evelina’s whereabouts; and with the help of Mrs. Mellins, gathers some troubling information about Ramy in the process.

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Karen Robinson, Laura Condlln & Nicole Power. Set design by Michelle Tracey. Costume design by Erika Connor. Lighting design by Kimberley Purtell. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Lovely work from the cast in this tale of everyday heroism and perseverance in the face of longing, heartbreak and loyalty. Condlln is heartbreaking and inspiring as the older sister Ann; practical and better with the accounts than she is with the creative side of the business, Ann puts her own desire for romance aside to make her sister happy. Power (who Kim’s Convenience fans will recognize as Jung’s quirky boss Shannon) is a day-dreamy spitfire as younger sister Evelina; bored and skeptical that things will get better, Evelina is more pessimistic than her sister—but is able to see colours in music and match the perfect accessories to a dress. Robinson (who Schitt’s Creek fans will recognize as Ronnie Lee) is a treat as Mrs. Mellins, performing with gusto and impeccable comic timing; while she has a morbid fascination in the seedier side of the city, Mrs. Mellins’ penny dreadful notions of life outside the shop make way for sage advice and motherly watchfulness over the sisters. And Bundy seduces as the reserved, gallant German clockmaker; shy, sickly and precise, Ramy is a mystery man of changeable temperament—which perhaps makes him all the more attractive.

The perspectival, display case-like set with a raked floor (Michelle Tracey), atmospheric lighting (Kimberly Purtell), stunning period costumes (Erika Connor) and haunting music box music (Richard Feren) make for an aesthetically pleasing, finely honed view of this world.

Sisters reminds us of the precarity of life for working women; reliant on men and those who are better off in general to make something of their lives. And of the saving grace of love, hope, faith and determination—with a little help from family and friends.

Sisters continues at the Young Centre until September 16. Get advance tickets online or call the box office: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

Love, family & home in the heartwarming, hilarious Bed & Breakfast

Paolo Santalucia & Gregory Prest. Set design by Alexandra Lord. Costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by Bonnie Beecher. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper takes us on a heartwarming, hilarious gay pioneering adventure of love, family, community and belonging with its deftly staged production of Mark Crawford’s Bed and Breakfast. Featuring a cast of nearly two dozen characters, performed by two exceptional actors, this poignant comedy directed by Ann-Marie Kerr is running now at the Young Centre.

City boys Brett (Gregory Prest) and Drew (Paolo Santalucia) long to get out of their Toronto condo and into a house they can call home; but despite the best efforts of their flamboyant real estate agent friend Ray (Prest), they continually find themselves on the losing end of cut-throat bidding wars. All that changes when they attend Brett’s aunt Maggie’s funeral and learn that she’s left her large small-town Victorian house to him. Brett, who works as an interior designer, and Drew, who works as a hotel concierge, decide to join forces professionally, go for a total lifestyle makeover and hatch a plan to move in, renovate and open a hip, contemporary B&B.

Easier said than done, as Brett and Drew are two gay fish out of water in a conservative small town. On the plus side, Brett has some knowledge of the town and people from his youth, having stayed with Maggie during the summer, and working with local contractor Doug (Santalucia). It doesn’t take long to find who their supporters are, but opponents are more cowardly and closeted. And, despite all efforts to engage with the community as they pitch in to help with the Santa Claus parade, there’s a cruel streak afoot in the town and the initial hostility they face escalates into something more disturbing. Soldiering on with the support of new friends and their commitment to the project, Brett and Drew persevere.

Chaos and hilarity ensue during the B&B’s opening weekend, when the guys host a Brit couple (Prest & Santalucia), a right-wing activist (Prest) and a pair of newlyweds (Santalucia)—plus deal with assorted emergencies and adopt a rambunctious puppy. They stumble through with a little help from their newfound friends—delightfully hippy dippy café owner Alison (Prest) and her Irish motorcycle-driving partner Chris (Santalucia), bubbly local real estate agent Carrie (Santalucia) and emo teen son Dustin (Prest), and even the tough, homophobic Doug and Brett’s sullen teen nephew Cody (Santalucia). But when Carrie informs them that she has a buyer willing to pay an obscene amount of money for the B&B, Brett and Drew have a tough decision to make—one that gets more complicated as family confessions and revelations emerge.

Outstanding, marathon performances from real-life couple Prest and Santalucia; creating a complementary pair of opposites with Prest’s more private, soft-spoken, circumspect Brett and Santalucia’s out, proud and extroverted Drew. And all this in addition to the sharply drawn, compelling, physically demanding performances as they each turn on a dime to deliver a cast of multiple characters in this tightly staged production. The design supports the story and staging both aesthetically and practically: Alexandra Lord’s multi-purpose airy set features Victorian architecture highlights; Ken MacKenzie’s spot-on, minimalist costume design; Bonnie Beecher’s magical, atmospheric lighting design; and sound design that features music by gay favourites, courtesy of John Gzowski.

The insightful, witty storytelling in Bed and Breakfast goes beyond the differences between gay and straight, and urban and small-town folks. It reminds us of the universal longing for a place where you belong, with people who accept you for who you are. Home is where your loved ones are; and the families we choose are just as potent—if not more so—as the ones we grew up with.

Due to popular demand during the first week of the run, Bed & Breakfast has been extended to September 8. Get advance tickets online or call the Young Centre box office: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

Shaken faith & lost innocence in Soulpepper’s haunting yet hopeful Innocence Lost: A Play about Steven Truscott

Berkley Silverman & Dan Mousseau. Set design by Camellia Koo. Costume design by Sue LePage. Lighting design by Bonnie Beecher. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

A town divided in the aftershock of the tragic rape and murder of a 12-year-old girl; and subsequent adult trial and conviction of a 14-year-old classmate. A journalist doggedly pursuing the truth, casting doubt on the efficacy of law enforcement in the case and belief in the fairness of the local justice system. Soulpepper’s production of Beverley Cooper’s Innocence Lost: A Play about Steven Truscott, directed by Jackie Maxwell, examines the impact of this tragic case on those close to these two young people, the town and the public at large. The show opened last night to a packed house at the Young Centre.

The perception of a quiet, safe life in Clinton, Ontario was shattered when 12-year-old Lynne Harper went missing on June 9, 1959; her lifeless body found two days later in the woods just outside of town. In a stunning aftershock, her 14-year-old classmate Steven Truscott was tried as an adult, convicted and sentenced to death for her rape and murder—dividing the town’s residents; and casting extreme doubt on Truscott’s character, as well as the law enforcement and local court handling the case.

Our narrator to the events leading up to and following this tragic event is Sarah (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster), the only fictitious character in the play. It is through her lens as classmate of the well-liked, athletic Steven Truscott (Dan Mousseau) that we get a glimpse into this time and place. Speaking to us as an adult, she turns over memories, and conflicting thoughts and emotions in her mind, as she guides us through the barrage of information, misinformation and gossip about the unthinkable death of Lynne Harper (the young Berkley Silverman), and the shock of Steven’s subsequent trial and conviction.

Lead investigator, OPP inspector Harold Graham (John Jarvis), chooses to focus on the changeable testimony of two minors: Butch George (Caroline Gillis) and Jocelyne Gaudet (Akosua Amo-Adem), whose testimony conflicts with other children the police interviewed, like Dougie Oates (Christef Desir), who saw Steven giving Lynne a ride on his bike. Compounding the misinformation of this selective culling of largely child witness testimony are the findings of pathologist Dr. John Penistan (Deborah Drakeford), who examined Harper’s stomach contents to determine time of death. And, for some reason, the trial is held locally, offering little in the way of an unbiased jury, for which only men have been selected. Assumptions and prejudice abound. The authority of police, doctors and judges is not questioned. And there are two distinct class divides in the town: long-time residents vs. local air force base personnel and officers vs. non-coms. And a further divide develops: those who believe in Truscott’s innocence and those who believe him guilty. Interestingly, Lynne’s father (Jarvis) was an officer and Steven’s father Dan (John Cleland) was a non-com.

Journalist/writer Isabel LeBourdais (Nancy Palk) appears on the scene, ruffling skeptics’ feathers and providing hope for supporters with interviews about Truscott’s case. Her investigation and subsequent 1966 book The Trial of Steven Truscott shines a spotlight on holes in the investigation, calling into question the work of investigators and the fairness of the trial. Rumours of misdirection and cover-up emerge. Through the tireless efforts of supporters, particularly Truscott’s mother Doris (Gillis) and LeBourdais, Truscott’s case is revived—in public consciousness and in the legal system. Truscott’s original sentence is commuted to life in prison a year after his conviction; he is paroled in 1966 and acquitted by the Ontario Court of Appeal in 2007.

Innocence Lost, Soulpepper
Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster & Nancy Palk. Set design by Camellia Koo. Costume design by Sue LePage. Lighting design by Bonnie Beecher. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Sharply detailed, respectful work from the ensemble; the women in this story feature prominently, with some particular stand-outs in the cast. Ch’ng Lancaster does a brilliant job with the conflicted Sarah; torn between her admiration of Steven, and the myriad voices supporting and damning him, Sarah finds her own faith shaken—and like Peter, even denies knowing Steven. Longing to put some distance between herself and the town, and its accompanying nightmare of memory, she travels across the country to university, only to find people talking about the case. Drakeford does an outstanding job, juggling multiple characters with both dramatic and comedic flair: Sarah’s gossip-mongering, opinionated mother; the arrogant Dr. Penistan; and hilarious turns as a harried Brownie pack leader and a put-upon front-row student. Palk shines as the intrepid LeBourdais; affable but nobody’s fool, LeBourdais questions authority—in this case, the male power system responsible for incarcerating Truscott—pointing out inaccuracies, conflicts and omissions in testimony, and the circumstantial nature of the evidence, and putting those involved in the case on the hot seat.

Shouts to the design team for their work in conjuring this time and place. Doris Day’s Que Sera, Sera brings a dark bit of whimsy to the pre-show music (sound design by John Gzowski), adding a touch of nostalgia along with the vintage costumes (costumes by Sue LePage). The stand of tall, narrow trees that dominates the dimly lit set provides a haunting, hazy atmosphere and doubles as the bars of Truscott’s jail cell (set design by Camellia Koo and lighting design by Bonnie Beecher).

Innocence Lost is as much about Truscott’s lost childhood as it is about the shaken faith of a town and its people. All that had been trusted and taken for granted as true and good—the town’s safety, the police, the courts and Truscott’s character—dissected, questioned and turned upside down. Assumptions, prejudices, hearsay and bias create an environment of skepticism, mistrust and denial; favourite childhood places become poisoned in memory. And faith, hope and love put the story of his role on that tragic day back on track.

Innocence Lost: A Play about Steven Truscott continues in the Marilyn and Charles Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre until June 23. Get advance tickets online or give the box office a shout at: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

Check out Maija Kappler’s piece on Innocence Lost, including an interview with playwright Beverley Cooper, in Intermission Magazine.

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.

Revolution, reversal, revulsion: Soulpepper’s disturbingly hilarious, brutally satirical, timely Animal Farm

Rick Roberts, Sarah Wilson & Miriam Fernandes. Set and costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by André du Toit. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper brings George Orwell’s chilling and bizarre cautionary tale of revolution, politics and corporate greed to life with its world premiere of Anthony MacMahon’s stage adaptation of Animal Farm, directed by Ravi Jain, assisted by Darwin Lyons, currently running at the Young Centre in the Distillery District.

Originally written as an allegorical representation of the rise of Stalin in Russia, Animal Farm gets a decidedly contemporary take in this stage production—it’s all too familiar and hits the mark with discomfiting accuracy.

The animals on Farmer Jones’s farm have had it with their lives and working conditions. Inspired by elder pig Old Major’s (Jennifer Villaverde) “All animals are equal” speech, they plan a revolt, resulting in casualties, including their beloved comrade Bessie the cow (Leah Cherniak). When it comes time to organize in the aftermath and make a plan to take over the farm going forward, the pigs take charge, and eventually comprise the only candidates for the leadership election. Moderated by his right-hand pig Squealer (Miriam Fernandez), the right wing, conservative Napoleon (Rick Roberts) faces off against the more progressive, liberal-minded Snowball (Sarah Wilson) in a debate—and things get ugly. Accusing Snowball of colluding with the humans, with her book learning and desire for committees and studies, Napoleon effectively bullies his way to the win, with his Doberman allies (Paolo Santalucia and Sugith Varughese)—who later become his security/muscle—chasing Snowball off.

Animal Farm, Soulpepper
Oliver Dennis and Guillermo Verdecchia. Set and costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by André du Toit. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Projecting an image of strength, resolve and deep caring for everyone, Napoleon is a master of providing easy answers to complex questions—and what the populace wants to hear. His promises of a better life and golden years of relaxation in a field of clover win over the exhausted and simple-minded alike, including the lovable old horse Boxer (Oliver Dennis). But the farm’s donkey Benjamin (Guillermo Verdecchia) and chicken Mercy (Raquel Duffy) aren’t so convinced. Napoleon, who prefers building fences to bridges, is highly suspicious of the neighbouring farm animals (in an insightful parody of foreign trade/relations); yet is constantly shifting position on the nature of those relationships (aptly illustrated when he blind-sides Mercy on an AFNN interview). Even worse, domestic policy makes labour conditions even worse and puts social services on life support, forcing the old and injured to continue working without proper medical care (Michaela Washburn’s Doctor is also an animal—you’ll have to go see for yourself to see what kind), medical insurance or employer support to recuperate.

Under Napoleon’s rule, the rich live a tax-cut life of comfort and leisure, while the workers put in longer hours for the same pay, and struggle with basic cost of living and services. Old Major’s original proclamation “All animals are equal” earns the addendum “but some animals are more equal than others.” Who is Napoleon really working for? Once discovered, or even hinted at, the backlash is inevitable.

Kudos to the largely multitasking cast for their solid, compelling performances in this playful but disturbing story of a society gone wrong. Roberts does a fantastic job as Napoleon, giving us an uncomfortably familiar politician; a charismatic leader who can spout whatever he needs to say to save face and maintain support, Napoleon is a dangerously bellicose man, bullying his way to status and power for the sake of the position. Wilson’s Snowball is the perfect opposite; a level-headed and intelligent, but shy opponent, Snowball just can’t muster the level of popularity she needs. The animals are tired, and feeling put-upon and cheated—and the quick, easy answers coming from Napoleon are much more attractive than the long-term, more challenging proposals she suggests. Sound familiar?

Dennis’s sweet but dim horse Boxer and Verdecchia’s sharp-witted, cynical donkey Benjamin make for a hilarious and poignant odd couple of pals. Not one to suffer fools, Benjamin is at his most patient when attempting to teach Boxer to read. And Dennis is heartbreaking as the old work horse Boxer suffers both disillusionment and injury; the policies of their leader—a leader he believed in—dashing his dreams of retiring to clover-filled fields. And the chickens are off the charts with the LOLs! Duffy is both adorable and impressively determined as feisty Mercy, the chicken’s appointed leader; and Villaverde is a laugh riot as the radical, compost-crazed Poophead.

Animal Farm, Soulpepper
Jennifer Villaverde, Raquel Duffy, Michaela Washburn & Leah Cherniak. Set and costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by André du Toit. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Big shouts to the design team for their incredible, imaginative work on this production: Ken MacKenzie (assisted by Christine Urquhart on set and costumes), André du Toit (lighting), Richard Feren (sound and music composition) and mask consultant Nicole Ratjen.

Animal Farm continues in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre. Get advance tickets online or call the box office: 416-866-8666 / 1-888-898-1188. Last night’s performance was packed, so advance booking recommended.