Pride & BLM divide between friends in the provocative, fierce, meta Every Day She Rose

Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski & Monice Peter (as Mark and Cathy-Ann). Set design by Michelle Tracey. Costume design by Ming Wong. Lighting design by Rebecca Picherack. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Nightwood Theatre continues its 40th season with the premiere of Andrea Scott and Nick Green’s Every Day She Rose, co-directed by Andrea Donaldson and Sedina Fiati, and running at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. Provocative, fierce and sharply funny, divergent responses to the 2016 Black Lives Matter protest during the Toronto Pride parade force two best friends—a straight Black woman and a gay white man—to examine their relationship and allyship. Their exploration of friendship, oppression and allyship gets meta as these characters morph in and out of the two playwrights who are writing their story; struggling and processing not only the structure of the play, but the nature of and relationship between the two characters, who are to some degree based on themselves.

It’s Toronto Pride 2016, and besties/roommates Cathy-Ann (Monice Peter) and Mark (Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski) are getting decked out and ready to hit the parade route. Out at the parade, the celebratory vibe of their annual ritual takes a somber turn when they encounter a Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest blocking the parade route. Back at their downtown condo, Cathy-Ann becomes quiet and pensive, going online to learn about BLM’s demands for a more equitable, inclusive Pride celebration; while Mark shrugs the protest off as a momentarily scary and ultimately poorly timed inconvenience. No longer feeling like celebrating, she opts to absent herself from a night of drinking and dancing; unable to change her mind, he goes off to meet his friends.

That moment of protest at Pride becomes the tipping point of an ongoing series of micro-divisions that have been apparent in their friendship for some time, and these come bubbling to the surface as the debate continues, the heat turned high, when Mark returns. Divergent personal perspectives on the police, Caribana and privilege erupt—not to mention the collision of odd couple-esque personalities—and, more and more, they find that their differences outweigh their similarities.

Woven into Cathy-Ann and Mark’s story is the journey of playwrights Andrea and Nick; and this is where it gets meta, especially since the characters are, to varying degrees, based on the actual playwrights. Debating everything—from structure, to back story, to the inclusion of flashback scenes and fourth wall-breaking monologues—like the characters (Cathy-Ann and Mark) who question their friendship, Andrea and Nick find they must ultimately ask themselves why they’re writing this play.

Every Day She Rose, Nightwood Theatre
Monice Peter & Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski (as Andrea & Nick). Set design by Michelle Tracey. Costume design by Ming Wong. Lighting design by Rebecca Picherack. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Outstanding work from Peter and Shepherd-Gawinski in this complex, insightful and sharply funny two-hander that takes us to some uncomfortable places in a powerful, candid way. Playing characters that would otherwise be relegated to “sassy friend” supporting roles, the relationships go beyond the stereotypes to get real—becoming a microcosm of awareness, allyship and oppression Olympics, with issues of prejudice, intersectionality and privilege coming to the fore. Peter is a circumspect, grounded, Devil’s advocate delight as the cerebral, deliberate and sharp-witted Cathy-Ann; a scholar and somewhat of an introvert, Cathy-Ann has two degrees and is working temp jobs to pay the bills. Supportive of and engaged with Mark and the queer community, she finds herself having to rethink these relationships when she realizes the extent to which the Black community is excluded from Pride—and saddened to hear the clueless and negative responses from the white male-dominated queer community, including Mark.

Shepherd-Gawinski is a loud and proud treat as the gregarious, visceral Mark; flamboyant and impetuous, Mark is living the gay man’s dream—a great job, a fabulous condo, sex available with a swipe on his phone, and an awesome best friend. But, as much as he loves Cathy-Ann, Mark just can’t seem to get that the Black experience of oppression isn’t the same as his gay experience. His “colour blindness” makes the Black experience invisible to him—not to mention that, even though he’s gay, he’s still a white male, operating from a position of privilege that a Black woman does not. And, much like Cathy-Ann and Mark, Andrea and Nick are operating as opposites: Andrea is interested in a deep dive, less linear look at these characters and their relationship, while Nick is more comfortable with a less complicated, straightforward chronological approach. But, unlike Mark, Nick seems to get it when it comes to divergent experiences of oppression, and how intersectionality compounds the issue—and wonders how Andrea deals with it.

How does she do it? One day at a time—every day, she rises. We all need to check our privilege, and acknowledge the accompanying benefits; and be aware and mindful of the intersectional nature of oppression, and the barriers created therein—and educate ourselves on effective, positive allyship. And, as co-director Fiati pointed out during the opening night pre-show panel, no one wins when competing in the oppression Olympics.

Every Day She Rose continues at Buddies until December 8; advance tickets available online or by calling 416-975-8555. It’s a two-week run, and you don’t want to miss this—so advance booking or early arrival strongly recommended.

For dates/times of special events, talkbacks and a relaxed performance, check the show page. And, after the performance, check out the engagement space behind the playing area.

ICYMI: For more perspective, check out Jordy Kieto’s interview with co-directors Andrea Donaldson and Sedina Fiati in Intermission Magazine.

 

 

 

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.

 

Secrets revealed & dreams denied in the ferociously funny, deeply poignant August: Osage County

The ensemble. Set design by Camellia Koo. Costume design by Gillian Gallow. Lighting design by Davida Tkach. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Life is very long.—T.S. Eliot

Soulpepper presents a ferociously funny, deeply poignant production of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County, running now at the Young Centre. Directed by Jackie Maxwell, assisted by Lindsay Bell, it’s a modern-day classic family tragicomedy; a microcosm of the disintegration of the American Dream. In the explosive aftermath of loss, a complex family dynamic of abuse, secrets and addiction is revealed—and the reeling survivors must choose what to do next as they pick their way out of the rubble.

When lauded American poet and infamous alcoholic Beverly Weston (Diego Matamoros) goes missing, his entire clan rallies around pill-popping family matriarch Violet (Nancy Palk), now living with cancer. The introverted Ivy, their youngest daughter (Michelle Monteith), the only the only one who stayed in town, has a secret love. Whip-smart academic Barbara, the eldest (Maev Beaty) is concealing her separation from her husband Bill (Kevin Hanchard), a university prof having an affair with a student; and their 15-year-old daughter Jean (Leah Doz) is just trying to deal with it all as she smokes pot on the sly. And middle daughter, the flaky Karen (Raquel Duffy), seems to have found a new lease on life with a career as a real estate agent and her charming, entitled, sleazy fiancé Steve (Ari Cohen).

Rounding out the family portrait in the dark, hot and decrepit family home in rural Pawhuska, Oklahoma is Violet’s filterless gossip of a sister Mattie Fae (Laurie Paton); artless, kind-hearted brother-in-law Charlie (Oliver Dennis); and fragile, depressed nephew Little Charles (Gregory Prest). Witnessing it all from the background is the Weston’s new housekeeper/caregiver Johnna (Samantha Brown), a local Cheyenne woman hired by Beverly to keep home and hearth together amid the chaos of sickness, addiction and decay.

The family soon learns of Beverly’s whereabouts when town Sheriff Deon Gilbeau (Jeff Meadows), Barbara’s high school sweetheart, arrives at the door with news that his body has been found—a suspected suicide, but officially ruled as a drowning. The initial dynamic of worried family support disintegrates into ugly revelation and recrimination as long hidden rot and resentment comes to light in the hellishly sweltering heat of the Plains in August; and Barbara attempts to take control of the situation. Left with Violet after an explosive post-funeral dinner, followed by several individual family skirmishes, Barbara begins to implode herself—and is forced to face a fresh hell and a decision of her own.

august-5
Maev Beaty & Nancy Palk. Set design by Camellia Koo. Costume design by Gillian Gallow. Lighting design by Davida Tkach. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Palk and Beaty are riveting as the sharp-witted, brutally honest mother and daughter—the two alphas of the family menagerie. Palk’s Violet is the perfect combination of fury and pathos; an acerbic tongue, and a gift for manipulation and attention-seeking, it becomes apparent that Violet’s dark humour and grasping materialism are borne of a tortured, impoverished soul and an abusive family history. She is well-matched by Beaty’s Barbara; a whip-smart writer and academic who’s suppressed her own ambition in the shadow of her famous father, and in service of her husband’s career and her own family. Barbara’s confident, take-charge demeanour reveals the desperately lost life and broken heart that lie beneath. And where Violet lashes out with cruelty to overpower, Barbara aims for tough love.

Monteith is heartbreaking as the gentle, put-upon Ivy, who’s struggling to find her place and a bit of happiness. Duffy is hilarious as the quirky, exhausting Karen; a one-woman hurricane of changeable beliefs and lifestyles, ever reaching for the brass ring. Dennis is lovely as the kind, gentle Charlie—especially in exchanges with his painfully self-conscious, down-trodden son Little Charles (a sensitive, child-like performance from Prest). And Matamoros brings a brutally insightful, drunken eloquence to the poet Beverly.

Expressions of love and tenderness provide brief moments of respite from the cruelty and bitterness of these complex family relationships. And Brown’s pragmatic, matter-of-fact Johnna—listener, witness and left to deal with the aftermath of each event—is a stark reminder of the original Indigenous stewards of the land we now call America; colonized and evicted from their homeland. Now watching from the sidelines as the American Dream falls into ruin, as all survivors emerge from and persevere through the rubble.

August: Osage County continues at the Young Centre until June 23; advance tickets available online, or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

Soulpepper will be offering live ASL interpretation for this production on June 6 (7:30 PM) and June 8 (1:30 PM); $20 tickets are available for Deaf community members and their invited guests—click here for more info.

Nostalgia meets the ghosts of memory in the funny, poignant, authentically human New Magic Valley Fun Town

Caroline Gillis, Andrew Moodie, Daniel MacIvor & Stephanie MacDonald. Set design by Brian Perchaluk. Costume design by Brenda McLean. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Prairie Theatre Exchange and Tarragon Theatre join forces to present the Toronto premiere of Daniel MacIvor’s New Magic Valley Fun Town, directed by Richard Rose, assisted by Audrey Dwyer; opening last night in the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace. Equal parts funny and poignant, it’s an authentically human story of nostalgia and ghosts of the past as the kitchen party reunion between two childhood friends reveals some unwelcome memories.

In small-town Nova Scotia, cancer survivor Dougie (Daniel MacIvor) lives in a spotless double-wide trailer, separated from his wife Cheryl (Caroline Gillis), who’s stayed in their family home in town. Their young adult daughter Sandy (Stephanie MacDonald) is on a break from her English lit thesis to manage some mental health issues. Dougie is anxiously awaiting the arrival of Allen (Andrew Moodie), a friend from childhood and one of the few Black residents of the town back in the day, who moved on to become an English professor at U of T.

Dougie and Allen haven’t seen each other for 35 years, and their reunion—initially rife with awkward excitement, vintage music, drinking and dancing—takes a dark turn as painful, secret memories emerge. Dougie is dealing with his sense of mortality and Allen needs to get something off his chest; and lifelong feelings of deep-seated anger, shame and longing bubble to the surface.

Daniel-MacIvor-and-Andrew-Moodie-in-New-Magic-Valley-Fun-Town-photo-by-Cylla-von-Tiedemann-1024x690
Daniel MacIvor & Andrew Moodie. Set design by Brian Perchaluk. Costume design by Brenda McLean. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Beautiful performances from this ensemble, enacting a marathon of emotional experience and responses. MacIvor is a compelling, high-energy presence as the tightly wound Dougie; obsessively neat and wanting things to be perfect for Allen, Dougie appears to have channelled his nervous energy into preparations for the visit—but we learn that this behaviour pre-dates his cancer diagnosis, going back to adolescence. Moodie’s calm, introspective Allen is equally gripping; perfectly complementing the frenetic Dougie, the emotionally contained Allen is bursting with the buried feelings of distant, disturbing memories—memories that are excavated and brought to the surface during this fateful visit, and intersect with his experience of being Black in a small town.

Gillis is loveably quirky and as the cheerful, attentive Cheryl; a protective wife and mother who’s at a loss as to how to help her husband and daughter, her positive demeanour masks the pain within, and she finds solace and community in the local Catholic church. MacDonald gives a hilariously playful, irreverent and sweetly poignant performance as Sandy; a post-grad student with the heart of a poet, Sandy is navigating her own illness, even as she continues to reach out to connect with her ailing father.

The classic 70s vintage vibe of Brian Perchaluk’s set design and Don Benedictson’s original music and sound design (those of a certain age were singing along with the pre-show tunes) combine nicely with Brenda McLean’s modern-day costume design, and the realism and cathartic magic of Kim Purtell’s lighting.

Each of these characters is reaching out for connection from a place of profound aloneness. And, while the deeper meaning of the titular amusement park of childhood memory is revealed—not new, magic, a valley, fun or a town—there’s strength and resilience in the present, and hope for the future, as these characters move towards light and closure.

New Magic Valley Fun Town continues in the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace until March 31; get advance tickets online or contact the box office at 416-531-1827.

A young hero’s quest for identity in the delightful, inspiring all-ages musical Rose

Rose ensemble, with Hailey Gillis centre. Set, lighting & projection design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Alexandra Lord. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper continues its Family Festival programming with the world premiere of Rose—a brand new original musical three in years in the making, adapted from Gertrude Stein’s only children’s book The World Is Round. With music and book by composer and music director Mike Ross, and lyrics and book by Sarah Wilson; directed by Gregory Prest, assisted by Jennifer Weisz; and choreographed by Monica Dottor, this delightful, inspirational story follows the journey of the nine-year-old titular hero as she sets off in search of her identity. Rose opened at the Young Centre last week; I caught the matinée yesterday.

Narrator Frank the logger (Frank Cox-O’Connell on guitar) and logger bandmates Buddy (John Millard on banjo) and Jessie (Raha Javanfar on violin) welcome us to the town of Somewhere, where everyone likes to say their name and tell you all about themselves. Only the quiet, introverted Rose (Hailey Gill) just can’t seem to say her name, no matter how hard she tries, or how much encouragement she gets from her outgoing BFF Willie (Peter Fernandes) and faithful dog Love (Jonathan Ellul). Rose is a thinker who believes a name means a lot—and she has questions. And maybe the answers to those questions will help her sort out her predicament. After all, how can she say her name when she doesn’t know who, what, where, when or why she is? Mocked by classmates who view her as a weirdo, but determined to learn, she asks her teacher Miss Crisp (Sabryn Rock), who encourages her to try something new.

Rose takes this advice to heart and chooses a different direction, trying on a new, wild personality in the process—a decision that puts her friendship with Willie in jeopardy and further isolates her from her community. Then, inspired by the idea of getting a new perspective from the local mountain top, she sets off alone to climb it to see if she can find her answers there—and ultimately, the voice to say her name.

A tale of navigating life’s contradictions and weirdness, Rose is about love, acceptance and being true to yourself—and the resilience, determination, faith and hope required in the search for the answers to life’s questions. Even if things don’t work out the way you’d hoped or expected, the journey’s the thing. And, oh the places you’ll go, within and without yourself, when you step out of your comfort zone and try something new—all while recognizing and respecting your limits.

rose-5
Hailey Gillis. Set, lighting & projection design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Alexandra Lord. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Gillis shines as our young hero Rose, giving an engaging, thoughtful and vulnerable performance as the not so little girl on a big mission. Shy, awkward and pensive, Rose longs to say her name and is driven to crazy lengths to find it within herself to do so. Gillis’s performance resonates in a deep, honest way; we’ve all felt lost and out of step with our lives at times—and identity is an ongoing evolution as we continue to explore our talents, desires and boundaries. Fernandes is an energetic treat as the confident extrovert Willie; the perfect match to the quiet Rose, Willie enjoys life’s simpler pleasures—but even he finds himself starting to ask questions. Ellul makes an adorably sweet and goofy canine pal with the loyal Love; struggling to be heard himself, even Love manages to push past his communication boundaries.

This multimedia, multidisciplinary musical features a multi-talented, multi-tasking ensemble, most of whom play several roles; not previously mentioned are Troy Adams, Michelle Bouey, Alana Bridgewater, Oliver Dennis and Raquel Duffy. Stand-outs include Bridgewater’s fierce Tina Turner-esque turn as the Lion Woman, in a powerhouse performance executed with style and impressive vocal chops. Grown-ups of a certain age will recognize Dennis and Duffy’s hilarious nod to Body Break as Trevor and Beth the Gym Buffs; and Dennis brings rock star charisma and presence as Billie the Lion. Rock gives us an endearing, comic performance as Miss Crisp, the patient, put-upon, high strung teacher.

rose-4
Raha Javanfar, Frank Cox-O’Connell & John Millard (foreground), with Raquel Duffy, Oliver Dennis, Peter Fernandes & Scott Hunter (background). Set, lighting & projection design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Alexandra Lord. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

The music makes a joyful noise—inspired by blue grass, folk, gospel, rock and traditional musical theatre—and features a tight onstage band in addition to the three musician loggers: Scott Hunter on bass, James Smith on keys and Adam Warner on drums. The songs will have your heart singing and get you on your feet as you cheer for Rose along her journey. Visually spectacular and sporting a vibrant palette, Lorenzo Savoini’s imaginative and practical set, lighting and projection design, and Alexandra Lord’s playful costumes, add to the magic.

Truly a musical for all ages, Rose has something for everyone—and, like the Lion Woman, you may even see yourself in our young hero. A name really does mean a lot. Say yours loud and proud!

Rose continues at the Young Centre until February 24; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

ICYMI: Check out this Intermission Spotlight by Robert Cushman on Mike Ross.

And here’s the production teaser:

 

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.

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.

Photo-featuring-Sascha-Cole-and-Audrey-Dwyer-by-Cylla-von-Tiedemann-2-1024x686
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.

Photo-featuring-Bilal-Baig-Anthony-Perpuse-Asha-James-Kyle-Orzech-and-Sascha-Cole-by-Cylla-von-Tiedemann-2-1024x614
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.