Beliefs, perceptions & connections in the intimate, otherworldly John

Photo by Dahlia Katz: Nora McLellan, Loretta Yu, Phillip Riccio & Nancy Beatty in John

 

Everybody knows someone named John.

The Company Theatre tells a compelling story with its Canadian premiere of Annie Baker’s John, directed by Jonathan Goad in his directorial debut, running at Canadian Stage’s Berkeley Street Upstairs Theatre.

Entering the space, we find the set enclosed in a semi-circle with red curtains, and it’s not until Mertis (aka Kitty) (Nancy Beatty) enters to draw the curtains are we able to take it in. The revealed space is the common living room and dining area of Mertis’s B&B in Gettysburg—and we become immediately immersed in this world, almost out of time and space.

Knick knacks, dolls, stuffed animals and all manner of chachkas fill the space. Antique dolls, a miniature village, angel and animal statuettes, and the like line the shelves and tables, along with a number of lamps. Prints, and even cookie tins, adorn the walls. In the corner near the front door is a Christmas tree, covered in lights, but without decorations or a star. Twinkly lights glow throughout the two rooms; and an Eiffel Tower sits on one of the small café tables in the dining area.

Throughout the course of the action, Mertis advances the hands on the grandfather clock, as night turns into day and into night again as the days go by. Classical music plays on the miniature jukebox that sits on top of the upright piano, also operated by Mertis, who also closes and opens the curtains surrounding the space at the close and start of each act. We’re being let into this world, but on condition.

Young couple Elias (Philip Riccio) and Jenny (Loretta Yu) arrive at the B&B later than expected that night, receiving a warm welcome from Mertis, who gives them a tour. They’re surprised when the room they booked isn’t available, and their host seems edgy and vague about some leak issue, but they happily accept the upgrade to another room at no extra charge.

As the scenes unfold, we witness increasing tension between Elias and Jenny, and we learn that they’re not just on this trip to take in Gettysburg’s history and points of interest. They’re trying to fix their broken relationship. Jenny is receiving a lot of texts, which she says are from her sister, but Elias is skeptical to the point of obsessed suspicion about their true origin.

There is something strange and almost unreal about the B&B and its host. Mertis seems a quiet and introverted, but eccentric, soul; with a fondness for knick knackery, she has an ethereal, spiritual vibe about her. More than meets the eye, we find out that she has a husband, George, who we never see. Married for 13 years, it’s her second marriage.

Added to the mix is Mertis’s friend Genevieve (Nora McLellan); blind, with a gravelly voice and gruff manner. She too was married once, but left her husband in the mid-60s only to find he’d followed her and taken over her soul. Concerned she was losing her grip on reality, she checked herself into a mental institution.

Fears and sources of dread emerge as the characters share personal anecdotes. Elias has a phobia of birds. Jenny grew up thinking her dolls and stuffed animals were sentient beings—and one doll in particular haunts her memory. Even the B&B has an edge; the chachkas seeming to be watching from the dark at night, and the Christmas tree lights keep going off inexplicably. Mertis believes that the house, which served as a Union army hospital during the Civil War, has a personality of its own—and that certain rooms can be temperamental. And the second floor always seems to be cold, which makes you wonder.

Mental illness, reality and relationships are called into question—nothing is as it seems. Who or what is watching; and who is being watched? Baker leaves it to us to decide what’s real, what’s true and what’s going on.

Marvellous work from this four-hander cast. Beatty gives the soft-spoken Mertis a lovely, eerie edge. One gets the impression that the Christmas tree could be up all year round. What’s with that journal Mertis keeps? And what’s going on with George? At one point, you’re wondering if he actually exists. McLellan’s Genevieve is a delightful puzzle of kookiness, sharp observation and loving friend; at one point, she sounds like a paranoid schizophrenic—but then you think, if you think someone’s out to get you, it might actually be true. Like Mertis drawing the curtains and turning the clock, Genevieve draws us into this world—and is the only character that speaks to us directly.

Riccio’s Elias is a complex combination of uptight and neurotic, wounded and longing. At first, you think he’s being paranoid about Jenny’s communications; but as the play unfolds, you begin to wonder if he’s right to suspect. And Yu’s Jenny reveals a darker edge under that adorably spontaneous, child-like exterior. Struggling to understand where Elias is coming from, she feels abandoned and is possibly acting out as a result. Which are the lies and which are the truths? And is her anxiety about her dolls and toys the result of a guilty conscience?

Whether its origins lie in religion, family and relationship history, or a perceived connection with the universe, for each character, there’s a belief in an unseen presence watching, directing—in some cases, taking over, rewarding and punishing.

With big shouts to the design team: Shannon Lea Doyle (set/costumes), Kevin Lamotte (lighting) and Michael Laird (sound) for their outstanding work on creating this strange and spooky world.

Beliefs, perceptions and connections in the intimate, otherworldly John.

John continues at the Berkeley Street Upstairs Theatre until February 19; online tickets and info here. Go see this.

Sin of the father in the deeply moving, spiritual, revelatory acquiesce

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Rosie Simon & David Yee in acquiesce – photos by Dahlia Katz

Factory Theatre joins forces with fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre Company to open Factory’s 2016-17 season of diverse voices speaking to the Canadian experience with David Yee’s acquiesce in the Factory Theatre Mainspace, directed by Factory Theatre A.D. Nina Lee Aquino.

Writer Sin Hwang (David Yee) struggles with moving beyond the success of his first novel and a troubled past with his estranged father Tien Wei (John Ng). Learning from his ex-girlfriend Nine (Rosie Simon) that his father has died, he finds himself being summoned to Hong Kong for the funeral by his cousin Kai (Richard Lee), who is acting as Tien Wei’s executor.

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Richard Lee, David Yee & Rosie Simon in acquiesce

Half Chinese, and with little knowledge of Chinese cultural tradition, and not able to speak or understand Cantonese, Sin soon finds himself adrift in culture shock as he learns from Kai that he has duties to perform as the eldest son. From there, Sin embarks on a reluctant journey of family, roots and spirituality as he navigates the traditional burial rites, as well as moments of memory, hallucinatory visions and symbolism that feature conversations with a ribald Paddington Bear, a hilariously insightful monk and his ex.

Lovely performances from the cast, with Ng and Simon playing multiple characters. Yee does a wonderful job mining Sin’s flippancy and arrogance for the repressed pain that lies beneath; with scars that go far beyond skin deep, Sin tries not to care but finds that he must – not just for his own sake, but for his father. As Sin’s cousin Kai, Lee brings a great combination of terse fastidiousness and tender care aesthetic; a stickler for propriety and rules, and with a dry humour that takes some getting used to, he has his own familial bitterness to deal with.

We don’t see much of Sin’s father Tien Wei, but Ng gives us a solid glimpse into a man who has his own demons to battle; a harsh, gruff and dark-humoured man, his last Will and Testament is his way of reaching out to his son across years of pain and separation. And Ng is a comedic delight in his quirkier, fun roles as Sin’s airplane seatmate and the frank, pithy, jokester monk. Simon’s Nine is quick-witted and frank; a lovely, supportive girlfriend but no doormat to Sin, she tells it like it is and will only take so much of his self-absorption. Simon brings the comedy as the stern librarian and the overly cheerful funeral home attendant.

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John Ng & David Yee in acquiesce

With shouts to Robin Fisher’s set and Michelle Ramsay’s lighting design; austere and monolithic, the set features some cool, practical sliding drawer furniture pieces, the lighting adding to the otherworldly atmosphere as it highlights the scenes. And to Michelle Bensimon’s beautifully haunting, evocative composition and sound design.

Sin of the father in the deeply moving, spiritual, revelatory acquiesce.

acquiesce continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until Nov 27; advance tix and ticket info available online.

You can keep up with Factory Theatre on Twitter and Facebook; and with fu-GEN on their Twitter and Facebook pages.

Taming the Shrew like it’s 1989 in sharply witty, playfully bawdy, LGBTQ+ Bard’s Bus Tour

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Geoffrey Armour & Siobhan Richardson – photo by Dahlia Katz

Driftwood Theatre Group launched its annual Bard’s Bus Tour earlier this month, this time with a 1980s Toronto Pride take on William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Driftwood Artistic Director D. Jeremy Smith and running this week at Toronto’s Withrow Park.

A challenging play to produce for modern-day audiences, given its dynamic of patriarchal dominance tinged with misogyny, Smith and company decided to take the opportunity to present the play from a contemporary point of view, exploring themes of identity, consent and equality.

Set in 1989, Lucentio (Fiona Sauder) and Tranio (Paolo Santalucia) travel from small-town Ontario to Toronto to experience the sights, sounds and possible romantic entanglements of Pride. Upon their arrival, they witness a family matter gone public, as Baptista (Renée Hackett) engages in a battle of words with Hortensio (Drew O’Hara) and Gremio (played by various company members, in mask), both would-be suitors to her youngest daughter Bianca (Tahirih Vejdani). Baptista refuses to let anyone marry Bianca until her eldest daughter, the wild Katharine (Siobhan Richardson) is wed first, an edict which prompts Hortensio to enlist the aid of his old friend Petruchio (Geoffrey Armour), newly arrived from Hamilton, recently furnished with a great inheritance after his father’s death and seeking a wife.

In the meantime, Lucentio has fallen for Bianca, and they* and Tranio devise a plan to woo her, whereby they switch identities so Tranio can present Lucentio as a tutor to Baptista’s household. Meanwhile, Petruchio and Hortensio have hatched a similar plan, placing Hortensio as a music teacher. The initial spark between Petruchio and Katharine becomes apparent as they begin a game of wits and dominance. They marry on the day of the Pride Parade, and he immediately takes her away to his home in Hamilton where he begins the process of taming her as the two test their boundaries. Add to this wacky mix are two Vincentio’s (Lucentio’s father): a pedant enlisted by Tranio to play the part in order to validate the dowry offer and the real Vincentio, who arrives searching for his child.

Artfully staged, with a minimalist set comprised of modular, movable Tetris pieces (designed by Smith), and utilizing commedia dell’arte masks (for Gremio, Vincentio and the various servants, each played by various members of the company), puppetry, inventive props, and outrageous and colourful 80s costuming (Melanie McNeill), Driftwood’s The Taming of the Shrew challenges our preconceived notions of this play in a battle of equals, loving who they want to love and how they want to love.

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Paolo Santalucia & Fiona Sauder – photo by Dahlia Katz

Shouts to an outstanding ensemble, with its high-energy performances and totally rad a cappella renderings of favourite 80s pop tunes (arrangements by Tom Lillington). Armour is both charming and rough as Petruchio, a ruffian with a loving disposition beneath the lusty denim and flannel exterior. Richardson is fierce and unforgiving as the neglected Katherine, whose heart longs for love beneath that scrappy attitude; she consents to soften under her husband’s direction as they set the terms for their relationship of equals. Sauder is adorably love-stricken and determined as the floppy-haired cutie pie Lucentio; and Vejdani’s Bianca is a small but feisty gal under the good little sister exterior. Hackett is a strong negotiator and drives a hard bargain as the noble, put-upon mother Baptista; and is hilarious as Petruchio’s laid-back servant Curtis. Santalucia is a delight as the sharp-witted, mercurial and flamboyant Tranio; and O’Hara gives a hilarious turn as the spurned and opportunistic Hortensio.

Taming the Shrew like it’s 1989 in Driftwood Theatre’s sharply witty, playfully bawdy, LGBTQ+ Bard’s Bus Tour 2016.

The Taming of the Shrew continues at Toronto’s Withrow Park until this Sunday, July 24 – please note the 7:30 start time. Toronto performances include the following extras:

July 20: Pre-show chat (6:45 p.m.) with Dr. Nikki Cesare Schotzko, University of Toronto

July 21: Intermission show by 80s throwback a cappella band Retrocity; post-show chat with the actors

July 22: Pre-show chat (6:45 p.m.) with Headmistress Shaharazad

Shrew then moves on to various locations across Ontario till August 14; check here for cities, dates and seat reservation info.

*In this production, the part of Lucentio has been cast to be gender fluid, identifying as neither male nor female; therefore, the pronoun “they” is used.

Interview with Jennifer Neales on #HERstoryCounts theatre project

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#HERstoryCounts Artistic Producer Jennifer Neales – photo by Dahlia Katz

Actor/Artistic Producer Jennifer Neales has assembled a company of talented creators, producers and mentors to create an exciting new theatre project, set to premiere at Red Sandcastle Theatre April 22-24. #HERstoryCounts is an indie Canadian production, presenting a series of autobiographical monologues that bring to life personal stories of “endurance, strength, loss, survival, and love that push the boundaries of what is often expected of womyn on stage. . . Real stories told from each of our different perspectives.” I asked Neales about the project and the team behind it.

LWMC: Hey, Jennifer – thanks for taking some time out to talk about #HERstoryCounts. What can you tell us about the genesis and inspiration for this project?

JN: It’s such a pleasure for me to talk about #HERstoryCounts. It is absolutely my most favourite project to date. The project began to take form at the end of 2015. I had just come back from tour as an actor in trey anthony’s play ‘da Kink in My Hair: Girls in Red Lipstick Tour, which taught me about standing in my truth even in the face of adversity, and trey, her partner Janet, and I went to see an incredible piece of theatre called Nirbhaya #endthesilence curated by Nightwood Theatre. This piece of theatre sparked in me something that I didn’t know was there. It ignited a fire in my belly so hot that I had to create something. #endthesilence. Wow. Womyn’s voices are still being silenced all over the world. Here. In Toronto. In our families. Within our educational system. In judicial institutions. EVERYWHERE.

In the middle of January, Matthew Jocelyn announced the 2016-17 season for The Canadian Stage and there was not one person at the creation level (creators, writers, directors) who identified as a person of colour. And, the response to the outrage that so many of us felt was that they would be “casting diversely.” For myself, and so many other theatre artists, that was no longer good enough. What we REALLY need is diversity of perspective. That’s when I knew my production would be #HERstoryCounts. Our inaugural production features womyn from all different backgrounds writing their own stories. Real stories from lived experiences.

LWMC: And what made you decide to choose a monologue format?

JN: I chose to use a series of monologues because in this way, each of the womyn, who are all so wonderfully different, could tell their own stories. I wanted this production to be more than just one voice, to have more than just one writer.

LWMC: You have an impressive group of creators, producers and mentors for the launch of this project. Who’s onboard with you – and how did they become involved?

JN: I am so grateful to every single womyn who is on board with #HERstoryCounts. Creating their own work is Evangelia Kambites, Susan A. Lock, Sundance Nagrial, Janet Romero-Leiva, Tennille Read, Ordena Stephens-Thompson and Kelly Wilk. I have worked with or have seen these womyn on stage, and have always been impressed with their talent and their commitment to telling the story in front of them. I personally asked for these womyn. The mentors I have on board are trey anthony, who has hired me on a number of occasions to act in her shows in Toronto and on tour, and is a very dear friend; Anusree Roy, whose work has always inspired and excited me, and someone who has always been so kind to me; and finally, Melanie Hrymak, (also a creative over-seer) who I have worked with only once before, but whose work I have followed since that time, and someone I consider a friend. My Stage Manager and fellow artistic over-seer is the accomplished Franny McCabe-Bennett, my Assistant Stage Manager and Assistant Producer is the fabulous Jenna Borsato, and my last artistic over-seer is Melissa Major, an accomplished playwright, theatre company owner, and performer.

LWMC: #HERstoryCounts gets its inaugural production April 22-24 at Red Sandcastle Theatre. Is this going to be the first of many such productions?

JN: Yes, I see #HERstoryCounts as a movement. Here in Toronto, all over Canada, and hopefully on tour internationally. My goal is to have different voices on stage, different perspectives on stage for each production.

LWMC: You’re crowdfunding for this production on Indiegogo. Are there any other ways folks can support #HERstoryCounts?

JN: YES!!! Word-of-mouth is how most things get done, and for #HERstoryCounts it is no different! Spread the word! I would be so honoured if people would share the link with their networks – reach out to anyone and everyone who has any sort of pull and knows the worth of supporting womyn in theatre.

LWMC: Anything else you’d like to shout out?

JN: I would like to give a massive shout out to screen-writer, director and producer Kate Johnston, who offered her assistance in preparation for the Indiegogo Campaign video pitch script. I would also like to acknowledge my amazing friend and digital producer Meg Norton, who made the filming and editing that much easier by offering her advice and know-how.

Finally, I want to say thank you to each of the incredibly brave and astounding womyn working on this project with me. Their courage and enthusiasm has caused such beautiful things to happen already. This is not a show you want to miss. These are womyn everyone should know, and work with.

LWMC: I’d like to finish with James Lipton’s Pivot questionnaire. What’s your favourite word?

JN: Bugger-face (my wife is British 🙂 )

LWMC: What’s your least favourite word?

JN: The mispronunciation of supposedly – “suposably”

LWMC: What turns you on?

JN: My wife. 😛

LWMC: What turns you off?

JN: Accepted ignorance.

LWMC: What sound or noise do you love?

JN: The two gentlemen playing the violin and the accordion so often at Yonge and Bloor station.

LWMC: What sound or noise do you hate?

JN: Metal scraping across flooring.

LWMC: What is your favourite curse word?

JN: Asshole.

LWMC: What profession other than your own would you like to pursue?

JN: Professional horseback rider.

LWMC: What profession would you not like to do?

JN: Any profession where you have to carry/use weapons.

LWMC: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

JN: You did good, girl.

LWMC: Thanks, Jennifer. All the best with #HERstoryCounts. Look forward to seeing it at Red Sandcastle.

JN: Thank you so much!

 

Keep an eye out for #HERstoryCounts at Red Sandcastle Theatre (Apr 22-24); in the meantime, give the project a like on Facebook.

Toronto Fringe: Beautiful slow dance of intimacy & memory in Ninety

William MacDonald & Nicole Fairbairn in Ninety - photo by Dahlia Katz
William MacDonald & Nicole Fairbairn in Ninety – photo by Dahlia Katz

Saw another lovely two-hander at Toronto Fringe yesterday: Naked Goddess Productions’ Canadian premiere of Ninety, written by Joanna Murray-Smith and directed by Mercy Cherian – running at the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Mainspace.

Isabel (Nicole Fairbairn, also the show’s producer) and William (William MacDonald) meet for 90 minutes in Isabel’s flat before William leaves to get remarried. Former lovers, now divorced, they meet to say the things previously left unsaid – and as they do, we witness them relive key moments in their lives together through shared memories, happiness and tragedy. It is erotic, funny and heartbreaking to watch them run out the clock in the final moments together.

Tender and passionate performances from Fairbairn and MacDonald. Fairbairn’s Isabel is crazy vivacious, sexy and creative – and extrovert who lives life at full speed ahead and loves to tease, playfully torment, even. Working at restoring a painting, she has a patient appreciation for the painstaking process, noting the evolution of the image as the couple on the canvas becomes clarified and more vivid. Rather like the unfolding of this meeting with William. MacDonald’s William is a cocky, charming extroverted introvert, an actor and former drama teacher who’s hit the big time on the small screen. Compelling chemistry between these two actors as they play out the love, loss and reunion of these characters struggling for closure and forgiveness.

With shouts to Lisa Sciannella’s set and costume design.

Ninety is a beautiful slow dance of intimacy and memory, featuring lovely performances from Fairbairn and MacDonald.

Ninety has two more performances at the TPM Mainspace: July 9 at 7:30 p.m. and July 11 at 12:00 p.m.

Toronto Fringe: Brave, sexy & frank talk about women’s joy of sex in Slut

slut_poster_image-7968Beer in a Glass Productions’ presents Erin Thompson’s Slut, directed by Dahlia Katz and running at the Annex Theatre as part of Toronto Fringe. Not used in a pejorative way, the “slut” in the title is used thematically – it’s one of the labels used to describe women who enjoy sex – and we get to meet and hear the experiences of such women throughout the course of Thompson’s one-woman show.

Based on real-life events, and using elements of ritual, mythology, storytelling, movement (with choreography by Ayesha Mansur) and song, Thompson plays key character Diana, who reveals the various women to us. A five-year-old who enjoys the forbidden game of showing her vagina in exchange for her best friend showing his penis; a painfully shy and hopeful teen; a party girl world of one-night stands, a taste for dirty talk and kink; a woman who wants to have a baby and settle down with her own kind of chosen family.

Accompanied by Apollo (Robert Steven Wilkinson) on keyboard and vocals, Slut features original songs written by Thompson and Wilkinson, highlighting each woman’s life experiences, and choices to love and express love. Thompson’s performance is deeply human, open, honest and entertaining – engaging the audience and gently challenging preconceived notions and stereotypes. And maybe even evoking understanding and acceptance.

Slut is a brave, sexy and frank one-woman history of women’s joy of sex.

The show continues at the Annex until July 12 – check here for exact dates/times. Advance tix or lining up early highly recommended.

 

Science, politics & egos collide – Measure of the World @ FireWorks

fireworks-bannerAlumnae Theatre Company opened their FireWorks program this past Wednesday, a new three-play repertory program of original works developed in conjunction with Alumnae’s New Play Development (NPD) group or the New Ideas Festival.

Science, politics and egos collide amidst the passion of discovery and desire for freedom in Shirley Barrie’s Measure of the World, directed by Molly Thom.

The play follows the work of a French expedition, guests of the Spanish government as they strive “to measure the length of a degree of the earth’s arc at the equator near Quito (at the time part of Peru)”* – and determine the exact shape of the earth. Three alpha male scientist egos come to loggerheads as Godin (Paul Cotton), Bouguer (Jason Thompson) and De La Condamine (Michael Vitorovich) struggle with the harsh terrain – extremes of heat and cold, across jungle, swamps and mountains – local government bureaucracy and even their own academic institution over the course of a multi-phased project that takes years to accomplish. All closely observed by the beautiful and mysterious servant Florenza (Jessica Zepeda).

A strong ensemble cast deals with the tech speak well – the mathematical equations and make-shift survey equipment are fascinating if not highly academic. It is the drive and passion of these characters that is particularly interesting – and Vitorovich and Zepeda stand out in this regard. Careers and livelihoods are not all that’s at stake for these characters, it’s freedom – to pursue the work they love without restraint and to return home. For Florenza, it’s freedom from slavery.

No one is as he or she appears – and one can only imagine what further secrets, both personal and political, simmer beneath the surface. It also struck me that Florenza embodies the secrets of this new, Spanish-controlled world. Secrets that the scientists, as French citizens and men, wish to uncover.

The set design (set and lighting by Ed Rosing) was created to accommodate all three plays for the FireWorks program. Neutral shades of beige and pale army green were used on the multi-levelled set, with show-specific furniture and props used to fill in the details. Lighting and, especially, sound (sound by Gabrielle D’Angelo) were tailored for each show, as were costumes (Bec Brownstone). Minimalist and effective, the design serves the overall program in an effective and understated way, allowing the individual plays to dominate the space. With shouts to producer Dahlia Katz, who did triple duty (she was also the production photographer and came out to work on the painting crew).

Measure of the World continues to run in rep with two other plays (Gloria’s Guy, by Joan Burrows/directed by Anne Harper; and Theory, by Norman Yeung/directed by Joanne Williams) until December 1. Check the Alumnae website for exact performance dates and times for each show.

*From Shirley Barrie’s program notes.