Toronto Fringe: A new mom’s fears come to life in the hilariously candid, deeply poignant Night Feed

Corinne Murray, with puppet fur bunny and puppet baby. Puppet construction by Shawna Reiter & Jonathan Davis. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Canvas Sky Theatre gets us up in the middle of the night with Sarah Joy Bennett’s hilariously candid, deeply poignant Night Feed; running in the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace. Directed by Bennett and associate director Ginette Mohr, with puppetry direction by Shawna Reiter and guest puppetry direction by Mike Petersen, everyday household objects come to life as a new mother’s self-doubt, fears and anxieties surface from her sleep-deprived mind as she breast feeds her newborn.

New Mother (Corinne Murray) is up in the middle of the night nursing her baby (puppet, operated by Murray), who struggles to latch on properly to get enough to eat and gain some weight. In her exhausted state of mind on the couch at 4 a.m., everyday objects around her living room start coming to life (courtesy of puppeteers Ginette Mohr and Sarah Joy Bennett) to taunt, tempt and tell her she’s just not up for this whole motherhood thing. She’s up every hour to feed the baby, she can’t remember when she last washed her hair, she can’t reach that glass of water on the side table without upsetting the baby—and she doesn’t know a lullaby!

Anything and everything can, and does, become a puppet here—in some cases by design or just regular objects, manipulated to move and speak. Concerns about neglected personal hygiene and appearance emerge as the Mother’s hair, breasts and even vagina speak to her. And the fur bunnies (puppets) accuse her of slacking off on the housekeeping, really sticking it to her with mentions of her mother and grandmother’s accomplishments in this regard—represented by two quilts hanging over the back of the couch, as thoughts of the mothers before her become both critical and comforting.

Scholarly books bemoan that she hasn’t gotten to them, while children’s classics preview the promise of shared readings to come. The Internet presents all manner of ridiculousness, especially on Pinterest. And surely the baby will be fine on its own while she goes for a bike ride—oh, but the sutures. Highlights include a book on breast feeding (Mohr) that cheerily chirps on about how easy and vitally important nursing your baby is, while passive aggressively damning the use of formula. And What to Expect (Mohr) gets into an all-out brawl with a bottle of Jack Daniels (Bennett) when it tries to tempt the mother to a drink. And the breast pump—best real object turned puppet ever! And did you know that, regardless of sex, we all have a vagina puppet (also, who knew she was French)? You’ll just have to go see for yourselves to see what I mean.

Lovely work from the cast as they run the gamut of new parent concerns. Murray is comically poignant as the Mother; struggling with self-doubt on a few hours of sleep a day, she’s able to brush off some fears and self-criticisms, while others land like a punch to the gut. And Mohr and Bennett are a diabolically hilarious tag team of postnatal torture as they give life to the objects around the Mother—showcasing some fine character voice chops in the process—and in some cases flanking her (in matching pj’s) to bring her inner voice to life as rookie maternal self-doubt and fears emerge.

In the end, the Mother knows she’ll falter, but she’ll do the best she can—be present, love, nurture—and the lullaby will come.

Night Feed continues in the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace until July 14; check the show page for exact dates/times and advance tickets. This show has been selling out, including last night’s performance, so advance booking is a must.

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Toronto Fringe: Reaching back & out to overcome loneliness in the entertaining, heart-wrenching The Big House

Tracey Erin Smith. Set and lighting design by Steve Lucas. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

There’s nothing like a family dinner to bring out the best and the worst in us; and maybe even an insight or two on the nature of loneliness. SOULO Theatre founder/A.D. Tracey Erin Smith takes us on her deepest, most personal storytelling journey yet in the entertaining, heart-wrenching The Big House, directed by and co-created with Sarah Garton Stanley; running in the Factory Theatre Mainspace.

Set during a Passover Seder, Smith has invited her family to her small apartment as she  seeks a way to overcome loneliness during the holiday. A fraught family history and long-held resentments burst out around the dinner table. And then, branching out from this gathering, memories from childhood and the recent past: her father’s incarceration when she was seven, and a unique volunteer experience at California’s Kern Valley maximum security men’s prison in 2018, where she provided feedback on inmates’ ideas for starting up their own business after they get out. Beyond being a common colloquialism for jail, “big house” is also the large Forest Hill home her mother was forced to downsize from with two small children after Smith’s father went to jail. Forced confinement and forced exodus—both huge, life-changing events.

Believing that everyone has a story to tell and making a safe space for that to happen, Smith walks the talk as she dives deep into the messy, wonderful place that is the human soul to discover what hidden gems of wisdom she may find there. Smart, funny and insightful as she shifts from character to character, her performance is vulnerable, edgy and full of chutzpah—delivered with heart, charisma and even a song or two as she takes us along to witness these unfolding moments along the road to realization and release. A gentle storyteller even at the roughest of times, Smith takes us by the hand even as she takes her seven-year-old self by the hand.

While it’s possible to find contentment in being alone, there’s also the hesitant outreach of loneliness in a crowd. We need to be able to tell the difference. And common ground and genuine connection—as well as love and forgiveness—can be found in unexpected places. We just need to be brave enough to go there.

The Big House continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until July 14; check out the show page for exact dates/times and advance tickets. Advance booking strongly recommended; Smith is a popular performer—and the house was packed at last night’s opening.

In the meantime, give a listen to this Classical FM 96.3 interview with Smith on Oasis, hosted by Mark Wigmore.

The power of love, music & colour in the visually rich, magical, ground-breaking The Black Drum

Corinna Den Dekker, Dawn Jani Birley, Yan Liu & Daniel Durant. Set & props design by Ken Mackenzie. Costume design by Ruth Albertyn. Makeup by Angela McQueen. Video & projection design by Laura Warren. Lighting design by Chris Malkowski. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Commissioned and produced by the Canadian Cultural Society of the Deaf, the Deaf Culture Centre presents the world premiere of Adam Pottle’s Deaf musical The Black Drum,* in partnership with Soulpepper at the Young Centre. Directed by Mira Zuckermann, assisted by Jack Volpe, with movement and choreography by Patricia Allison, The Black Drum combines signed music, dance, movement and projected imagery to tell the story of a woman’s journey through loss and grief to find the power of her inner music, as her tattoos come to life and launch her into a strange, dark world dominated by a sinister force. The result is a visually rich, magical and ground-breaking piece of storytelling.

As the story begins, we are introduced to the Minister (Bob Hiltermann), a sinister and controlling presence who dominates a world devoid of music, laughter, love and freedom. Meanwhile, performing artist Joan (Dawn Jani Birley) is reeling from the loss of her beloved wife Karen (Agata Wisny), inconsolable as her roommates Bree (Yan Liu) and Oscar (Daniel Durant) try to reach through her grief. Propelled into the world of the Minister, Joan’s tattoos Butterfly (Liu) and Bulldog (Durant)—beauty and strength—come to life.

In this dark, grim and desolate place, Joan encounters the Minister’s reluctant lieutenant Squib (Natasha C. Bacchus) and Ava (Corinna Den Dekker), who dances with a group of children (Jaelyn Russell-Lillie, Sita Weereatne and Abbey Jackson-Bell). Ava tells Joan that the Minister controls this world, a place between life and death, with magic—his black drum (drum accompaniment by Dimitri Kanaris), the embodiment of his empty black heart. And Joan also learns that Karen is the Minister’s prisoner. Charged with using her colour and music, Joan sets out with her friends to defeat the Minister and free her beloved from his clutches.

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Agata Wisny & Bob Hiltermann. Set & props design by Ken Mackenzie. Costume design by Ruth Albertyn. Makeup by Angela McQueen. Video & projection design by Laura Warren. Lighting design by Chris Malkowski. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Hiltermann brings a nightmarish, supernatural edge to the menacing, arrogant Minister; his sharp-featured white face mirrored by the spooky talking head projections that flank the stage—occasionally speaking they guide us through the story (voice acting by Raquel Duffy and Diego Matamoros). Birley’s performance as Joan beautifully weaves the devastation of grief with the perseverance of resistance as Joan strives to free Karen, despite the fact that she’ll never be able to get her back.

Lovely work from a supporting cast that hails from all over the globe; Liu’s Butterfly is both balletic and delicate, with a feisty will that doesn’t back down from a fight; and Durant brings comic relief as the tough, yet sweet and big-hearted, Bulldog. Den Dekker’s meek and timid Ava reveals inner strength as her longing for freedom for herself and her dancing children turns into action; and Bacchus’s Squib may be a hard-ass soldier serving the Minister, but is as much under his control as the others, and would choose otherwise.

Visually stunning, magical and moving, this Deaf-led, ground-breaking piece of storytelling resonates; both allowing Deaf audience to experience their culture on stage, and giving hearing audience a new perspective on how a story can be presented and communicated. Hearing audiences are used to using their ears to hear the music and dialogue; here, we see and feel the music, the vibrations physically resonating through our bodies and the rhythms dancing across our minds—all aimed at our hearts. And it’s a compelling reminder, for all of us, that love, colour and music are powerful weapons against the dark forces that haunt our everyday lives.

The Black Drum continues at the Young Centre until June 29; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

*Note: This production is presented with Written and Voice Synopsis & Audio Assist Devices and is accessible to non-ASL audiences.

Absurd, uncomfortable & ultimately human interactions in the darkly funny, unsettling Little Menace: Pinter Plays

Diego Matamoros, Alex McCooeye, Gregory Prest & Maev Beaty. Set & costume design by Shannon Lea Doyle. Lighting design by Simon Rossiter. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Soulpepper opened its darkly funny, unsettling buffet of short Pinter plays at the Young Centre last night with Harold Pinter’s Little Menace: Pinter Plays, directed by Thomas Moschopoulos; and featuring 10 short pieces played out in 14 scenes over the course of 90 minutes. The short, pointed examinations of human interaction are at times absurd, uncomfortable and even surreal—and, in the end, ultimately human.

Little Menace: Pinter Plays features Trouble in the Works, Last to Go, Special Offer, That’s Your Trouble, New World Order, Victoria Station, Apart from That, The Press Conference, The Basement and Night; New World Order appears twice, switching up the actors and the scenario, and Apart from That is played out in four variations, aptly bookending the performance. The impressive four-member ensemble includes Maev Beaty, Diego Matamoros, Alex McCooeye and Gregory Prest.

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Alex McCooeye & Gregory Prest. Set & costume design by Shannon Lea Doyle. Lighting design by Simon Rossiter. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Ranging from the bizarre in the hilarious mundanity of the workplace in Trouble in the Works (played with bang-on dead pan and impressive articulation by Matamoros and Prest) and the unlikely but tempting weirdness of Special Offer (a wry, incredulous Beaty, playing a high-level professional); to the sharply funny failures to communicate in Apart from That (all four actors, in four different pairings of beautifully awkward, polite exchanges where no one really says anything) and the ‘Who’s on First’ vibe between dispatcher and taxi driver in Victoria Station (Matamoros as the gruff dispatcher at his wit’s end and McCooeye as the child-like, simple driver), Little Menace highlights the awkwardness and missed connections in our day-to-day communication.

The discomfiting scenarios of personal and political dominance in The Basement (ensemble), the menace of terrible things to come in New World Order (McCooeye and Prest in a thuggish turn that goes from darkly funny to plain dark when they switch up roles and include Matamoros as a hostage in the second incarnation), and the sharply funny satire of a civil servant working in the culture sector in Press Conference (featuring a chilling matter-of-fact Matamoros as the civil servant) look at the darker sides of human connection. And the lovely nostalgia of Night highlights how even cherished reminiscences between a loving couple (Beaty and Matamoros, in a beautifully quiet, intimate performance) can be mixed up or forgotten altogether.

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Diego Matamoros & Maev Beaty. Set & costume design by Shannon Lea Doyle. Lighting design by Simon Rossiter. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Stellar, compelling performances from the ensemble in this intimate, often raw series of short plays—showcasing the range of the talent on stage in performances of authentic nuance and intense rawness. Nicely supported by the sharply modern, sterile—open concept, yet claustrophobic—set and neutral grayscale of the costumes (both designed by Shannon Lea Doyle); and Simon Rossiter’s shadow-casting, modern aesthetic, sometimes intensely interrogative, lighting design.

What’s real? What’s true? What the hell is going on? Even in the most everyday, mundane situations, we’re a strange lot; and there’s a lot that goes on between the lines and in those awkward silences as we get caught up in our own fears and the various eccentricities of our inner worlds. And that’s a huge part of what makes us human.

Little Menace: Pinter Plays continues at the Young Centre until March 10; advance tickets available online, or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

 

A tale of a cycle set on repeat in the sharply funny, compelling Iphigenia & the Furies (on Taurian Land)

Virgilia Griffith. Set, costume & props design by Christine Urquhart. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Saga Collectif, with the support of Obsidian Theatre, presents Ho Ka Kei’s (Jeff Ho’s) sharply funny, compelling, genre-bending adaptation Iphigenia and the Furies (on Taurian Land), directed by Jonathan Seinen, assisted by Jay Northcott, and featuring live sound design by Heidi Chan. The well-worn tale of a cursed family and a cycle of vengeance evolves as reunion turns to betrayal, and the oppressed become the oppressors—running now in the Aki Studio at the Daniels Spectrum.

Once a princess and now a priestess, Iphigenia (daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, and sister to Elektra, Orestes and Chrysothemis) has been snatched from the jaws of death by sacrifice to serve at the Taurian Temple of Artemis—ironically, where she prepares subjects for human sacrifice. The Chorus (PJ Prudat), a disgruntled sister of the temple, was passed over for promotion in favour of Iphigenia—all because she is nameless.

Meanwhile, Orestes (Thomas Olajide) and his lover Pylades (Augusto Bitter) have arrived on the shores of this land, taking refuge in a cave. Pursued by the Furies since he murdered his mother in vengeance for the murder of his father, Orestes has found a way out of his torment; instructed by Apollo, he seeks a sacred statue, which he must steal from the Taurian Temple of Artemis.

When Orestes and Pylades are captured by the temple guards, Orestes is reunited with his sister Iphigenia—and the three hatch a plan to get the statue and escape back home. Ever watchful, the wary and suspicious Chorus learns of the scheme. How will this cursed, privileged family’s awareness and actions evolve now that they’ve tasted oppression? Can an equitable compromise be reached between the dominant and marginalized?

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Augusto Bitter, PJ Prudat, Virgilia Griffith & Thomas Olajide. Set, costume & props design by Christine Urquhart. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Exceptional storytelling as the ensemble brings this tale to life—featuring a contemporary framing in tone and language, and a POC and Indigenous cast—combining the ancient and the modern, comedy and tragedy, with expert timing, no-holds-barred edge and brutal honesty. Griffith’s Iphigenia is confident, irreverent and circumspect; accepting her ironic fate with razor-sharp humour, Iphigenia feels for the humans she prepares for sacrifice, but begrudgingly accepts it as her lot. Olajide’s gives a cocky, playful and lusty performance as Orestes; tormented and desperate, Orestes is excited and determined to see his mission to its completion. Bitter brings an adorable, endearing sense of sass and pragmatism to Pylades; supportive of his lover Orestes, Pylades isn’t just a side-kick, he’s a true partner. And Prudat’s Chorus is rich with the insight, awareness and poignancy of the outsider in this group of characters; one of the many nameless “savages” in this Taurian land, the Chorus gives us the perspective of the marginalized—and how the story plays out again and again.

Iphigenia and the Furies (on Taurian Land) continues at the Aki Studio until January 20; get advance tickets online and go see this.

Political satire with extra bite in the hilarious, astutely observed 1979

Philip Riccio. Set design by Steve Lucas. Lighting design by Nick Blais. Projection design by Scott Reid. Costume design by Jennifer Lee Arsenault. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

The 1979 Group presents Michael Healey’s 1979, a razor-sharp, satirical look at Joe Clark’s brief tenure as Prime Minister, the budget vote that was the beginning of the end for his minority Progressive Conservative government, and the shift in Canadian Conservative politics—directed by Miles Potter and running at the Berkeley Street Theatre Downstairs.

Set in the Prime Minister’s impressive wood-panelled office (set by Steve Lucas, with lighting by Nick Blais), 1979 imagines the events around December 11, 1979—the fateful day the new Progressive Conservative government presented its first budget. It’s a big day for fledgling PM Joe Clark—the “nobody” from Alberta who beat Pierre Trudeau and the Liberals in the June 1979 election (though it could easily be argued it was a rejection of Trudeau and the Liberals, as opposed to an outright win). Clark’s minority government is scrambling for numbers on the budget vote (which includes a widely hated gas tax) amidst a Liberal opposition coalition with the NDP, and assholes among its own ranks. And on top of that, Clark and his Minister of External Affairs Flora MacDonald are coordinating an extremely sensitive life and death mission with the CIA to sneak six Americans out of the Canadian embassy in Tehran and get them safely back home.

A hilarious, quick-paced distillation of events and the political climate of the time, 1979 both embraces and parodies its real-life characters. Philip Riccio gives a classic comic straight man performance as Clark, suitably outfitted in a bland light brown corduroy suit (costumes by Jennifer Lee Arsenault). There’s an exterior calm that belies the screaming frustration within, as he patiently endures constant interruptions from various Parliament Hill colleagues throughout, finally getting a brief moment of respite and privacy when his wife Maureen McTeer drops by. Determined to do good for everyone in Canada—and not just those who voted for him—he eschews political gamesmanship for doing what’s right. Undervalued, underestimated and ignored, Clark perseveres even at the risk of losing his job and his party’s re-election.

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Christopher Hunt as Pierre Trudeau. Set design by Steve Lucas. Lighting design by Nick Blais. Projection design by Scott Reid. Costume design by Jennifer Lee Arsenault. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Christopher Hunt and Jamie Konchak do a remarkable job playing the cast of characters (of both genders) who burst in and out of Clark’s office; brilliantly supported by Arsenault’s artful costuming, including some impressive quick changes. Most notably, Hunt gives hysterical performances as the bombastic, hyper-tense, sewer-mouthed John Crosby, bursting through the door like an angry bull, sweating over the budget; and a perfectly self-absorbed, flamboyant and arrogant Pierre Trudeau, as much in love with his own celebrity as he is with the acquisition of power (accompanied with hilarious groovy-ness by Thomas Geddes’ sound design). Konchak is a plucky delight as the warm, smart and savvy Flora MacDonald; as well as Clark’s lovely wife McTeer, who’s navigating bar exams while supporting him personally and professionally. Konchak also brings us shades of things to come for the Conservative Party, with her slick, shrewd leader-in-waiting Brian Mulroney; and a wide-eyed, awkward young Stephen Harper, included in a scene of artistic licence—a harbinger of the self-serving, politics-spewing Conservative Party of Canada on the horizon.

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Jamie Konchak as Stephen Harper & Philip Riccio as Joe Clark. Set design by Steve Lucas. Lighting design by Nick Blais. Projection design by Scott Reid. Costume design by Jennifer Lee Arsenault. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Even if you’re not up on Canadian political history, 1979 is an entertaining and eye-opening trip, supported by projected text (projection design by Scott Reid), as well as a timeline at the back of the program, that will keep you up to speed about who’s who and what’s what on Parliament Hill. Encapsulating the political climate of the time with irreverence and astute observation, the play serves as a chilling remembrance of the death of “Progressive” for the Conservative Party of Canada, and the fact that Clark—a man who seems to be too decent for a political career in this environment—was steamrollered by a system that values politics over policy, and a party that was veering right of centre.

1979 continues at the Berkeley Street Theatre Downstairs until January 27; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416-368-3110.

Portrait of a family in messy, human shades of grey in the intimate, intense, complex What I Call Her

Charlie Gould & Ellie Ellwand. Lighting design by Imogen Wilson. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

In Association—which led a sold-out production of Ellie Moon’s Asking For It last season—partners with Crow’s Theatre once again, this time with the world premiere of Moon’s intimate, intense and complex What I Call Her, directed by Sarah Kitz and opening to a sold-out house at Streetcar Crowsnest last night. Exploring a family dynamic of abuse, estrangement, grief and reconciliation, What I Call Her gives us the messy—ultimately human—blacks, whites and greys of family relationships shaped by trauma, conflicting memory and divergent lived experiences.

Estranged from her mother and younger sister Ruby, and recovering from childhood abuse at the hands of her mother, English MA student/writer Kate (Charlie Gould) now finds herself navigating the myriad mixed emotions of her mother’s impending death. Triggered by her mother’s distant death bed, as well as her mother’s startlingly contrasting history of abuse, abusive behaviour and philanthropy for survivors, Kate starts writing a frank obituary for her mother. Her supportive, live-in boyfriend and women’s ally Kyle (Michael Ayres) acts as her anchor, sounding board and Devil’s advocate on the idea of posting it on Facebook.

When Ruby (Ellie Ellwand) surprises them with a late-night arrival at their apartment, the family conflict—in particular, Ruby’s contradictory and hugely different experiences of childhood and their parents—gets too close to home. While Ruby’s appearance sparks Kate’s rage over the family’s denial of her experience, she’s got some anger to unpack as well; and the sisters face-off over their shared history and their mother’s desire for a death bed reunion and subsequent redemption.

The finely-tuned three-hander cast of What I Call Her plays out the various levels of family conflict in a series of contrasts—in moments of quiet and explosion, trauma and comfort, remembering and forgetting—turning the blacks and whites of family history, memory and corresponding emotional/psychological responses into complex, messy and profoundly human shades of grey.

What I call her 1 - Michael Ayres, Charlie Gould - by Dahlia Katz
Michael Ayres & Charlie Gould. Lighting design by Imogen Wilson. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Gould’s broken, neurotic, sharply intelligent Kate can be self-involved, but also self-aware; and Kate’s self-professed knack for hyperbole is matched only by her lonely, hopeless sense of familial gaslighting. As Ruby, Ellwand is both adult and baby sister; brutally honest and perceptive, but needing support and validation. While Ruby’s directness with Kate tends toward cruelty, she desperately needs Kate right now. And Aryes’ Michael is that sweet, #MeToo woke good guy you want to see your sister with. Michael’s calm, quiet demeanour is a perfect foil to Kate’s mercurial outbursts of emotional activity—but, caught in the middle of and pushed away from this family war, and exhausted from keeping Kate from spinning off, even he can only take so much.

It’s especially noteworthy that Kate and Ruby’s mom, who is a fourth but unseen character in this piece, has a history of family abuse—both she and her own mother are survivors. And while it’s no excuse for her verbal and physical abuse of Kate, it’s a reason. The Kates of the world need be able to tell their stories; and as contradictory to the experiences of other family members and painful as these stories may be, they need to come out so real reconciliation and redemption can begin.

What I Call Her continues at Streetcar Crowsnest until December 8; advance tickets are available online. It’s an intimate venue and the show is getting a lot of well-deserved buzz, so booking ahead is strongly recommended.