Family, blood & sins of the father in the compelling, darkly funny Tough Jews

Maaor Ziv, Blue Bigwood-Mallin, Luis Fernandes, Theresa Tova, Anne van Leeuwen, G. Kyle Shields & Stephen Joffe in Tough Jews—photo by John Gundy

Leave the gun. Take the kugel.

Storefront Theatre is back, this time partnering with The Spadina Avenue Gang to mount the world premiere of Michael Ross Albert’s Tough Jews, directed by Storefront founder/co-artistic director Benjamin Blais and running at Kensington Hall in Toronto’s Kensington Market.

Tough Jews was Albert’s graduate project about a family of Toronto Jewish gangsters; and, although it’s set in the late 20s and early 30s, the play speaks to issues of anti-Semitic and anti-immigration/refugee sentiments that are relevant today, especially given the influence of the current administration to the south, and the rise in hate crimes targeting Jews and Muslims on both sides of the border.

Set in the basement speakeasy, downstairs from the family’s shop and home in Kensington Market, Act one opens in 1929 on Yom Kippur, 10 days before the stock market crash. Overseen by the widowed family matriarch Ida (Theresa Tova), brothers Joe (Luis Fernandes) and Ben (Blue Bigwood-Mallin) take care of the family business running booze downstairs, while Teddy (G. Kyle Shields) runs the legit business upstairs. Kid sister Rose (Maaor Ziv) and Ben’s American fiancée Marge (Anne van Leeuwen) watch from the sidelines. Downstairs business with Detroit’s Purple Gang goes south when hothead cousin Ziggie (Stephen Joffe) interrupts negotiations. This prompts Ben to come up with an idea to get Rose’s dope-dealing boyfriend Harry (who we never see), to get in on the action; despite the family’s disapproval of Harry, Ben hopes to placate the Purple Gang with new, hard-to-get product.

Act two jumps ahead four years to 1933, a couple of months after Hitler becomes Chancellor of Germany and shortly after the Christie Pits riot. Joe and Marge have been living in Florida, but his business was hit hard by the Depression, and he’s returned home to Toronto. Ben has also just come home, just released from jail; and Rose has a three-year-old and some serious domestic issues at her house. Teddy has taken over the speakeasy in the interim, but is now using it as a hide-out after his involvement in the Christie Pits riot.

Family secrets emerge throughout; and serious, changing situations prompt some equally drastic decision-making and choices. How far will a marginalized, oppressed and desperate people go in order to survive?

Stellar work from the entire cast in this immersive theatrical experience where the audience has a fly-on-the-wall view of the proceedings. Tova is hard as nails, hilarious and heartbreaking as Ida, who recalls in sharp, painful detail the oppression of her homeland and the hardship of an ocean crossing. The dreams of a better life destroyed by hate and oppression in a new country, Ida takes charge with pragmatism, grit and wry wit; and with a laser focus on turning the family’s fortunes around. Fernandes gives oldest brother Joe a nice balance of calculating professional and protective man of the house. Dog tired and struggling to keep the family business afloat, Joe must also manage the less than friendly relationship between Marge and his family.

Bigwood-Mallin brings a great sense of spark and ambition to Ben; the only one who really wants to be a gangster, Ben is genuinely excited to expand the business, make connections in the U.S. and make more money. Shields does a marvelous job with Teddy’s arc; as the bookish, observant kid brother, Teddy is torn between being a good man and seeing their legitimate family business survive, and the struggle to survive in a harsh, unfair world that leaves his family few options. By Act Two, he’s grown up a lot in those four years; a changed man, he sees what’s going on in Germany—and how prejudice and hate know no boundaries—and it sickens him.

Ziv’s Rose is an irreverent spitfire; an independent-minded and often neglected member of the family, Rose does her best to make a life for herself, but finds new challenges outside the safety of the family nest. Van Leeuwen brings a regal edge to the platinum blond, leggy Marge; a dancer when Joe first met her, she’s now set on becoming a respectable wife and looking forward to enjoying the good things in life. Unable to stomach Joe’s family business, however, she retaliates by putting on airs. Joffe gives Ziggie a menacing, lost boy edge. Taken in by his aunt Ida as a child, Ziggie’s grown up into a dangerous punk with some serious anger and impulse control issues; and his choices make him a liability to the family.

With big shouts to the design team Adam Belanger (set), Melissa Joakim (lighting), Lindsay Dagger Junkin (costumes), Angela McQueen (makeup) and Miquelon Rodriguez (sound) for their work on the evocative, immersive environment; and to fight director Simon Fon, and co-stage managers Justine Cargo and Andrea Miller. Throughout the production, corpses will be played by Kyle Bailey, Daniel Briere, Gabriel Hamilton and David Lapsley. The bartender makes a mean Manhattan, with the good Jack Daniels.

Family, blood and sins of the father in the compelling, darkly funny Tough Jews.

Tough Jews continues at Kensington Hall till April 16 (enter through the back alley—follow the sandwich board sign); full schedule and advance tix available online]. Book in advance for this one, folks; it’s a popular company and there’s a lot of well-deserved buzz about this show—not to mention the intimate venue. Warning: Show contains gun shots and smoking (herbal cigarettes).

In the meantime, check out Brittany Kay’s In the Greenroom blog interview with playwright Michael Ross Albert and actor G. Kyle Shields, with director Benjamin Blais dropping by.

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Fond, foolish love & trickster shenanigans in the roaringly entertaining Twelfth Night

Shakespeare BASH’d continues its 2016-17 season with a ripping version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night; directed by James Wallis with associate director Drew O’Hara, and opening to a sold out house at the Monarch Tavern last night.

Set in the 1920s, and inspired by the music, speak easy atmosphere and carpe diem abandon of that decade, this version of Twelfth Night also hits notes of melancholy and the lost innocence of a society that’s just come through its first world war—self-medicating with jazz and booze, and grabbing love and happiness when and where they can.

Orsino (Shawn Ahmed) is deeply in love with Olivia (Hallie Seline), but she is in deep mourning for her father and now her brother, whose death occurred soon after. Meanwhile, Viola (Jade Douris) has washed ashore, surviving a ship wreck in which she fears her twin brother Sebastian was lost. Aware that she is a woman alone and setting foot on less than friendly territory, she disguises herself as a page named Cesario and goes to work for Orsino. Seizing an opportunity to utilize the pretty youth, Orsino sends Cesario/Viola to press his suit to Olivia—leaving Olivia smitten with Cesario, which is beyond awkward for Cesario/Viola, as she’s fallen in love with Orsino.

In Olivia’s household, her drunken uncle Sir Toby Belch (Daniel Briere), ignored suitor Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Jesse Nerenberg) and sassy gentlewoman Maria (Julia Nish-Lapidus) plot revenge on Olivia’s severe, proud steward Malvolio (Jesse Griffiths) with the help of the newly returned Feste (a female Fool in trousers played by Lesley Robertson) and the local parish priest Fabian (Augusto Bitter).

Meanwhile, we learn that Viola’s brother Sebastian (Jeff Yung) has survived the wreck; saved by the ship’s captain Antonio (Nate Bitton), now a good friend and devoted to Sebastian. And, of course, as this is Shakespeare, there’s a comedy of errors with the twins—and as it’s a comedy, it all works out in the end. But this is a comedy with dark undertones, particularly with the tricks played on Malvolio, which go from harmless prank to gas lighting; and there is an edge of wounded melancholy evident in all the characters.

Really nice work from the ensemble, who invite the audience along the journey, bringing us into this world. Stand-outs include Seline’s Olivia, a lovely and richly layered performance; a proud, strong woman, Olivia has sharp enough wit to match any man, but also a tender and fragile heart. Seline conveys as much from a facial expression as she does with the text. Griffiths does a great job with Malvolio; stiff and imperious, with a nasty, prideful underbelly, the self-righteous Malvolio is too self-involved and delighted to see what’s really going on when the others punk him.

Robertson drops the mic as Feste; hilariously witty and a master debater, she too has a soft heart—especially for Curio—and we get the sense that, beneath all her tomfoolery, she’s come through the war deeply hurt. And Briere and Nerenberg make for a very funny, odd team as the drunken, layabout Belch and awkward, clueless Aguecheek.

Speaking of tomfoolery, the letter reveal scene is particularly hilarious, with Belch, Aguecheek and Fabian rushing about to hide as they watch Malvolio read a love letter he believes to be for him from Olivia; as is the duel scene between the terrified Aguecheek and Douris’s adorably baffled and equally petrified Cesario/Viola.

Opening with music selections from the period—and featuring accompaniment (guitar, ukulele and piano), lovely vocals and original music by Franziska Beeler (as Curio)—there’s a sexy, jazzy vibe to this production; and nicely bookended with the dance number (choreographed by Douris) at the curtain call.

Fond, foolish love and trickster shenanigans in the roaringly entertaining Twelfth Night.

Twelfth Night continues at the Monarch Tavern until February 5; it’s a short run and they’re already sold out, but if you show up early, they may be able to squeeze you in. Please note the 7:30pm start time for evening performances; there are also matinees at 2pm on February 4 and 5.

Keep up with Shakespeare BASH’d on Twitter and Facebook.

Photo by Kyle Purcell: Jesse Nerenberg, Julia Nish-Lapidus & Daniel Briere, with Jesse Griffiths’ legs

The Devil went down to Old Montreal in the foot stompin’, magical Chasse-Galerie

chasse-galerie-01
Nicole Power, Kat Letwin, Hunter Cardinal, Tyrone Savage, Michael Cox, Tess Benger, Shaina Silver-Baird, Ghazal Azarbad & Alicia Toner in Chasse-Galerie – photo by John Gundy

Soulpepper opened the Kabin/Storefront Theatre production of Chasse-Galerie to a delighted full house at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto’s Distillery District last night. With book adapted by director Tyrone Savage, assisted by Janet Laine-Green; music and lyrics by musical director James Smith; and choreography by Ashleigh Powell, Chasse-Galerie is a big fun, immersive, multimedia adventure that twists, turns and entertains.

When we enter the theatre, we find ourselves in the Flying Canoe pub on New Year’s Eve, greeted by members of the band/cast and availed of bar service – when our narrator Lucy (Ghazal Azarbad) emerges to tell us a tale of the Chasse-Galerie, a folk tale of a wild hunt in which those caught up in its path join the hunt forever.

On another New Year’s Eve, four coureuses des bois (i.e., female lumberjacks) are cold, exhausted and nearly out of whiskey. Alex (Tess Benger) longs to see her sweetheart, the lovely golden-haired fiddle player Jaune; Lea (Nicole Power) misses her red-headed whiskey maker Michel-Paul; coincidentally, so does Michelle (Kat Letwin); and Toba (Shaina Silver-Baird) doesn’t have someone special, but pines for music and romance. Fondly remembering their favourite Old Montreal pub, The Flying Canoe, the four women are dying for a road trip. There’s just one problem: it’s a three-day trek.

Enter Damien (Tyrone Savage), disguised as a weary frozen stranger, who offers them a way to get their wish and travel to the pub in hours. But his magic comes with conditions and a price: they must not swear or touch a cross, and they must be back by dawn. If not, their souls belong to him.

The women agree to his terms and travel by magic flying canoe to Old Montreal; convinced they’ll be fine as long as they don’t drink – especially Michelle, who has the biggest potty mouth of them all. Alex sets off in search of Jaune (Alicia Toner), and Michelle finds the lusty Michel-Paul (Michael Cox) before Lea does. And Toba becomes smitten with the bashful band leader Francois (James Smith), who is equally taken with her and gives her a fiddle lesson. Meanwhile, Lea meets a handsome cowboy who speaks in Shakespearian verse (the angel Uriel in disguise, played by Hunter Cardinal). To ensure that he reaps those four souls, Damien enlists Lucy’s assistance to foil our four heroines at every turn.

All hell breaks loose in the pub and dawn is fast approaching. When all seems lost, Toba challenges Damien to a fiddle duel to save her friends. And you won’t believe what happens next!

Incorporating animation, puppetry, songs and folk dance – not to mention a butt load of Québécois swears, including a very catchy audience participation tune at the end of Act I – Chasse-Galerie is one big fun musical ride of adventure and friendship, featuring performances from an outstanding multi-talented cast. Everyone sings and everyone plays an instrument (in Smith’s case, more than one); the excellent band is rounded out by Justin Han (drums) and Jason O’Brien (bass).

Benger’s Alex is sweet and pious; she may be a virgin, but Alex is full of fierce passion and love for her Jaune. Letwin is hilariously irreverent as Michelle; hard-drinking and a master at cursing there’s a soft gooey centre beneath that tough exterior. Power’s bespectacled Lea is the level-headed brains of the group; and when she finds herself struggling with the prospect of lost love, she gets some unique advice from Uriel about what to do about her love triangle situation. Silver-Baird’s Toba is the peacemaker of the group; not expecting to find love at The Flying Canoe, she is put in the difficult position of choosing between her dream and making it home on time to save her own soul and those of her friends.

Savage is deliciously diabolical as Damien; comic and compelling, Damien’s dead serious when it comes to this deal – and he needs these souls as much as the four women want to keep them. Azarbad is cabaret sexy and delightfully mischievous as Lucy; our storytelling host and Damien’s right-hand minion, she excels at manipulation and even gets on a bit of romancin’ of her own.

With huge shouts to the design team for this remarkable, immersive environment: Lindsay Dagger Junkin (set and props), John Leberg (scenic magic), Holly Lloyd (costumes), Melissa Joakim (lighting), Andre Stankovic (sound) and Daniel Briere (projection and puppetry).

The Devil went down to Old Montreal. A singin’, dancin’, whiskey drinkin’ helluva good time in the foot stompin’, magical Chasse-Galerie.

Chasse-Galerie continues the Young Centre; get your advance tix online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666. it won’t be there forever though – so what are you waiting for?

Update (Nov 17): The run of Chasse-Galerie has been extended, with new shows just added:

  • Tuesday, Nov. 29 – 8:00pm
  • Wednesday, Nov. 30 – 8:00pm
  • Thursday, Dec. 1 – 7:00pm
  • Thursday, Dec. 1 – 10:30pm

Get a sneak peek in the behind-the-scenes video:

SummerWorks: Delightful, magical story time with Unintentionally Depressing Children’s Tales

children's talesThis year’s SummerWorks has been full of opportunities to see and hear some imaginative, unique pieces of storytelling – and Erin Fleck’s Unintentionally Depressing Children’s Tales, directed by Maya Rabinovitch, is a brilliant example.

A young man brings light to his darkened town. A very cranky pony named Heathcliff falls in love with the mistress of the household at his new home. A man named Sam is fascinated by the post. The ghost of a murdered young woman haunts an opulent underwater ballroom.

The audience is enveloped in the atmosphere of story time; the Studio of the Lower Ossington Theatre has been transformed into a large tent made from bed sheets, with quilts, blankets and cushions creating part of the audience seating space on the floor, and a small table with a lamp and various curios. An overhead projector presents several images, with multiple transparencies causing images to morph: three stag heads become three stag skulls; a clock appears and dissolves; and a cuckoo clock materializes, followed by framed pictures, a window and a table in a quiet room.

Then, using transparencies and overhead projection, and paper articulated shadow puppets, four tellers retrieve a sheaf of paper from various places in the room and read the stories. And they are marvelous – the stories and the storytellers. With shouts to puppeteers/tellers Talia DelCogliano, Erin Fleck, Michelle Urbano and Brian Webber. The cast also includes a roster of guest narrators: Glyn Bowerman, Sascha Cole, Marcus Jamin and Jordi Mand (I believe Jamin was the guest last night).

With shouts to the design team: Sarah Fairlie, Fleck and Daniel Briere (puppets), Roxanne Ignatius (set) and Pip Bradford (lighting); and to Fairlie for video art direction and Brad Casey for music direction.

Unintentionally Depressing Children’s Tales is a delightful, magical piece of storytelling fun – quirky, darkly funny and thoroughly enjoyable.

There’s one more performance: tonight (Sun, Aug 17) at 7 p.m.