Doctor/patient relationship gets real as they exorcise demons in Criminal Girlfriends’ razor sharp, intense, darkly funny Fierce

 

Emmelia Gordon (top) and Marisa Crockett (bottom). Photo by John Gundy.

 

Criminal Girlfriends opened its intimate production of George F. Walker’s Fierce to a sold out house at Red Sandcastle Theatre last night. Directed by Wes Berger, assisted by Martha Moldaver, the new play bears all the classic Walker trademarks of tight, mercurial dialogue; quirky, complex characters; edgy, dark comedy; and surprising revelations.

Set in a psychiatrist’s office, Fierce puts us into a court-mandated session between patient Jayne (Emmelia Gordon) and doctor Maggie (Marisa Crockett). In order to avoid jail time for repeated disorderly and dangerous behaviour while on multiple drug-induced benders, Jayne must put in some couch time and get signed off by the doc. Jayne begrudgingly—and full of skepticism, insisting that she’s not an addict—attends the appointment, immediately throwing up walls of resistance as Maggie tries to get to the bottom of why the benders and the subsequent wandering into traffic.

Over the course of the next 75 minutes, the power dynamic shifts back and forth, and revelations emerge from both sides. Pushing for some personal give and take, and armed with some deep-dive research on Maggie, Jayne coaxes Maggie to tell her own story—which, while initially appearing to be a pain-in-the-ass move, becomes more about building trust. As each woman tells her story, they realize they have a lot in common: Both are survivors, with troubled pasts and criminal records. And both were drawn to occupations aimed at helping people (Jayne worked as a high school guidance counsellor). And while Maggie withholds details that come out later in the conversation, Jayne plays around with her story to the point that it’s hard to tell what’s true. And the session takes an even more unorthodox turn and, in a bizarre way, cements the bond that took root during their initial verbal sparring.

Brilliant, complementary performances from Gordon and Crockett, playing characters that are perfect foils for each other. Crockett brings a tightly controlled, almost prim, edge to Maggie; but, as we soon discover, there’s something more bubbling just below the surface there. Whip-smart and suffering no bullshit, Maggie is a straight-talking professional who gives as good as she gets; she’s tougher than she looks and genuinely wants to help. Gordon’s Jayne is part professional smart-ass, part unpredictable wounded animal; tough-talking and cagey, and deflecting with sarcasm, Jayne’s hard edges don’t entirely cover the deep-seated pain and denial. And when that mask starts to come down, we see a woman haunted by personal tragedy and in despair over not being able to do more.

It’s a complex, intense, at times disturbing, dance of revelation, confession and being real—as poignant as it is funny, and so very true to the mark. Walker is famous for writing about characters on the fringe of society, and while Jayne and Maggie are both what could be considered as white collar professionals, their shared histories of substance abuse, run-ins with the law and struggles with mental illness are a stark reminder that there’s more to people than meets the eye.

Bonus points for including Blue Oyster Cult’s Don’t Fear the Reaper in the rockin’ pre-show soundtrack.

Shifting power dynamic and a doctor/patient relationship gets real as they exorcise the demons in Criminal Girlfriends’ razor sharp, intense, darkly funny Fierce.

Fierce continues at Red Sandcastle Theatre until March 3. Check here for dates, times and advance tickets. It’s an intimate space and getting good buzz, so advance booking strongly recommended.

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NSTF: Giving the last word where last word’s due in the startling, sharply pointed, satirical JONNO

Jason Deline and Erica Anderson in JONNO. Costume design by Christina Urquhart. Set design by Chandos Ross. Lighting design by Steve Vargo. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Rabbit in a Hat Productions presents Alix Sobler’s JONNO, directed by Paul Van Dyck for the Toronto Fringe Next Stage Theatre Festival, running now at Factory Theatre.

JONNO was inspired by a famous sexual assault case that saw a popular Canadian radio personality put on trial—we all know who—and comes in the wake of subsequent sexual harassment and assault scandals that have called out Hollywood celebrities and, most recently, a prominent Canadian theatre artistic director. Delving into the mind of the perpetrator and providing a platform for the myriad complex responses from, and impact on, the survivors—the play speaks beyond any one particular case.

Jonno (Jason Deline) hosts a popular talk radio show; his rich, full tones open the episode with a spoken word essay, and his charming interview style doesn’t shy away from confrontation. One by one, we see his romantic encounters with women turn violent: feminist blogger Marcy (Erica Anderson), singer/songwriter Dana (Parmida Vand) and sex worker Bernadette (Glenda Braganza). The only witness is Mr. Donkey Long Ears (Allan Michael Brunet), a stuffed toy from his childhood who he shields from seeing too much.

When word of his actions goes public, he is visited by Maureen (Alanis Peart), a corporate rep from his employer who has some exploratory and pointed personal questions to ask. A self-professed feminist and lover of women, Jonno genuinely sees nothing wrong with what he’s done—he sees his sexploits as being simply imaginative and out of the ordinary.

The women he choked, hit, kicked and coerced into sexual activity would say otherwise. But, unlike Jonno, who’s perfectly clear and happy to rationalize the events surrounding the encounters, the women are left wondering what the fuck happened and try to make sense of it all as they second guess, struggle with self-doubt and give him second chances. And while the responses of the women are different, all are valid as they play over events in their minds and debate the situation with each other.

The shocking moments of sexual violence are balanced nicely by satirical scenes of corporate investigation, surreal conversations between Jonno and Long Ears, and some darkly funny girls’ night out debates over wine. And the imaginative, effective staging aptly illustrates the serial nature of Jonno’s behaviour, while creating space for the more playful, theatrical elements of the piece.

Amazing work from the cast on this sensitive and infuriating subject. Deline does a great job with the public and private faces of Jonno: the smooth-talking, accomplished, pro-woman radio host and the callous, violent and sociopathic misogynist. Brunet makes an excellent Long Ears; inspired by Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh, he is sweetly droopy and sulky—and acts as both witness and counsellor to Jonno’s actions. A childhood toy/imaginary friend, he is Jonno’s displaced conscience and child-like innocence—even, perhaps, humanity.

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Alanis Peart, Jason Deline & Allan Michael Brunet in JONNO. Costume design by Christina Urquhart. Set design by Chandos Ross. Lighting design by Steve Vargo. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

The women in the cast make for a powerful unit of their own. Like Jonno, these characters are attractive, intelligent and accomplished in their own right—and each takes the journey from victim to survivor in her own way. Philosophical and lyrical, Vand’s Dana strives to gain an understanding through conversation with Jonno. Anderson’s wide-eyed activist Marcy thrives in dialogue with fellow survivors—and finds her inner warrior as a result. Braganza’s Bernadette is sensuous, irreverent and outspoken; surprisingly conservative, Bernadette is a reminder to not judge a book by its cover. And Peart is a hilarious powerhouse as the mercurial, assertive Maureen, who fights fire with fire when she puts Jonno in the hot seat.

With shouts to the creative team for bringing this starkly real and magical world together: Christine Urquhart (costume), Chandos Ross (set), Steve Vargo (lighting), Richard Feren (composer and sound), and Jade Elliot (fight and intimacy coordinator).

In the end, while we may be able to muster a modicum of sympathy for the devil, we believe the women—and whatever personal history or demons Jonno may have do not excuse his actions.

Giving the last word where last word’s due in the startling, sharply pointed, satirical JONNO.

JONNO continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace till January 14; for exact dates/times and advance tickets, visit the show page.

The inescapable ghosts of the past meet tricks of the memory in the haunting, complex The Late Henry Moss

Anthony Ulc in The Late Henry Moss. Set design by Adam Belanger. Costumes by Janelle Joy Hince. Lighting by Steve Vargo. Photo by Curt Sachs.

 

Unit 102 Actors Co. takes us to an adobe shack in the middle of nowhere New Mexico in their intimate production of Sam Shepard’s The Late Henry Moss, directed by Scott Walker and running at their new home at The Assembly Theatre.

When Ray (David Lafontaine) arrives at Henry’s place after getting a phone call from his estranged older brother Earl (Mark Paci), their father (Anthony Ulc) is already dead, his corpse covered with a blanket on a cot. And when Ray presses Earl to repeat the details of the circumstances of Henry’s death, he gets the sneaking suspicion that something’s not right.

Earl got a call from Henry’s neighbour Esteban (Matthew Gouveia), who was worried about Henry’s welfare. We learn that Henry had a girlfriend named Conchalla (Jennifer McEwan), and a young Texan taxi driver (Michael Eisner) fills in the blanks about driving Henry on a strange fishing trip shortly before he died. Shifting back and forth between past and present as we see the story play out, we witness a tangled web of lies, secrets and selected memory unravel.

This is classic Shepard, featuring all the dark comedy, family dysfunction, alcoholism, secrets and haunting, conflicting memories—the stark realism tinted with moments of magic and poetry. The underlying sense of cruelty and violence starts at a slow boil, the heat getting turned up throughout with explosive results as inner demons are revealed and unleashed. In the end, the truth is both troubling, poignant and complicated.

Excellent work from the cast on this intense, intimate journey. Paci gives a compelling combination of a lost life lived in a state of exhausted estrangement and a longing to reconnect; there are things, moments, that Earl can’t bear to look at—but he finds himself unable to turn away from his dying father. Lafontaine’s tightly wound, mercurial Ray is the perfect foil for the more taciturn Earl. Menacing in his suspicion, and with a tendency towards cruelty and violence, Ray recalls bits of family history that his older brother has blocked—but memory is a trickster even for him.

Like Earl, Ulc’s Henry is a picture of haunted, hungover isolation; trying to forget, erasing his past with a bottle and a woman, Henry fears death as much as he courts it. McEwan is sensuous, mysterious and shaman-like as Henry’s girlfriend Conchalla; adding an otherworldly taste of magic, ancient tradition and heated romance—including some sexy choreography, with the dance illustrating their relationship—it’s like she’s acting as Henry’s guide to the next world.

Eisner’s taxi driver and Gouveia’s Esteban add some great—and much needed—comic relief. Eisner is adorably friendly and entertainingly cocky as Taxi; and, as Esteban, Gouveia is the sweet, guileless Good Samaritan with a lusty streak.

The inescapable ghosts of the past meet tricks of the memory in the haunting, complex The Late Henry Moss.

With shouts to the design team Adam Belanger (set), Janelle Joy Hince (costumes) and Steve Vargo (lighting) for transforming the venue into this blue and orange world outside of the rest of the world.

The Late Henry Moss continues at The Assembly Theatre until January 20; get advance tickets online.

 

The secret thoughts of grownups & the stories they tell in the gripping, darkly funny Mockingbird Close

Tiana Leonty & David MacInnis—photo by Jackie Brown Photography

 

When truth collides with fiction, who can you trust?

INpulse Theatre Co. presents the Toronto premiere of Trevor Schmidt’s Mockingbird Close, directed by Ryan F. Hughes and running at Red Sandcastle Theatre.

Iris (Tiana Leonty) and Hank (David MacInnis) live in a nice, clean split-level home on a nice, quiet cul-de-sac in a nice, safe, crime-free neighbourhoood. Their picture-perfect 1950s suburban life is turned upside down when their young son goes missing. Only, when they try to recall the day he disappeared, they can’t seem to get the story right.

As they conduct a door-to-door search on their street—the titular Mockingbird Close—we encounter their neighbours (all played by Leonty and MacInnis); and it’s dark comic portraits all around as we meet them. The vain, judgmental, hyper-religious, baking Lois Vent. Sidney Blackwell, the strangely charming older man with his prized train set in the basement and a bed-ridden wife upstairs. The attention-starved, “Mrs. Robinson” Mona Hobbs. The odd, soft-spoken Jarvis Jermaine. No one has any information on the missing boy—and all are concealing something. And then there’s the malevolent, mysterious older lady; the one the neighbourhood kids call “the witch.” There’s a dangerous, unsettling undercurrent on this street; and each of its inhabitants has a dark, hidden edge.

Incorporating storytelling with satirical fetishization of normalcy and wholesomeness, Mockingbird Close is part fairy tale, part psychological thriller—one might even say David Lynchian. What really happened? And did it even happen?

Leonty and MacInnis are a two-person master class in their performances, playing on the edge of send-up and nuance as they flesh out these secretive, discomfiting characters. Leonty’s Iris is a neat, prim and somewhat high-strung wife and mother; the perfectly coiffed wife in an emerald green cocktail dress who greets her returning husband at the door with slippers, the paper and a martini. And Leonty runs the gamut, from narcissistic and controlling Lois to desperately lonely seductress Mona. MacInnis is the picture of the flawlessly pressed professional and husband; precise and socially astute, he too is tightly wound—more of the ticking time bomb variety. He is eerily engaging as Sidney and creepily attentive as Jarvis. MacInnis and Leonty seamlessly tag team a single character as they take turns portraying the mysterious and manipulative dark lady behind the final door at the end of Iris and Hank’s search.

The secret thoughts of grownups and the stories they tell in the gripping, tension-filled, darkly funny Mockingbird Close.

Mockingbird Close continues at Red Sandcastle until September 16; get your advance tickets online or at the door an hour before show time. Advance booking recommended; it’s an intimate space and last night’s opening was a packed house.

Keep up with INpulse Theatre Co. on Facebook. You can also find them on Instagram: @inpulsetheatre and Twitter: @inpulse_theatre

Compelling storytelling in the riveting, edgy, darkly funny Slip

Clockwise, from top: Alex Paxton-Beesley, Daniel Pagett, Mikaela Dyke & Anders Yates—photo by Alec Toller

Circlesnake Productions remounts its production of Slip, collectively written by the ensemble and directed by Alec Toller—opening in the Tarragon Theatre Workspace last night.

Walking into what appears to be a crime scene—some of us walking through it to get to the bank of seats opposite the entrance—we become immersed in Jane’s (Mikaela Dyke) apartment. Pieces torn out of books, scraps of paper, post-its litter the floor and cover the walls; and there’s a banner with a strange interlocking symbol (set by Bronwen Lily, lighting by Wesley McKenzie). Jane lies dead in the middle of the floor, red hood pulled up covering her face.

Detective Lynne (Alex Paxton-Beesley) and her partner Mark (Daniel Pagett) assess the scene as they await the arrival of medical examiner Blake (Anders Yates). Is it murder or suicide? Perfectly matched, they work at piecing together a story for this incident, playfully one-upping each other in a private, quick-paced game as each comes up with theories and trajectories.

As the detectives sift through photographs and other evidence found on the scene, we see pieces of Jane’s story played out in flashback—inspired by a photo Lynne finds on a shelf: a relationship with a young black woman, one of two people witnesses saw entering and exiting the apartment. Marina (Nicole Stamp) is Jane’s ex-girlfriend, still on friendly terms and concerned about Jane’s welfare. And we learn that the young ginger-haired man seen in the vicinity turns out to be Chris (Yates), Jane’s brother.

Meanwhile, Lynne is a subject of particular interest in a tribunal investigating an incident where she and Mark pursued a perp into a darkened alley and shots were fired. And she’s in the dog house with their boss Passader (Stamp), who expects great things from her. Brilliant and known for her remarkable instincts, Lynne has been anxious and off her game lately. And it’s not just because of the tribunal—she’s been forgetting, losing her grip on her memory and sense of time. And the investigation into Jane’s death becomes personal—maybe too personal.

Outstanding work from the cast in this tale where crime procedural meets psychological thriller meets dark comedy. Paxton-Beesley and Pagett have amazing chemistry as the two detectives; dedicated and good at their jobs, Lynne and Mark are well-matched, riffing off ideas and theories with a playful, mercurial banter and a good-natured sense of competition. Beneath the professional, hard shell exteriors are two damaged souls. Paxton-Beesley (no stranger to playing detective—Murdoch Mysteries fans will recognize her as Murdoch’s childhood friend turned private detective Winifred “Freddie” Pink) gives a compelling, heartbreaking performance of Lynne’s journey; Jane’s story hits close to home—and the dawning realization of what will it mean for a beloved career she’s dedicated her life to. And Pagett reveals the softer, conflicted side of Mark; a man struggling with alcohol and having a ‘normal’ life when he goes home from the job. Supportive and loyal to Lynne, Mark can’t help but be suspicious and concerned about her recent erratic behaviour.

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Mikaela Dyke & Nicole Stamp—photo by Alec Toller

Dyke gives a moving performance as Jane; deeply troubled, fragile and lost, Jane reaches out in an attempt to reconnect with ex Marina, but can’t bring herself to tell her what’s wrong—revealing and mysterious at the same time. Her perceptions of family are in stark contrast with that of her brother; whose version of the story is true? Stamp shows some great range as the hard-ass, domineering Passader, who has big plans for Lynne and demands she doesn’t screw it up; and the loving, kind Marina who longs to be there for Jane, but whose care and compassion can only go so far. Yates is hilarious as the wisecracking ME Blake, who doesn’t particularly enjoy his job, but game for the quick-paced, sharp-witted exchanges with Lynne and Mark. And he brings an edge of pragmatism and deep-seated pain to Jane’s brother Chris.

The immersive staging puts the audience on either side of Jane’s apartment, giving us a fly-on-the-wall’s-eye view of the proceedings. Photographs and writings become jumping off points for flashbacks, revealing new pieces of the puzzle. Memory and story weave in and out—and stories intersect and combine to a stunning and heart-wrenching revelation.

Compelling storytelling in the riveting, edgy, darkly funny Slip.

 Slip runs in the Tarragon Workspace till April 2; advance tickets available online—strongly recommended as it’s an intimate space with limited seating.

In the meantime, check out the interview with director Alec Toller on Stageworthy Podcast with host Phil Rickaby.

Sympathy for the devil & debate on the nature of humanity in darkly comic, thoughtful Dead End

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Christian Smith, Ceridwen Kingstone & Chris Wilson in Dead End – photo by Samantha Hurley

Theatre Lab opened its production of Jonny Sun’s Dead End, directed by Michael Orlando, on Thursday night in the Factory Theatre Studio, where I caught it last night, along with a post-show talkback with Sun and Orlando.

Set in an isolated and claustrophobic fourth floor corridor of an abandoned high school during the zombie apocalypse, we’re introduced to the world of Dead End via voice-over (by Ceridwen Kingstone) – and in darkness. A wry, matter-of-fact, school announcement vibe, we’re told we’re lucky to be in the high school, which aside from being run-down and neglected, has largely escaped the ravages of the apocalypse. Unlike the neighbouring middle school, which was not so lucky. But even so, this hallway was once the sad and sorry student path to the math classrooms – and for some of us, that is pretty scary in itself.

Stumbling into this space, two young men (Christian Smith and Chris Wilson) fumble about with flashlights, searching the darkness for possible danger. For a while, they are contented that they are safe and zombie-free. But not for long. They are joined by a lone zombie (Kingstone), which is now blocking their way out. One man (Wilson) has a gun. But it only has one bullet left. Dark hilarity ensues as the two men try to come up with a plan to evade the zombie and get to safety. Oddly, the zombie appears to be disinterested in them.

This three-person cast does a remarkable job within the span of about 65 minutes, where discussion and debate ranges from death, attraction, sexual preference, gender, the five second rule – and, especially, the nature of zombie life. As the man with the gun (the characters have no names here), Wilson is the sharp, cynical dominant of the pair; edgy and quick to jump to conclusions, there’s a soft centre under there somewhere. Smith brings a whimsical, at times goofy, philosophical vibe to man without gun; not wanting to take things at face value always, he’s continually questioning the status quo and what they think they know. And Kingstone’s zombie is a masterpiece of sound and movement; with the character based on movement and groan directions in the script, she’s created a distinct personality – bringing humanity to an otherwise wretched and solitary, perhaps even lonely, creature.

Is a zombie an “it” or does it retain its human gender identification – and if the latter, how would you know? And, of course, you can’t speak of monsters without addressing the nature of humanity. And who is that last bullet for?

The show was followed by a short talkback, where we learned that playwright Sun got into theatre when he discovered he missed it while he was in engineering school; he’d been really involved in high school and got into writing sketch comedy at U of T. Dead End came from an exploration of anxiety and depression – particularly internal anxiety versus external stress – Sun found that comedy was a good way to work through stuff; and the last bullet decision is a metaphor for this exploration. Dead End started as a sketch, and Sun realized that there was more to say, so it went from five pages to the 65-minute one-act script we see today. A question about character names and gender came up; the zombie is played by a female actor, but is referred to as “he” (by man without gun, called No Gun in the script) or “it” (by man with gun, called Gun). The characters were written without names, just descriptions, and with no set gender in mind; gender is pretty much irrelevant. One audience member noted that the dialogue is “sporadic and naturalistic” in rhythm and tone, and wondered how much of the play is improv. The cast is strong with the improv force, so Orlando let them riff around the structure of the script, creating a different dynamic every time, but still hitting all the cues (which was a relief to SM Heather Bellingham, I’m sure).

With shouts to the creative team for their amazingly creepy, eerie atmospheric work on this production: Megan Fraser (SPFX) and Valentina Vatskovskaya (production makeup/hair), Melissa Joakim (lighting), Jason O’Brien (sound), Roselie Williamson (costume) and Louisa Zhu (fight director).

Sympathy for the devil and debate on the nature of humanity in darkly comic, thoughtful Dead End.

Dead End continues in the Factory Theatre Studio space until October 23; advance tix available online. Come on out for some good, creepy pre-Halloween fun with two guys and a zombie.

You can keep up with Theatre Lab on Twitter and Facebook.

 

Preview: June Cleaver goes to hell in hilariously dark, satirical & surreal Hot Kitchen/SECOND SHIFT

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Filament Incubator presents Raw Matter’s production of Hot Kitchen/SECOND SHIFT, written, directed, designed and performed by the Raw Matter ensemble, incorporating the writing of Sylvia Plath, Silvia Federici and Jean Genet. Opening tonight, I caught the preview at Kensington Hall (56A Kensington Ave., Toronto) last night.

When you arrive in the space, you’re immediately aware of all the pink. Up stage right is an enormous pile of laundry; stage left has a lush garden; and up centre is the kitchen, featuring a gas stove and counter. All very pink. Like old-school Barbie threw up all over that shit pink. Five women are already onstage, engaged in various household activities: laundry, baking, scrubbing the floor, beautification and gardening. The sound of a ticking clock. Loud. Merciless. Oh yeah, and there’s a baby doll on your chair; you’ll need that for one of the game shows later on.

Three of the women act as a chorus of house fairy-like beings; dressed in pale pink diaphanous dresses, their faces made up with shiny, metallic colours: Maybelline (Veronika Brylinska), Lysol (Alanna Dunlop) and Betty Crocker (Nicole De Angelis). They are the cheerleaders for traditional, old-school housewifery – the driving force in the nucleus of life, the home. In contrast, we see the growing frustration and irritation of M/Em (Daniela Pagliarello), who speaks with vivid, fierce poetry as she paces the garden like a caged animal. All the while, Powered by (Rebecca Hooton) works away at the laundry, seemingly oblivious to anything else.

This multi-media production draws on political, philosophical, technological and economic frames of reference in its presentation of various points of view on housekeeping, housewifery and womanhood. Throughout the hysterical absurdity of it all are some particularly entertaining and thought-provoking scenes: capitalism vs. communism in the Nixon/Khrushchev kitchen debates, featuring footage from that meetup; game shows, including one with group audience participation and another that sends up Let’s Make A Deal; and a beauty pageant – peppered throughout with variety show-style dance breaks. And things get really interesting when M/Em breaks free from her garden environment and bursts into the world of the house fairies, interrupting their delicate, light, “feminine” reverie. And far from being a passive entity on the sidelines, we see just how much this world relies on the efforts of Powered by.

Shouts to the Raw Matter ensemble for their incredible work on the writing, design and execution of this provocative and thoughtful piece. Brylinska brings a ferocious commitment to the otherwise superficial Maybelline; Dunlop’s Lysol is delightfully sassy; and De Angelis’s Betty Crocker is deliciously vacuous. As M/Em, Pagliarello is a housewife on the verge of a nervous breakdown, the lone voice of dissention that dares to challenge the Christian/capitalist status quo of housewifery. Hooton’s Powered by is silent, uncomplaining and diligent; and, ultimately, she shows us just how committed she is to – and how reliant the rest of the world is on – her work.

June Cleaver goes to hell in Raw Matter’s hilariously dark, satirical & surreal Hot Kitchen/SECOND SHIFT.

Hot Kitchen/SECOND SHIFT continues at Kensington Hall until October 1; it’s an intimate space, so you may want to book in advance. And don’t forget to throw the baby!