FireWorks Festival: Navigating the media circus in the face of profound loss in the moving, razor-sharp, thought-provoking Grief Circus

Bronson Lake & Alison Dickson. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Paige Foskett. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Bruce Peters.

 

Alumnae Theatre opened its second week of the FireWorks Festival last night, with Crystal Wood’s Grief Circus, directed by Paige Foskett. As moving as it is razor-sharp, this timely multimedia piece holds up a mirror to society’s morbid fascination, involvement and sharing in the death of strangers. A family has lost a beloved daughter and sister, an event that becomes fresh meat for the news and social media feeding frenzy. As they navigate the media circus that follows, mother and sister take very different paths to work through their grief.

Leah (Alison Dickson) speaks to us directly, our host and narrator as we witness scenes—sometimes in flashback—around the events of her older sister Jesse’s (Claire MacMaster) disappearance. Jesse’s body was later found in a ravine, and both Leah and her mother Carol (Bernadette Medhurst) find themselves in the spotlight of an often intrusive, uncaring news media—even confronted by a photographer (Jack Everett) on the steps of their small-town church when they attend Jesse’s funeral. In the aftermath, while Leah finds herself slogging through a callous, click bait world of modern news and social media, bombarded with ignorance and cruelty as she struggles to work through grief and loss, she is appalled to find her mother joining in—writing a book about the experience of losing her daughter, and working with PR folks to book interviews.

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Alison Dickson & Claire MacMaster. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Paige Foskett. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Bruce Peters.

Alternating between past and present, we see a 15-year-old Leah interacting with Jesse, who is her best friend, advisor, confidante and go-to source of info on the state of their parents’ shaky marriage; then a few years later being invited to a party with Jesse and her friends in Toronto, where Jesse disappears after leaving on her own. We see Leah go head to head with Carol over Carol’s making an industry of Jesse’s death; and the battle for Leah’s participation in a television interview, taking place the same day as her first day at university. And Leah has a meet cute with Charlie (Bronson Lake), an awkward but sweet university student; they go on a sort of date, but his motives are called into question when an altered recording of a chat he had with their server (Everett) turns up on the news, showing Leah in the worst possible light as the troubled sister of a famous dead girl.

Lovely work from the cast in this timely, moving and razor-sharp exploration of how news and social media can intrude upon and dishonour the departed, and have a profound impact on their loved ones. Dickson gives a stand-out performance as the whip-smart, introverted, wry-witted Leah; precocious, irreverent and wise beyond her years, Leah can be her own worst enemy as she keeps herself informed about world events—events that spark deep anxiety over the possibility of catastrophe. Conflicted about engaging with the Internet following Jesse’s death, what she finds there only serves to make her journey through grief more difficult.

MacMaster gives an energetic, luminous performance as the bubbly extrovert Jesse; the best big sister Leah could have, she’s super supportive and encouraging—balancing a respect for Leah’s boundaries with gentle pushes outside her comfort zone. Medhurst does a nice job with the conflicted Carol; a mother who’s lost her daughter, she deals with her grief the only way she knows how—honour Jesse’s memory so she won’t be forgotten. Lake gives an adorably awkward performance as the bashful Charlie; somewhat of an introvert himself, Charlie is interested in Leah, but unfortunately not very media-savvy. And Everett offers a great range of news media folk, from the intrusive jerk photographer at the funeral, to serious CTV reporter, to sleazy “journalist”.

Timely, moving and sharply funny, Grief Circus incorporates video and projected social media messaging (video design by director Foskett) to illustrate the scope of the family’s loss of a wonderful, energetic young woman—and the inappropriate, at times heartless, thoughtless and intrusive, response of the public. Strangers turning up at the funeral, or making comments in person or online; and, worst of all, the anonymous social media posters who cast negative, clueless aspersions about Jesse’s character—especially the trolls who say that Jesse had it coming.

Grief Circus continues in the Alumnae Studio Theatre until November 17; get tickets online, by calling 416-364-4170 (ext. 1) or in-person at the box office one hour before curtain time (cash only). There will be a post-show talkback with the director, playwright and cast following the Saturday, November 16 matinée performance.

FireWorks continues its three-week run until November 24, presenting a new show each week. The festival closes with Genevieve Adam’s If the Shoe Fits, directed by Heather Keith (Nov 20-24).

 

Toronto Fringe: Getting in & out of Scientology in the hilarious, heartbreaking, irreverent Squeeze My Cans

Cathy Schenkelberg. Sound & production design by Victoria (Toy) Deiorio. Photo by Michael C. Daft.

 

Squeeze My Cans presents Squeeze My Cans, the true story of Cathy Schenkelberg’s indoctrination into and exit from Scientology—a multimedia solo show trip that is by turns hilarious, heartbreaking, irreverent, infuriating and terrifying. Written and performed by Schenkelberg, and directed by Shirley Anderson, the show previewed at the St. Vladimir Institute last night and opens tonight.

When Nebraska-born, Chicago/LA-based actor, singer, voice-over artist Cathy Schenkelberg got on board the Scientology ship, she did—as many do—with the aim of self-improvement and spiritual awakening, to balance her life and career. Heart and mind open to a world of wonderful possibilities as she takes us with her on this journey, her eyes become open to the darker side of the organization and its negative impact on her life and relationships. Enthusiastic engagement turns to desperate anxiety as she undergoes audit after audit and takes course after course—even after she gets certified as “clear”. Spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, maxing out credit card after credit card; the constant criticism and monitoring—all under the guise of helping her achieve the next level of clarity and advanced state of being—send her into a spiral of emotional and financial ruin.

Discouraged, dismayed and angered by the hypocrisy of the organization—a hierarchy that favours celebrities, practises victim shaming and psychological manipulation— and heartbroken and ashamed of her detachment from her life and loved ones, participation turns to exit strategy as she makes a quiet exit.

Schenkelberg gives a brave, edgy and entertaining performance; touching hearts, minds and funny bones as she takes us on this deeply personal, harrowing and emotional ride. A compelling and engaging storyteller, the cast of characters she conjures makes for an excellent showcase for her kick-ass voice-over chops. The performance is adeptly complemented by Victoria (Toy) Deiorio’s projection design. And the “cans” in the title take on a double meaning: the portion of the E-meter that audit subjects squeeze as they respond to questions put to them by the auditor—the ultimate goal of the test is to make the needle on the meter “float”. And, as the show poster (design by Brett Newton Design Inc.) suggests—alien hands squeezing a woman’s breasts—there’s a titillating “fuck you” aspect as well; pushing back against the #MeToo element of assault by an entity that feels superior to the subject and entitled to take what it wants.

Scientology may have taken her money and a piece of her life, but it didn’t take Schenkelberg’s spirit. Her love of her daughter and parents, especially her father, bolstered her courage and resolve to get out and take her life back.

Squeeze My Cans continues at St. Vladimir Institute until July 13; check the show page for exact dates/times and advance tickets.

Keep an eye out for Squeeze My Cabaret, a musical cabaret version of Squeeze My Cans.

A family slogs through the fallout of mental illness & tragedy in the brutally honest, wry-witted And So It Goes

Left: Deborah Drakeford & Scott McCulloch. Right: Tyshia Drake & Dan Willmott. Set & costume design by Kelly Wolf. Scenic art by Ksenia Ivanova. Lighting design by Chin Palipane. Photos by John Gundy.

 

Kyanite Theatre presents George F. Walker’s And So It Goes, directed by Walker, assisted by Martha Moldaver—running in the Pia Bouman Scotiabank Studio. A brutally honest, wry-witted family tragicomedy, the play’s title was inspired by a line from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five; and delivers the signature Walker punch to the gut realism with a side of dark humour, to highlight a critical social issue—in this case, the impact of a child’s mental illness on an already struggling family.

Karen (Tyshia Drake) is tormented with thoughts of people out to do her harm, while her father Ned (Dan Willmott) struggles to make ends meet after getting laid off his job as a financial advisor; and mother Gwen (Deborah Drakeford), a former Latin teacher, is at her wits end trying to maintain order amid the chaos. Charged with several alleged assaults, Karen is diagnosed with schizophrenia, a finding she neither accepts nor complies with—refusing to take her meds, and shutting herself off from her well-meaning good cop dad and controlling bad cop mom. In the background of this family’s life is an estranged son, who we never meet, who left home when Karen’s condition began to emerge. And then there’s Gwen’s imaginary confessor/therapist Kurt Vonnegut (Scott McCulloch), who she confides in—trading contradictory thoughts between glasses of white wine as she grapples with the fear and frustration of a world that’s gradually falling apart.

The upbeat Ned goes back to school to earn a pastry chef certificate; but even his positive outlook can’t withstand the family tragedy and financial ruin that ensues. Sifting through the debris of their lives for a way out—and who is to blame—he too reaches out to Vonnegut for advice. And acquires a gun. Gwen finds new footing with Karen as she begins to loosen her vice-like grip on the carefully tended middle-class world she once knew. As Gwen and Ned’s lives spiral downward to hit rock bottom, Ned hardens and Gwen softens. And the only directions from there appear to be out or up.

Lovely, heart-wrenching work from this ensemble in this fast-paced “life’s cocktail” of laughter and tears, and how humans cope with the fallout of tragedy and the destruction of the world as they know it. Drake is heartbreaking as the tormented Karen, who knows that something’s not right, but refuses to accept her diagnosis. The paranoia and voices in Karen’s head torture and exhaust her—aptly mirrored by Jeremy Hutton’s sound design, which features rapid-fire sound bites about mental illness and the negative impact on the economy and productivity, as well as the pervasiveness of depression and its connection to the current unemployment/EI situation.

Willmott’s Ned is a big, lovable bear of a dad with an equally big heart; the protective “good cop” parent in this family dynamic, Ned stays positive despite his daughter’s illness and wife’s sharp criticism. But even his sunny disposition loses its shine as their lives take a desperate turn—and he must decide if he will apply equally desperate measures. Drakeford’s Gwen is aggravating and deeply poignant; bitter, exhausted and longing for things to get back to normal, Gwen is the bad cop and harsh realist of the family. Desperately trying to put this family’s broken life back together, Gwen’s hyper-rational, sharp edges melt as she begins to let go and look for a new way to live. And McCulloch is a wry-witted, debating delight as Vonnegut; playing Devil’s Advocate and acting as a sound board for both Gwen and Ned, the imaginary friend and ghost Vonnegut is filtered through the thoughts and perceptions of whoever summons him.

Guns or lemon tarts? When faced with personal tragedy in the face of a society that’s losing its social conscience and sense of civility, we have the choice to descend into darkness or rise up into the light. And strive to build a new world from the rubble. One thing’s for certain: we need to pay more attention and apply more care to those who are losing their lives to mental illness, unemployment and despair.

And So It Goes continues in the Pia Bouman Scotiabank Studio until May 26, with evening performances Wed-Sat at 8:00; and matinées on Sat, May 18 and Sun, May 26 at 2:00. Advance tickets available online or pay cash at the door.

In the meantime, check out Arpita Ghosal’s interview with actor Deborah Drakeford in Sesaya.

Three generations of women navigate life, love & those feelings “down there” in TIP’s hilarious, poignant, intimate Little Gem

Top to bottom: Rebecca De La Cour, Barbara Taylor & Billie Jean Shannon. Photo by Sean Walsh.

The Toronto Irish Players (TIP) opened their production of Elaine Murphy’s Little Gem, directed by Cliona Kenny, on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage to a packed house last night.

Drawing from the old tradition of the Gaelic storyteller (the Seanachai), Little Gem’s commentator device uses a Trinitarian approach—in this case, the story is told from the perspectives of three women: a granddaughter, a mother and grandmother from the same family.

Set in present-day Dublin, we open on Amber’s (Billie Jean Shannon) tale of the fateful night of her Debs (a city-wide high school prom), and the complex emotional dance of relationships with her boyfriend Paul and school teach-like bff Jo. Then, there’s her mother Lorraine (Rebecca De La Cour), a single mom, husband Ray long gone to who knows where, who works in a department store. She’s been forced to go on leave and see a shrink after she loses it on an extremely annoying and vindictive regular customer. And there’s Kay, Lorraine’s ma (Barbara Taylor), a breast cancer survivor and 24/7 caregiver to her husband Gem, struggling with an itch of her own.

Lovely, compelling—and endearingly comical—work from these three actors; each bringing her own brand of outspoken cheek, feistiness and strength to these characters. Shannon gives us a youthful, impetuous, and keen sense of social awareness and observation to Amber. Mouthy and full of teen sass and mortification, Amber’s a master at projecting an image of giving zero fucks, but there’s a tender, loving heart there that also longs to be loved. De La Cour brings a desperate housewife, poignant sense of resiliency to Lorraine. An anxious, exhausted member of the sandwich generation, Lorraine struggles to communicate with her distant teenage daughter, and worries about the well-being of her aging mother and seriously ill father; and she finds that she can’t stress clean away her own sense of loneliness and lack of a definitive life of her own. Taylor is a laugh riot and a force to be reckoned with as the family matriarch. Now in the winter years of life, there’s heat in that tired 60-something body yet—and Kay’s stubborn sense of resolve overcomes any sense of pride or shame as she actively, and at times hilariously, seeks solutions to her problems. Eschewing spoilers, I’ll have to leave it at that—and you’ll have to go see for yourself.

Life goes on for these three women; and unexpected events change the course of the day-to-day, forcing challenging decisions, personal growth, and acts of strength and courage. And, in the process, the lives of these three women—living separately together—are brought together into new and closer bonds of family and womanhood.

Nicely staged, on an effective and minimalist set featuring beautifully rendered charcoal family portraits (set by Bernadette Hunt and Sean Treacy), each character has her own playing area, with each storyteller staying within her own space until these inextricably intertwined lives gradually come closer together during the final scenes.

Three generations of women navigate life, love and those feelings “down there” in TIP’s hilarious, poignant, intimate Little Gem.

Little Gem continues on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage until March 3; advance tickets available online or by calling 416-440-2888. The Irish Players are an extremely popular local community company, so advance booking strongly recommended.

And no worries about thinking this is a “chick play,” the men were laughing as hard as the women. Having said that, it also struck me that, even though Mother’s Day is some months away, this is the perfect girls’ night out for women, their moms and grandmothers.