Big surprise romantic gestures, coming together & falling apart in the endearing, fragile, funny I’m Doing This For You

Haley McGee in I’m Doing This For You—photo by Matthew Peberdy

 

She’s gone to great lengths to set up a surprise birthday party for the man she loves, an aspiring standup comic. We’re all invited to the festivities—and we’re going to be his audience.

Soulpepper closes its Solo Series with Haley McGee’s I’m Doing This For You, directed by Mitchell Cushman; the show opened to a packed house at the Young Centre in Toronto’s Distillery District last night.

Combining storytelling, improv and performance art, McGee gets us from the get go. Dressed in a bright orange vintage dress and wearing a bleach blonde wig, she’s a woman on a mission. She’s invited us to the theatre to celebrate her man’s birthday—and be his first major standup audience. Checking in with stage manager Robin (Munro), and making the rounds to ensure that everyone’s had their shot of vodka, she’s a flurry of super planning activity. And as we sit waiting in the dark for his arrival, she explains what will happen and we get ourselves ready to welcome him.

He’s running late, so the lights come up and we get some history. Her ever alert ear on the door, pricked by any possible sound of entry, she tells us how this engineer/amateur comic caught her attention. He made her laugh. And she really needed that. She finds it difficult to commit and—navigating emotional highs and lows on medication—we hear about how she made herself fit into the relationship so she could keep it.

Of course, things went astray. When he finally does arrive (the ex-boyfriend is played by a different actor each night), things don’t go exactly as planned—and even fantasy can betray. But there’s mini-cupcakes.

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Haley McGee in I’m Doing This For You—photo by Matthew Peberdy

McGee is a powerhouse of storytelling and entertainment, connecting with us in this immersive space. Conveying focus that shifts from razor sharp to scattered, a fragile psyche, and an endless capacity to feel hope and despair, she gives a quirky, genuine performance that is both entertaining and poignant. Touching on issues of relationships, mental health and obsession, I’m Doing This For You highlights the difference between needing and wanting a romantic partnership, and how we can be really attracted to something about someone even when we’re not that into them. And the crazy things we all do to maintain or avoid intimacy, and the regrets and after thoughts that go through our minds when it’s over. This woman is a super kooky, fun gal who’s seriously derailed herself—and we really come to care about her during this 65-minute journey.

With shouts to lighting/set/props designer Shannon Lea Doyle for the trippy performance art set, full of white and transparent balloons. Combined with McGee’s retro costume, the design is a flashback to Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In (for those of us old enough to remember that sketch comedy show).

Big surprise romantic gestures, coming together and falling apart in the endearing, fragile, funny I’m Doing This For You.

I’m Doing This For You continues in the Michael Young Theatre in the Young Centre till this Saturday (May 6); this show is for adults aged 19+ (proof of age required) and booking in advance is strongly recommended. Get your advance tix online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.

Catch a sneak peek at I’m Doing This For You:

 

 

Shades of red & blue in the tapestry of interwoven lives in the beautiful, theatrical Of Human Bondage

Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann: Gregory Prest & Michelle Monteith in Of Human Bondage

 

It’s all in how a man carries himself.

Soulpepper opened its remount of Vern Thiessen’s stage adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage at the Young Centre on Thursday. Directed by Soulpepper A.D. Albert Schultz, this is Soulpepper’s third journey with this production—and I finally got out to see it last night, with a packed house that gave it a standing ovation.

Orphaned as a child and painfully self-conscious about his club foot, Philip Carey (Gregory Prest) is a somewhat reluctant medical student; once a painter, and with fond memories of his time in Paris, he got tired of being broke and chose to pursue a more lucrative career path. And that path takes a serious detour when he accompanies friend and classmate, the nervous virgin Dunsford (Paolo Santalucia), to a local tea shop. Dunsford hopes to woo pretty waitress Mildred (Michelle Monteith), who catches the eye of Philip and she goes with him instead.

While it’s clear to us that Mildred is game for any man of good prospect, it is sadly not to Philip, who goes from smitten to obsessed with a woman who does not share his feelings. Obsession turns to possession, turns to rage when Philip learns that she’s become engaged to Miller (Brendan Wall), another tea shop regular. Meanwhile, he’s been flunking his classes and in serious danger of washing out of med school, much to the dismay of his crusty but supportive professor Dr. Tyrell (Oliver Dennis).

With the help of artist pals, painter Lawson (Dennis) and poet Cronshaw (Stuart Hughes), Philip meets the lovely writer Norah (Sarah Wilson), who falls for him—but he not with her. He’s doing better at school, though, and befriends a patient, Thorpe Athelney (John Jarvis), who opens his home to Philip. Philip’s direction changes again upon the return of Mildred, pregnant and jilted. Leaving Norah behind to look after Mildred and her baby, he finds himself at risk of losing his place at med school due to outstanding tuition owing. Desperate to make some extra cash, he invests in the stock market, only to lose it all; then loses Mildred, again, to another classmate, the randy Griffiths (Jeff Lillico).

Hitting rock bottom, evicted from his apartment and kicked out of med school, Philip reconnects with Athelney and his family, including his sweet daughter Sally (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster). And throughout the love and loss, shifting careers—including fashion designer for New York darling of the stage Alice (Raquel Duffy)—and friends and lovers whose lives are connected with his own, he gradually comes to know himself. And finds his life.

Masterfully staged on a red square playing area, set pieces are wheeled in and out, props inventively choreographed, and sharp dramatic lighting highlights the environmental and emotional tone (Lorenzo Savoini, set and lighting design). The whole ensemble (also including Richard Lam) gets involved, portraying figures in paintings, and creating the haunting soundtrack, rollicking music hall ditties and evocative sounds of daily life (Mike Ross, composer and sound design)—all live, onstage in the wings, which are visible to the audience. And, like the Persian rug Cronshaw gives Philip, scenes and characters’ lives weave in and out of each other with beautiful, artistic precision.

Lovely, nuanced performances from the cast. Prest is both heartbreaking and heroic as the quiet, introspective Philip; childish at first in love—loving where he is not loved, and loved where he does not love back—he only comes to find real love and true meaning in life when he finds love for himself. Monteith is captivating and wily as Mildred; forced into opportunism by circumstance, as Philip is a slave to his passions, Mildred is a slave to survival. You may want to dislike Mildred for her cruel, calculated use of Philip, but then you realize that all choices are not created equal in a world divided by class and gender privilege.

Dennis and Hughes make a great pair as the cheeky Lawson and bacchanalian Cronshaw, Philip’s jovial artist friends. Dennis gives Lawson a sweet, concerned nurturing quality; and Hughes brings a gentle melancholy to Cronshaw’s party animal.

Wilson shines as the sharp-witted modern woman Norah; a lovely, supportive girlfriend to Philip, you really feel for her when you see her affections aren’t returned in kind. Lancaster is both tender and irreverent as the quiet socialist Sally; you find yourself hoping—maybe she’s the one.

Shades of red and blue in the tapestry of interwoven lives in the beautiful, theatrical Of Human Bondage.

Of Human Bondage continues in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre in Toronto’s Distillery District; book in advance online. Get yourself out to see it before the production heads to NYC, to The Pershing Square Signature Center in July for Soulpepper’s first New York season, along with Kim’s Convenience and Spoon River.

Check out the trailer for Of Human Bondage:

 

 

Relevant, urgent, hopeful—the powerful, resonant evolution of Bleeders in Lukumi

There is a buzz of excitement and anticipation, a festive feeling. Those of us among the audience who arrived early had been listening in on a final rehearsal, taking in the lush harmonies and powerful lyrics as we waited in the hallway. And when we enter the space, we are welcomed, offered something to drink. It’s like we’re coming into someone’s home—and we are.

We are in Studio 317 at 9 Trinity Street in the Distillery District, home to The Watah Theatre. And we are about to witness the evolution of Part Three of d’bi.young anitafrika’s Orisha Trilogy: Lukumi, a dub opera that began as Bleeders in a workshop production at the Theatre Centre during SummerWorks 2016. The revised, retitled piece has been mounted for three staged readings—and last night was opening night.

Led by playwright/director anitafrika and musical director Waleed Abdulhamid, the Lukumi ensemble is a combination of the original SummerWorks Bleeders cast and Watah Theatre 2016/17 Artists-in-Residence: Saba Akhtar, Angaer Arop, Anne-Audrey, Naomi Bain, Aisha Bentham, Savannah Clark, Raven Dauda, Andrenne Finnikin, Nickeshia Garrick, Mahlet Gebreyohannes, FaithAnn Mendes, muyoti mukonambi, Najla Nubyanluv, Sashoya Shoya Oya, Kamika Peters, Radha Pithadia, Racquel Smith, Alexandra Sproule and Ravyn Wngs.

I saw the 2016 SummerWorks production, back when it was called Bleeders. Anitafrika refers to the piece as an “experiment” that combines dub opera and African traditions of choral work. Emerging actors were paired up with more experienced actors, creating a mentorship bond, and the cast was given space to experiment with characterizations; for the reading workshop, each character is presented in duet, a miniature chorus of two actors. The script was reworked for the reading event, to fill in gaps that would otherwise be covered by staging/action, with anitafrika acting as both narrator and conductor.

Most of the original script is still there: Lukumi is a hero’s journey in a futuristic post-apocalyptic dystopia following a nuclear disaster at the Pickering nuclear plant—an event that has left mankind sterile, but for a special one, the Lukumi. Sent off by a council of black womxn* to seek the Ancestor Tree in the hopes of finding what humans have forgotten about their role in creation, Lukumi embarks on a warrior’s vision quest into the underworld.

Guided by the teachings and principles of eight animal guides, she finds what she is looking for and returns home—but perhaps too late. The One World Army, seeking fertile women to swell their ranks to continue the 1,000-years War, is banging on the door. The situation is dire and many of her friends sacrifice their lives—but, having learned humility and accepting responsibility for mankind’s destruction of the planet, Lukumi has within her the seed of hope.

The most remarkable revision is the prologue, with the addition of an all too familiar voiceover—the “America first” portion of Donald Trump’s inauguration speech—which puts forth an “us first,” isolationist philosophy. It is a chilling foundation for what is to come, seguing into a scene of protest over the rape of the land and the poisoning of the water—and, in particular, the unsafe proximity of nuclear power plants to residential areas. The performance features stand-out vocal solos from Nubyanluv (Ancestor Tree) and Garrick (Elephant); once again, Garrick’s “Rest in Peace, My Friends” brought tears to my eyes—as did the epilogue “Black Lives Matter,” where the entire cast brings us back to 2016 in a stark reminder of ongoing social inequality and the oppressive abuse of power (which animal guide Lion warned Lukumi against).

During the post-reading talkback, as the cast introduced themselves, a common thread for their experience of this work—and working with Watah Theatre—emerged: they felt they were held in a space of mutual respect, and in the spirit of creative experimentation and collaboration. The Artists-in-Residence have been working in relative solitude, each crafting a solo piece, and those who have spent a most of their emerging careers working alone marvelled at the collective experience. There is a deep sense of gratitude, family and ownership in this oasis of creativity and support.

Anitafrika and The Watah Theatre foster a sense of community and outreach, emphasizing the desire to be present, and show up both in life and in the work they undertake. It is an inclusive, embracing space, where artists are invited to come as they are, and learn and stretch. It is a community of creativity, sharing and mentorship that creates artists who are also leaders and activists. Please consider supporting The Watah Theatre by contributing to their GoFundMe campaign.

With shouts to Stage Manager Samson Brown and Artistic Producer Brett Haynes—it does, after all, take a village to mount such an epic work.

Relevant, urgent, hopeful—the powerful, resonant evolution of Bleeders in Lukumi. I look forward to seeing where this production goes next.

The Lukumi workshop reading has two more performances at The Watah Theatre’s space (9 Trinity Street, Studio 317): today (Saturday) at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm; it’s an intimate space and a truly compelling show, so get your tix in advance. In the meantime, check out the trailer for Lukumi:

* This spelling of “woman” is the preference of the playwright.

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

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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:

A moving, lyrical & thoughtful remembrance – Until Our Paths Cross Again

The intimate performance space at Dancemakers has a shiny black stage floor – like glass, like dark water. Up centre is a large boulder, to its right an olive tree and down left is a medium-sized boulder, the blue glass stones at its base telling us that there is water there. This is the setting for Rarely Pure Theatre’s production Until Our Paths Cross Again – written, directed and produced by first-time playwright and company A.D. Monique Renaud, with the assistance of some University of Windsor Acting Program pals and some Ryerson Theatre School tech program students.

Rapid gunfire sounds out as the house lights go down and we see a soldier (Stephanie Carpanini) crawling for her life on her belly. She stops moving, hit. Injured and exhausted, she passes out. She is a Canadian soldier, alone and lost somewhere in Kandahar, separated from her men during the battle. A girl (Katie Ribout) climbs the olive tree, admiring the view and picking olives. She is alone too, separated from her family. When the soldier comes to and discovers the girl, she is wary – afraid even as the girl offers first aid and water. The girl is wary and afraid too. Eventually, they are able to communicate – and it turns out the girl speaks English – and each gradually gains the other’s trust.

The script makes use of a bible story (Noah’s ark and the olive branch), Shakespeare (a playful snippet of Romeo and Juliet, with the tree serving as the balcony) and Greek mythology (a couple is rewarded for helping a god with their wish to always be together by transforming into trees). And the letter the soldier writes to her husband, with the girl suggesting the romantic opening “my love,” reminded me of a letter my grandfather wrote to my grandmother while he was stationed in the UK/Europe during WWII. He was a Captain too. The olive branch is a particularly arresting image. Initially used by the soldier as a symbol of peace, it is later employed by the girl as a make-shift play gun. She wants to be a soldier too.

The journey these two women make together as they try to get home takes them to some surprising places, with lovely, nuanced performances from both actors. As a female in male-dominated career, Carpanini balances a soldier’s trained responses and checked emotions with the fragility and humanity of someone who is far from home and missing her loved ones. Props to another Stephanie – Steph Bitten – a former UK soldier, for acting as military advisor for the production. As the girl, Ribout does a nice job inhabiting a 14-year-old on the edge of womanhood, playful and child-like – and stubborn – but possessing of a certain gravitas beyond her years.

Until Our Paths Cross Again is a lyrical, moving and thoughtful remembrance, inspired by the true story of Captain Nichola Goddard, the first female Canadian soldier to die in combat. She was 26 years old. In the program notes, we learn that “she didn’t say ‘goodbye’, she said ‘see ya later’.”

Until Our Paths Cross Again has two more performances: tonight (Nov 10) and closing tomorrow on Remembrance Day (Nov 11) – 8 p.m. at Dancemakers (in the Distillery District at 9 Trinity St., Units 313 & 314, Toronto). Tickets are PWYC, with a suggested offering of $10. No worries about getting around the warehouse studio space, there is ample signage pointing you in the right direction, with snacks and bottled water awaiting at the box office table.

My grandfather got to come home. Not all soldiers are so lucky. Who will you remember tomorrow?

We remember – Rarely Pure Theatre’s upcoming Until Our Paths Cross Again

Hey all – wanted to give a shout out to Rarely Pure Theatre’s upcoming production Until Our Paths Cross Again, a play inspired by the true story of Captain Nichola Goddard, the first female Canadian combat soldier to be killed in combat, running November 8 – 11 at 8 p.m. at Dancemakers (in the Distillery District at 9 Trinity St., Units 313 & 314, Toronto). Tickets are PWYC.

Written and directed by the company’s A.D. Monique Renaud, Until Our Paths Cross Again stars Stephanie Carpanini and Katie Ribout, with the production technical team from Ryerson Theatre School.