The profound cruelty & kindness of humanity in Coal Mine’s darkly funny, deeply affecting Category E

Diana Bentley, Robert Persichini & Vivien Endicott-Douglas. Set and costume design by Anna Treusch. Lighting design by Gabriel Cropley. Photo by Tim Leyes.

 

Coal Mine Theatre closes its 4th season with the Toronto premiere of Belinda Cornish’s horror comedy Category E, directed by Rae Ellen Bodie—opening last night to a sold out house at their home on 1454 Danforth Ave.

The pre-show soundtrack of retro commercials playing in the lobby (sound design by Keith Thomas) is a kitschy prelude to the dark comedic terror that awaits inside, where we are transported into an eerily familiar futuristic dystopia—familiar because, like the most recent TV incarnation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the future is closer than you think.

Once in the theatre space, the audience sits on either side of a large cage that contains two cots, a wheel chair and a small bookcase (set and costume design by Anna Treusch); the ceiling of the cage is a large light box (lighting design by Gabriel Cropley), and there are large lighting fixtures outside in the hallway, as well as two security cameras mounted to the walls. Set in a testing facility, Category E takes the human trial stage of product testing to the extreme; the human subjects are stripped of identity and even gender—each bearing a number on their beige scrubs and becoming an “it”—and treated with the cold clinical detachment that would be afforded a lab rabbit.

It is here that the chipper and nervous new kid Millet (Vivien Endicott-Douglas) arrives, joining veteran lab subject Corcoran (Robert Persichini), who uses the wheel chair, and Filigree (Diana Bentley), who is either asleep or passed out. The tension and confusion are turned on immediately, as there are now three people occupying this cage and only two cots; this makes for an intense introduction between Millet and Filigree when Filigree wakes up. Not to mention the condition of the cage’s two original occupants, both filthy and looking in ill health—a stark contrast to the newcomer, who although in desperate need of a shower, is wearing clean scrubs and in perfect health. Corcoran wears an eye patch over one eye and his good eye is angry and red, and the dressing on his forearm should have been changed ages ago; he passes the time with a 17-year-old crossword puzzle. Filigree is pale and gaunt, and keeps scratching her lower back against the chair railing on the wall; her hobby is drawing disturbing portraits in crayon.

Meals, delivered in bowls labelled with subjects’ numbers, are signalled by a light and retrieved at one end of the narrow hallway outside the cage; a female version of HAL 9000 summons subjects by number to testing and shower time, accessed at the other end of the hallway. Standing on the bookcase to peer into the vent, Millet discovers the cage next door; like theirs, it also houses three subjects, but they cannot hear her. There are a lot of questions about what’s going on—and, like Millet, we learn the rules of this strange new world as we go.

There are vague references to “passing the eye” (or is it “I”?), which also gives this world a Handmaid’s Tale vibe, and brief moments of revelation—it seems Corcoran is a former scientist and Millet failed the test. And it appears that those who fail this test, or who have committed some kind of crime or corporate sin, are now considered as subhuman and become subjects in this testing facility. That is, with the exception of Filigree, whose odd, primal behaviour comes from the fact that she was born and raised in the facility, without parental nurturing or guidance (Corcoran has taken on this role, for how long is unclear). We get fleeting glimpses into the testing that they’re subjected to—and the lack of clear answers makes the mystery of this place all the more unsettling. Scene changes are accompanied by sexy voice-over ads, touting the various beauty and fragrances manufactured by the unseen corporation; mentions of side effects call us back to the cage.

Compelling, nuanced work from the cast in this harrowing three-hander, where moments of dark comedy barely take the edge off. Endicott-Douglas is a puckish, clever bundle of energy as Millet; the mercurial, chatty new kid in this space, Millet is endearingly awkward, with a can-do attitude and strong desire to fit in and make a contribution. Persichini’s performance as Corcoran goes deep into the calming, Zen-like quiet of a man of great intellect who at first sight appears merely world-weary and taciturn. Corcoran’s acts of kindness bring the much needed balm of tenderness to an otherwise brutal environment; and there’s an underlying sense of atonement in a struggle for redemption. Bentley is a delightfully quirky, at times menacing, wild child as Filigree; an untamed innocent, she operates on instinct, socialized under the care of Corcoran—and there’s a lovely, playful dynamic between them, especially when Corcoran acquiesces to Filigree’s requests tell them a story. What is the nature of that irritation on Filigree’s back? And why does Corcoran keep insisting on trading meals with Millet?

To see what I have seen! Category E is caress on the cheek and a kick in the gut. It is also a stark reminder that how we test product innovation in the name of consumer satisfaction is a choice. Cruelty and kindness are choices. If you’re either pro- or ambivalent toward animal testing, I think this play might just change your mind. A quote from St. Francis of Assisi, included in the program notes, is especially apt here: “If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.”

The profound cruelty and kindness of humanity in Coal Mine’s darkly funny, deeply affecting production of the dystopic macabredy Category E.

Category E continues at Coal Mine Theatre until April 29; get advanced tickets online—advance booking strongly recommended.

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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.

SummerWorks: Prairie Home Companion meets The Twilight Zone in hilariously absurd, satirical dystopia Plucked

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Banjo-playing rooster-man masterminds a fiendish scheme to amass great wealth by turning women into chickens and selling their chicken-lady eggs.

This is the bizarre world in which we find ourselves in Rachel Ganz’s Plucked, in its Newborn Theatre production directed by Carly Chamberlain; now running in the Theatre Centre Mainspace for SummerWorks.

Yep, we’re down on Jerry’s (Tim Walker) farm, where father-in-law Rooster (Tim Machin, doing double duty as music director) has hatched a plan to turn his daughter Abigail (Sochi Fried) and granddaughter Fourteen (Qianna MacGilchrist) into chickens so he can sell their eggs and make buckets of cash – and he succeeds in turning Abigail with Jerry’s help. Also assisting is Mud (Faisal Butt), anthropomorphized mud that’s become Rooster’s minion. But have no fear, Harley the hunky farm boy (Tyrone Savage), in love with Fourteen, has a plan to save her from Rooster and Jerry’s scheme, then run away together.

It’s an absurd story told through hilariously outrageous bluegrass music and narration (led by Rooster) and scenes of crazy action that include Harley’s “borrowed” tractor (a tricycle) getting stuck in the mud (held by Mud). Not for the faint of heart, misogynist and socially unacceptable language (Abigail was “the fat lady” before she turned; and Harley is called a “retard”) peppers the lyrics and dialogue – with a purpose. Beyond the insanity of this politically incorrect backwoods dystopia is some cutting satire that sends up a fearful and greedy patriarchal society – one that exerts extreme control over its women and their reproductive organs, as well as the men it judges to be less than a ‘real man.’

The cast does a remarkable job with all the insanity. Machin is a diabolical delight as Rooster, the man turned farm foul who’s taken his cock of the walk status to extreme lengths. Always a treat to watch, Walker is hilarious as the numbskull Jerry; he likes to think he’s in charge, but he’s really just a dumbass bully following Rooster’s orders. Fried does a lovely job with Abigail’s conflicting feelings; mortified but defiant in her new chicken-lady body, she refuses to lay eggs. Great physicality and some beautiful, poignant moments with her daughter Fourteen. MacGilchrist’s Fourteen is a feisty, defiant force to be reckoned with; it is she who drives the plans to get away with Harley – giving the impression that, ultimately, it’s love and not a man that will save her. Savage is adorably dim but determined as Harley; a male Daisy Duke in cut-off jeans and plaid flannel, he is a genuinely kind and gentle man with a good heart who would do anything for Fourteen. Butt gives an entertaining performance as Mud, Rooster’s wise-cracking sidekick; he also does a mean percussion.

As you’re laughing at the craziness of it all, you’re also feeling uncomfortable. The absurdity reveals nuggets of truth that we don’t have to look far to find – and that is what’s truly disturbing.

Prairie Home Companion meets The Twilight Zone in the hilariously absurd, satirical dystopia of Plucked.

Plucked continues at the Theatre Centre Mainspace until Aug 14.

Toronto Fringe: Xenophobia gone viral in a brutal worldwide dystopia in the beautifully choreographed, evocative Far Away

michela michael

PreShow Playlist is running a remarkable production of Caryl Churchill’s Far Away during Toronto Fringe, directed by Megan Watson and choreographed by Patricia Allison – and running in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Mainspace.

Xenophobia is a widespread, global disease and has become the default response in this dystopic world, where humans, animals – and even the elements – have perceived alliances and enemies. Joan (Michela Cannon) comes to live with her aunt Harper (Alix Sideris) and uncle, and sees things happening outside in the night that she doesn’t understand. Later, we see Joan working in a factory, where she becomes friends, then lovers, with Todd (Michael Ayres); and where their artistic gifts are put to a deadly purpose. When they arrive at Harper’s house as a couple, Harper questions Todd’s allegiance and the pair’s intentions. The tension is high and the paranoia excruciating, with enemies and traitors expected around every corner, the killing of any man, woman, child or animal is justified – even the river itself is regarded as suspicious.

In this beautifully crafted physical theatre production, movement conveys emotion, memory, activities and secrets, and carries equal weight to the dialogue; complementing and enhancing the spoken component of the script. The cast does excellent work here, combining words and movement as the characters balance on a razor’s edge. Sideris is both chilling and nurturing as Harper; with a grim sense of resolve, her dark commitment to the cause of her side is contrasted by the positive, rationalized spin she puts on her position. As Joan, Cannon is a bright innocent with a positive edge; the energy of her youthful questioning and wariness turns to lethal productivity and an eye towards a future with Michael. Ayres gives Michael a lovely sense of playfulness and curiosity; he seems to be the most open to reaching out for connection and questioning the truths held by those around him.

With shouts to the design team: Sorcha Gibson (set and costumes) for the eerie clothesline-like rows of white masks, hanging like the faces of the dead across the stage; Kathy Anderson (sound) for the haunting music and atmospheric sounds of this world; and Chris Malkowski (lighting) for the dramatic highlights throughout.

Xenophobia gone viral in a brutal worldwide dystopia in the beautifully choreographed, evocative Far Away.

Far Away continues at the TPM Mainspace until July 9. For ticket info and advance tickets/passes, check out the Fringe website.

Witch hunt meets climate change conspiracy in Village Playhouse’s haunting, dystopic Foxfinder

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Michael Pearson, with Holly Easton & Bronson Lake in shadow, in Foxfinder – photo by Erin Jones

The time is the present. The world is not quite the same as the one in which you and I live.      Foxfinder program note

The Village Playhouse opened its production of Dawn King’s Foxfinder last week, a Canadian premiere directed by Nicole Arends.

A hard rainstorm threatens the Covey farm’s already compromised crop quota for the year. And adding to the Covey’s distress is the impending arrival of a man sent to audit, assess and judge the conditions on the farm – and their fitness to run it – and they’ll be playing host to him for the duration.

Foxfinder is set in a present-day reality in which society runs with bygone methods of farm and factory production – and where the governing authority micromanages it all. Weather patterns have been changing, threatening food production and the very survival of civilization. This is a world of suspicion, superstition and right wing-style religious fervor over the land and its protection. And the fox has become the demonized scapegoat, to blame for everything from failed crops to the evil that men do.

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Holly Easton & Michael Pearson – photo by Erin Jones

The four-person cast does a nice job of bringing this world to life. Bronson Lake gives a strong, brooding performance as Samuel Covey, a good, hard-working farmer, and man of few words and no complaint as he struggles with damaging weather and family tragedy. Beneath his solid character is a man desperate for reasons and answers. As Samuel’s anxious young wife Judith, Holly Easton is the heart of the family-run farm; an equal to her husband, and lost and mourning in her own way even as she strives to carry on with growing their crops and their family. Michael Pearson brings an eerie, cold calm to William Bloor, the rookie Foxfinder sent to assess the Covey farm; an earnest, formal and fastidious young man, he too is conflicted – committed to doing his duty while struggling with inner demons of his own. Naomi Peltz brings a wry-witted warmth to the cynical Sarah Box, the Covey’s neighbour and Judith’s best friend; pragmatic and suspicious, she too has some hard decisions to make.

Foxfinder is an interesting – not to mention intense and spooky – exploration of how the human need and desire for reasons and meaning can be manipulated by the powers that be to control society through the systemic and dangerous assignment of culpability and blame.

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Naomi Peltz with Michael Pearson in the background – photo by Erin Jones

With big shouts to Arends (with Gilles Gagnon and Dustin Woods-Turner) for the beautifully wrought and evocative sound and projected image (with Fotini Paraschos) design. The imaginative and effective staging includes an upstage screen, which is used for both projected images of the farm and its environment, and to present bedroom scenes, where the characters are shown in backlit silhouette.

Witch hunt meets climate change conspiracy in the Village Playhouse’s haunting, dystopic Foxfinder.

Foxfinder continues at the Village Playhouse until March 19; check here for full performance date/time info. Tickets can be purchased 45 minutes before curtain time at the box office; or you can call ahead to reserve: 416-767-7702.