Portrait of a family in messy, human shades of grey in the intimate, intense, complex What I Call Her

Charlie Gould & Ellie Ellwand. Lighting design by Imogen Wilson. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

In Association—which led a sold-out production of Ellie Moon’s Asking For It last season—partners with Crow’s Theatre once again, this time with the world premiere of Moon’s intimate, intense and complex What I Call Her, directed by Sarah Kitz and opening to a sold-out house at Streetcar Crowsnest last night. Exploring a family dynamic of abuse, estrangement, grief and reconciliation, What I Call Her gives us the messy—ultimately human—blacks, whites and greys of family relationships shaped by trauma, conflicting memory and divergent lived experiences.

Estranged from her mother and younger sister Ruby, and recovering from childhood abuse at the hands of her mother, English MA student/writer Kate (Charlie Gould) now finds herself navigating the myriad mixed emotions of her mother’s impending death. Triggered by her mother’s distant death bed, as well as her mother’s startlingly contrasting history of abuse, abusive behaviour and philanthropy for survivors, Kate starts writing a frank obituary for her mother. Her supportive, live-in boyfriend and women’s ally Kyle (Michael Ayres) acts as her anchor, sounding board and Devil’s advocate on the idea of posting it on Facebook.

When Ruby (Ellie Ellwand) surprises them with a late-night arrival at their apartment, the family conflict—in particular, Ruby’s contradictory and hugely different experiences of childhood and their parents—gets too close to home. While Ruby’s appearance sparks Kate’s rage over the family’s denial of her experience, she’s got some anger to unpack as well; and the sisters face-off over their shared history and their mother’s desire for a death bed reunion and subsequent redemption.

The finely-tuned three-hander cast of What I Call Her plays out the various levels of family conflict in a series of contrasts—in moments of quiet and explosion, trauma and comfort, remembering and forgetting—turning the blacks and whites of family history, memory and corresponding emotional/psychological responses into complex, messy and profoundly human shades of grey.

What I call her 1 - Michael Ayres, Charlie Gould - by Dahlia Katz
Michael Ayres & Charlie Gould. Lighting design by Imogen Wilson. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Gould’s broken, neurotic, sharply intelligent Kate can be self-involved, but also self-aware; and Kate’s self-professed knack for hyperbole is matched only by her lonely, hopeless sense of familial gaslighting. As Ruby, Ellwand is both adult and baby sister; brutally honest and perceptive, but needing support and validation. While Ruby’s directness with Kate tends toward cruelty, she desperately needs Kate right now. And Aryes’ Michael is that sweet, #MeToo woke good guy you want to see your sister with. Michael’s calm, quiet demeanour is a perfect foil to Kate’s mercurial outbursts of emotional activity—but, caught in the middle of and pushed away from this family war, and exhausted from keeping Kate from spinning off, even he can only take so much.

It’s especially noteworthy that Kate and Ruby’s mom, who is a fourth but unseen character in this piece, has a history of family abuse—both she and her own mother are survivors. And while it’s no excuse for her verbal and physical abuse of Kate, it’s a reason. The Kates of the world need be able to tell their stories; and as contradictory to the experiences of other family members and painful as these stories may be, they need to come out so real reconciliation and redemption can begin.

What I Call Her continues at Streetcar Crowsnest until December 8; advance tickets are available online. It’s an intimate venue and the show is getting a lot of well-deserved buzz, so booking ahead is strongly recommended.

 

 

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A powerful exploration of violence & justice – 16Endean Collective’s all-female Julius Caesar

Julius-PosterThe 16Endean Collective opened their all-female production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar last night, to a packed house that quickly became a rapt audience. Directed by Jennifer Parr, the production is running now at Red Sandcastle Theatre.

Staged on a minimalist – but extremely effective – black and red t-shaped playing area (designed by Rosemary Doyle), with spare but beautiful costumes (Jan Venus) and few props (also by Doyle – and this is a swordless Julius Caesar – more on that later in the post), this production also features live percussion music by Morgan O’Leary. This Julius Caesar focuses on the power of Shakespeare’s words, and the actions and relationships of the characters. As Parr states in her director’s notes: At the centre of Julius Caesar is the question “When is it lawful to kill a tyrant; and what happens when you do?” And, so the characters and audience are taken on a gripping journey of violence and justice – and the consequences that emerge from those actions.

Julius Caesar features an excellent ensemble of female talent, including: (in alphabetical order): Françoise Balthazar, Catherine Bruce, Rosemary Doyle, Toni Ellwand, Ellie Ellwand, Elva Mai Hoover, Marcia Johnson, Llyandra Jones, Margaret Lamarre, Lise Maher, Maria Syrgiannis, Deborah Verginella, Andrea Verginella-Paina and Trudy Weiss.

Weiss is imperious and commanding as Julius Caesar, an arrogant, vain man threatened by the younger, more physically fit nobles and warriors around him. Toni Ellwand is compelling as Brutus – stalwart, wise and measured, with a strength of character and firm sense of fair play. Françoise Balthazar’s Cassius is the perfect complement in this friendship of brothers-in-arms, brash – at times impulsive – ambitious and driven; the former spurred by love of his country and the latter enraged at the disposal of undeserved power. Llyandra Jones gives us a young lion of a Marc Antony, as cunning a warrior as he is an orator – he would be a present-day king of spin. There are also a few women playing women: Deborah Verginella brings a Portia (Brutus’s wife) who is passionate, loyal and hard-pressed to learn what keeps her husband awake at night. Catherine Bruce’s Calpurnia (Caesar’s wife) is equally strong; possessed of visions and fiercely protective of her husband – as is Rosemary Doyle’s mysterious and insistent Soothsayer, warning Caesar of the Ides of March at the beginning of the play. All in all, a very fine cast – and excellent work all around; and judging from the surnames, we have a couple of related actors too (Brutus’s young servant Lucius is played by Toni Ellwand’s daughter Ellie, for instance).

As I mentioned earlier, there are no swords – or weapons of any kind – in this production; and I must admit, when I saw the assassination scene coming, I wondered how they were going to pull it off. Very convincingly, it turns out. Through some beautifully – and powerfully – choreographed action (by director Parr), the assassins mime their stabs, and the scene is bathed in red light as the act proceeds in slow motion, each player’s strike highlighted until the final, most startling in its poignancy, stab from Brutus. And so all the scenes of killing and suicide go – all through the strength of movement and a dramatic shift in lighting. And, given the intimacy of the space, no matter where you’re sitting, this all happens close to the audience. Nicely done!

The 16Endean Collective’s powerful production of Julius Caesar runs at Red Sandcastle Theatre until June 22, so you’d best get your tickets early – and be sure to note the 7:30 p.m. start time for evening performances. This is a production you won’t want to miss.

In the meantime, take a gander at my recent interview with actor Françoise Balthazar.

 

Interview with actor Françoise Balthazar – upcoming all-female Julius Caesar

Francoise headshot 1Françoise Balthazar is a Toronto-based actor who took on the role of Richard III in the Toronto Fringe (2006) all-female production Richard 3, Queens 4 (The Deadly Game), directed by Jennifer Parr. Now, in collaboration with Parr and many of the same cast members, Balthazar is playing Cassius in the 16Endean Collective’s all-female production of Julius Caesar, running for 11 performances at Red Sandcastle Theatre from June 11 – 22. I had the chance to interview Françoise Balthazar over email about the production – and doing these intense, violent plays with an all-female cast.

LWMC: Hi, Françoise. Thanks for taking the time to talk about Julius Caesar. You, Jennifer Parr and most of the cast worked together in an all-female version of Richard III in a Toronto Fringe 2006 production. What made you decide to tackle Julius Caesar – and when did the idea take root?

FB: Toni Ellwand, our producer/actor, who is portraying the role of Brutus, saw a production of an all-female Julius Caesar in England that greatly impressed her and which received outstanding reviews. Toni then met our director Jennifer Parr at a theatre gathering just before Christmas, and she shared her interest about mounting a Toronto production of Julius Caesar. Jennifer Parr, a Shakespearean director and scholar, was very keen on the idea and offered to direct the show. It has been an unusually fast process from concept to production.

LWMC: The thing that strikes me about all-female productions like this is that they balance out our perspective of human nature and behaviour – and we see that human beings, no matter what their sex, gender, etc., are capable of a wide range of action and reaction, including violence. Richard 3, Queens 4 explored violence as a means to gain power and position. How did the company go about exploring the relationship between violence and retribution in Julius Caesar?

FB: As actors, we had to explore the personal motivations behind every conspirator’s reasons for wanting to assassinate Caesar, which ranged from pure justice for the good of Rome, to vengeance against Caesar’s tyranny and, as in Cassius’ case, a mixture of personal envy and hatred for Caesar and tyranny itself to wanting to reestablish the legitimacy of the Roman Republic. One of the methods the conspirators used to explore all these issues was a short series of workshops in the Michael Chekhov technique given by Rena Polley, who is an actor and certified teacher in the Chekhov technique, exploring group dynamics and high stakes situation.

LWMC: And it’s all mixed with ambition and a desire to do what’s right, so it’s all very grey in Julius Caesar, and many of the characters who are acting with a righteous sense of retribution don’t have entirely pure motives. How did the company navigate those grey areas, along with the layers of deceit and betrayal?

FB: We began by delineating every character from a historical point of view, both as individuals and as members of Roman society at this specific moment in time. Then, as a company, we explored all the interconnecting personal relationships and the stakes involved in the revolutionary choices that so many of the characters make.

LWMC: Brutus is Caesar’s friend and a respected Roman – and Cassius believes his participation in the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar will add credibility to their cause and garner good public opinion. Cassius engineers Brutus’s involvement, to the point of fabricating notes of support from the public. And, even though he’s using Brutus, it’s clear that Cassius loves and values him a great deal. How did you approach these contrasting – and contradictory – sides of Cassius?

FB: Cassius is a very ambitious extremist, and his primary driving force is to make sure that Caesar is eliminated at any cost, including forging notes of support to ensure that Brutus commits to the conspiracy. Cassius also has a deep abiding love for Brutus because he is virtuous, just and a noble Roman. Cassius’ worth is recognized and validated by Brutus, which makes him all the more precious to him. Having a deep understanding of Cassius’ psychological drives and creating a backstory of this character, along with the insights drawn from the Michael Chekhov workshop that the company attended, allowed me to integrate these contrasting elements of Cassius.

LWMC: When someone commits an act of violence, even for a good cause, they are forever changed. Did that factor into the exploration of the play in this production?

FB: Yes, absolutely. From the beginning of our process, Jennifer Parr our director urged us to explore the question we see at the heart of the play and our production: Is it ever lawful to kill a Tyrant? And what happens if you do?

And, specifically, from Cassius’ perspective, the murder of Caesar liberates him and his fellow conspirators to become heroic figures in the fight against tyranny.

LWMC: Did the ensemble discover anything new about Julius Caesar throughout the process?

FB: Yes, the incredible amount of love and loyalty between characters, whether husband and wives, friends and fellow revolutionaries, and also the unexpected amount of comedy and humour in a play about such a serious topic.

LWMC: I imagine some personal discoveries also emerged. What can you tell us about that experience?

FB: Yes, it’s the first time that I’ve worked with Shakespeare’s First Folio text to such a degree, and I fully realize now how invaluable the clues that Shakespeare presents are incredibly useful to the actor. And, amazingly, speaking this empowering visceral dialogue that is usually reserved for men is a thrilling experience, and makes me feel more bold, expansive and powerful as a performer.

LWMC: What do you hope audiences will take away from this production of Julius Caesar?

FB: We hope they come away feeling that this play speaks to us now, as urgently as it did to Shakespeare’s audience, and that the question of how to change our society in extreme times is never an easy one.

Experiencing the play with an all-female cast, on a thrust stage surrounded by the audience, also brings a new perspective and fresh take on the story, the characters, and the ideas.

LWMC: What’s up next for you?

FB: At the present moment, I’m pouring my heart and soul into this production. Ask me again in three weeks’ time!

LWMC: Anything else you’d like to share?

FB: I’m hoping to take away the learning I experience in playing the complex, powerful and commanding role of Cassius into my future work as an actor. Also, I work as a voice-over artist and am very passionate about creating characters solely through the use of the voice. The virtue of playing Cassius potentially contributes to my work in animation voice-over, which calls for the ability of treating with a broad range of characters, the sophisticated use of breath control, and possessing a great vocal range.

LWMC: Thanks, Françoise!

The 16Endean Collective production of Julius Caesar ensemble includes (in alphabetical order): Françoise Balthazar, Catherine Bruce, Rosemary Doyle, Toni Ellwand, Ellie Ellwand, Elva Mai Hoover, Marcia Johnson, Llyandra Jones, Margaret Lamarre, Lise Maher, Maria Syrgiannis, Deborah Verginella, Andrea Verginella-Paina and Trudy Weiss. Julius Caesar runs at the Red Sandcastle Theatre June 11-22 (preview on June 11 and opening on June 12).