The bittersweet rhythms of life in the wistful, nostalgic, entertaining Dancing at Lughnasa

Opening its 2018-19 season at Alumnae Theatre last night, the Toronto Irish Players take us to 1936 Donegal, and the rural home of the Mundy family as they struggle with life, love and changing times, in their wistful, nostalgic and entertaining production of Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa, directed by David Eden.

A bittersweet memory play, we’re hosted by narrator Michael (Enda Reilly), who was raised by his single mother, spirited, irreverent Christina (Lauren McGinty) and her four sisters. Their parents dead, the eldest resident sibling and local school teacher, the prim and proper Kate (Erin Jones) is the de facto matriarch; family clown Maggie (Rebecca De La Cour) looks after the small family farm; and the quiet Agnes (Donna O’Regan) and simple-minded Rose (Áine Donnelly) earn money by knitting gloves.

The return of their brother Father Jack (Ian McGarrett), sent home from his mission in Uganda by his superiors, both causes and coincides with significant changes in their lives and position in their home village of Ballybeg—especially lending truth to the rumour that Jack was dismissed for “going native” and adapting, in the eyes of the Catholic Church, a too familiar and accepting attitude of local custom and ritual. Industrialization is catching up with rural Ireland, and factory-made goods are putting handwork at risk. Ongoing, if not sporadic, visits from Michael’s father Gerry (Sean Gilheany), a Welsh wanderer turned gramophone salesman, give the family—especially Christina and Michael—rare and welcome glimpses of the possibility of hope for something better; and a brief respite from the dullness of their workaday lives and the stresses of making ends meet during the Depression.

The family’s individual and collective history is both merry and melancholy; and lives are forever changed by forces largely beyond their control. And while Michael acknowledges the hard times of struggle, sacrifice and loss, he takes heart from the good times the family shared together—the love, laughter and dancing around the Marconi wireless. The rhythms of life, love and changing times.

Lovely work from the cast in creating this intimate family story. Reilly’s Michael makes for an affable and animated host; and he’s especially adept at conjuring the wide-eyed, precocious and imaginative child Michael. De La Cour is a treat as the feisty jokester Maggie; using humour to cheer and diffuse tension, her glass-half-full perspective is also crucial to her own survival. O’Regan and Donnelly have a beautiful rapport as the BFF sisters, the unassuming, protective Agnes and the child-like, naive Rose, who both come to show there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to notions of romance. McGinty gives a well-rounded performance as the conflicted young mother Christina; the family beauty, and raising the love child of a man she hardly ever sees, Christina’s youth has been interrupted by the more pragmatic concerns of a single mother—and in a time and place that frowned upon women like her. In classic Irish matriarch fashion, Jones’s Kate says as much with a look or gesture as she does with a word; having missed on romance herself, Kate’s stern disposition also a masks a broken heart.

McGarrett gives a poignant performance as the sisters’ brother Father Jack; once the golden boy of the family and the village, Jack has returned, frail and barely recognizable, and hardly knowing his own hometown. And Gilheany gives a charming turn as Gerry; a man of the road who loves to love, Gerry means well, but has trouble with the follow-up.

With shouts to the design team for their evocative work in transporting us to this nostalgic Depression-era world of memory and family in rural Donegal, Ireland: Chandos Ross (set), Livia Pravato (costumes), Karlos Griffith (lighting) and Dan Schaumann (sound).

Dancing at Lughnasa continues on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage until November 3; advance tickets available online or by calling 416-440-2888. Keep up with The Irish Players on Facebook and Twitter.

Advertisements

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

xFF19ed
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.

xFF15crop
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.

xFF60crop
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.

Life, love & loss in a funny & touching family reunion – Marion Bridge @ Village Playhouse

MB_PosterDropped by the Village Playhouse on Sunday afternoon to see the Village Players’ production of Daniel MacIvor’s Marion Bridge, directed by Greg Nowlan.

Three sisters reunite at their Cape Breton family home to be with their dying divorced mother: Agnes, a struggling actress who’s been living in Toronto; Theresa, a nun whose order runs a farm in New Brunswick; and Louise, who stayed at home. Family history and present-day challenges converge in this funny, touching play – told with humour, honesty and heart.

Returning to the stage after a 10-year absence, Michelle D’Alessandro Hatt gives an outstanding performance as the fiery, strong-willed – and at times petulant – oldest sister Agnes, the “unconventional girl” in the family, struggling with alcohol and an acting career that’s going nowhere and leaving her broke. Lorene Stanwick does a lovely job with Theresa, the cool-headed, responsible middle sister, a wry-witted and sensitive nun facing personal trials of her own. And Anne van Leeuwen is delightful as the “strange” youngest sister Louise, child-like, straight-talking and longing to belong. All three actors do a stand-up job of capturing the sibling dynamic, at times shifting into childish interaction, the sisters’ individual roles in the family set long ago. All three sisters are lost, searching and bracing themselves for the coming loss.

Kudos to voice-over performers Erin Jones and David Borwick for their portrayals of Kara and Justin, two characters from the fictitious soap Ryan’s Cove, a favourite TV show of Louise’s that becomes a sibling diversion.

Marion Bridge is nicely staged on a minimalist kitchen set (designed by Steve Minnie) that evokes the place, and lets the actors and action take prominence – and filled with a beautiful, lyrical regional soundtrack (designed by Richard Green), including, of course, “Song for the Mira” at the end of the play.

Life, love and loss with three feisty Cape Breton sisters – the Village Players’ Marion Bridge is a lovely bit of storytelling.

Marion Bridge continues its run at the Village Playhouse this week Wed – Sat (closing Mar 22). Sunday was sold out, so I’d book ahead if I were you: 416-767-7102.

Sweet romcom reunion – Joan Burrow’s play Gloria’s Guy @ FireWorks

fireworks-bannerGot out to Alumnae Theatre last night to see Joan Burrow’s play Gloria’s Guy, one of the three plays running in rep as part of the FireWorks program up in the studio space.

Directed by Anne Harper, Gloria’s Guy is a sweet romcom reunion of high school friends Peggy (Jennifer Monteith), Gloria (Anna Douglas), Eva (Erin Jones) and Leslie (Sangeeta Wylie), with the unexpected addition of Peggy’s mom Jessie – their former high school teacher – aka “Mrs. Mac” (Liz Best) and the surprise appearance of Gloria’s high school sweetheart Guy (Robert Meynell), who was a no-show on prom night.

It’s October in cottage country, where Guy has returned home after practising law in Los Angeles to work with his brother Jim at the family hotel/cabin, and the gals have come up for a wedding. Old wounds are opened up, secrets are revealed and the gang learns that you can never really go back again – only forward. Nice work from this ensemble cast. Best is hysterical as the nosy and meddling, but well-meaning, den mother of the gang; Douglas gives Gloria a lovely combination of vulnerable and pissed off; and Jones is outrageously funny as “Eva the Diva,” the wild girl of the group who has a secret of her own. Douglas and Meynell have good chemistry, rounding out the mixed feelings of former high school romance, painful moments and the awkward, but curiosity-filled, surprise reunion between Gloria and Guy.

Funny and warm, with its messy family and friends dynamics, Gloria’s Guy is a feel-good, tender romcom good time.

Gloria’s Guy has one more performance: Sat, Nov 30 at 2:30 p.m. Shirley Barrie’s Measure of the World has two more performances: tonight (Thurs, Nov 28) at 8:00 p.m. and Sat, Nov 30 at 8:00 p.m. Norman Yeung’s Theory plays on Fri, Nov 29 at 8:00 p.m. and Sun, Dec 1 at 2:30 p.m., with a noon roundtable about the play before the Sunday performance. All happening upstairs in the Alumnae Theatre Studio.

That’s it for me for FireWorks – I won’t be able to make it out to see Theory (by Norman Yeung, directed by Joanne Williams), but you can check out the post I wrote for Alumnae Theatre’s blog on the SummerWorks 2010 production. I hear the script has been tweaked somewhat, with the lead character now having a girlfriend instead of a boyfriend.