NSTF: Love, grief & celebrating life in the deeply moving, resonant musical Every Silver Lining

Allison Wither & Laura Piccinin. Photo by Tanja-Tiziana.

 

Silver Lining Productions brings its Toronto Fringe 2019 breakout musical theatre hit Every Silver Lining to the Factory Theatre Mainspace for the Next Stage Theatre Festival. Written by Laura Piccinin and Allison Wither, and directed by Jennifer Stewart, with music direction by Aaron Eyre, Every Silver Lining takes us on a journey of love, friendship, grief and a celebration of life as a family and a group of high school students navigate the loss of a son, brother and friend to cancer. The songs are both profoundly insightful, revealing and catchy—resonating deep in the heart—performed with impressive vocal chops and great sensitivity.

Seventeen-year-old Andrew (Daniel Karp) has leukemia and is looking forward to his last round of chemo. Hiding his illness from even his closest friends, he just wants to get back to school, hang out with his friends and live as normal a life as possible. He and his teen sister Clara (Allison Wither) are good buds, but since his diagnosis, she’s been feeling invisible at home, drowning in the extreme life-changing routine and tension-filled atmosphere; and even having to put some of her own life on hold while she drives Andrew to appointments and keeps him company during chemo sessions. Their mother Judy (Alison J Palmer) is fearful and hovering, and getting on Andrew’s nerves; and dad Kevin (Luke Marty) is caught in the middle, acting as peacemaker between his wife and son while the family lives with the stress and uncertainty of Andrew’s prognosis.

At school, Clara’s BFF Emily (Laura Piccinin) gently prods and advises her on how to get to know the cute new guy Ben (Alex Furber). Clara’s not sure she’s up for it, but finds herself drawn to Ben; and Andrew is happy to be back with his gamer friends Jeremy (Joel Cumber), Bev (Jada Rifkin) and Sam (Ben Skipper). This period of apparent normalcy is short-lived as Andrew comes down with a critical infection, and his chances for further treatment are gone.

Andrew’s friends are stunned to learn of his death—especially as they hadn’t known he was ill—and find themselves facing the death of a loved one their own age for the first time. They’re well-supported by their arts and science teacher Ms. Vella (Starr Domingue), who gives them space to share their thoughts and feelings. Dealing with so many feelings—about Andrew, dealing with school work and tests, blossoming feelings of attraction—and experiencing the various stages of grief is painful and confusing. But, ultimately, the friends pull together to support each other, remember Andrew and celebrate his life.

Delivered with heart and impressive vocal chops—and nicely supported by musicians Aaron Eyre (piano), Erika Nielsen (cello) and Alex Panneton (percussion)—the cast takes us from laughter to tears; performing beautifully composed songs featuring moving and catchy melodies, resonant counter melodies, and soaring harmonies. Karp gives the outgoing Daniel a combination of brave face and resilient resistance; struggling, even fighting, for normalcy when his life has been turned upside down in the face of an unknown outcome. Wither’s performance as the introverted, irreverent Clara is a nuanced portrait of a teen working through complex, challenging times; the sometimes tough, give no fucks exterior belies her inner conflict and fear of losing her brother. She loves her brother, but she hates what the disease is doing to him and their family; and feels guilty for doing so. Palmer and Marty’s grounded, present performances as parents Judy and Kevin run the gamut from hope to despair; Palmer’s loving helicopter mom and Marty’s supportive middleman dad are doing the best they can while facing the unthinkable loss of a child.

Furber gives an adorkably lovable performance as the cute, somewhat nerdy Ben; there are some lovely moments with Wither as Ben and Clara get to know each other and explore their growing attraction. Piccinin and Cumber add some great, and much needed, comic relief as the effervescent extrovert Emily and the goofy, fun-loving Jeremy. Piccinin gives Emily a warm, protective, enveloping hug vibe, while Cumber’s Jeremy is more sensitive than at first glance, using gentle humour to support his friends through their grief. Rifkin gives a poignant performance as the socially awkward Bev; and Skipper does a nice job revealing Sam’s anger about Andrew’s death, and toward Andrew himself, as Sam deals with his grief. Domingue is lovely, engaging and supportive as Ms. Vella; and makes for an understanding, approachable oncologist.

Profoundly poignant and inspiring—and full of spirit, hope and love—in the end, Every Silver Lining is about recognizing and being open to the love and support of family and friends during times of fear, loss and grief; and sharing, remembering and celebrating the life of the departed loved one as part of the acknowledgment of, and working through, the stages of the mourning process.

Every Silver Lining continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until January 19; check the show page for exact dates, times and advance ticket purchase.

NSTF: Keep calm & sing along with the timely, funny, moving Pearle Harbour’s Agit-Pop!

Steven Conway & Pearle Harbour. Lighting design by Logan Raju Cracknell. Photo by Michael Cooper.

 

Pearle Harbour pops onto the Factory Theatre Mainspace stage for Next Stage Theatre Festival with her timely, funny and moving pre-apocalyptic multimedia drag cabaret Pearle Harbour’s Agit-Pop! Written by Justin Miller and directed by Rebecca Ballarin, with music direction and live accompaniment by Steven Conway, and video design by Adam Miller, Pearle brings her wartime tragicomedienne song stylings and storytelling to explore our deepest fears.

Climate change is at a crisis point, the Doomsday Clock is at two minutes to midnight, and Australia’s on fire—but keep calm and laugh, sing, and even scream and cry, along with Pearle as she treats audiences to some music gems by the likes of David Bowie, Judy Garland, Tom Waits and more, including a different special guest artist appearance with every performance. Examining our deepest existential fears, the storytelling and song stylings switch between funny and poignant, with Pearle living up to her reputation as a wartime tragicomedienne and including some gentle, consensual audience participation.

The 1950s Bert the Turtle PSA bit on how to protect yourself in the event of a nuclear blast (duck and cover) got a bit too close to home this morning when that Emergency Alert went out to folks across Southern Ontario around 7:30AM. The vague warning, directed to folks living withing 10km of the Pickering nuclear power plant, turned out to be sent in error, but loads of questions remain as I write this.

There’s some truly frightening stuff happening out in the world right now—but, ultimately, Pearle’s message is one of awareness, engagement, hope and love. Let’s do better. Let’s reach out to each other. Let’s turn back that clock.

You have three more chances to catch Pearle Harbour’s Agit-Pop! in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until January 19; check the show page for exact dates, times and advance ticket purchase. The house was packed yesterday, so early arrival or advance booking strongly recommended.

NSTF: Family, community, music & lots of love in the entertaining, heartwarming Tita Jokes

Alia Rasul, Ellie Posadas, Isabel Kanaan, Maricris Rivera, Ann Paula Bautista & Belinda Corpuz. Photo by Martin Nicolas. Cathleen Jayne Calica, stylist.

 

The Tita Collective invites us into Filipin* kitchens, living rooms and lives with its Next Stage Theatre Festival production of its hilariously entertaining sold-out Toronto Fringe 2019 hit Tita Jokes. Created and performed by the Collective and directed by Tricia Hagoriles, the show features music direction and piano accompaniment by Ayaka Kinugawa, choreography by Chantelle Mostacho and animation by Solis Animation. Part Spice Girls-inspired concert, part sketch comedy and all love letter to Titas—aunts in both the familial sense and broader sense of beloved, respected Filipina elders—the ensemble sings, dances gossips and riffs on Filipin* family and community. Tita Jokes is currently running in the Factory Theatre Mainspace.

Playing characters inspired by the Spice Girls (instead of X Spice, it’s Tita X), the Collective—Ann Paula Bautista, Belinda Corpuz, Isabel Kanaan, Ellie Posadas, Alia Rasul and Maricris Rivera—frame the show as a farewell concert. With choreography that incorporates traditional Philippine fan dance, and music that borrows from pop, R&B and musical theatre, the Collective sings, dances and performs hilariously insightful, satirical sketch comedy bits that speak to the heart of Filipin* family and community, with a particular shout-out to the Titas.

The energetic, multi-talented ensemble takes us on and entertaining, often moving, ride as they weave song and dance with sketch comedy bits. Filipin* folks will especially enjoy the in-jokes, but you don’t have to be Filipin* to have a blast and laugh along with this peek into the lives, loves and experiences of the community. Highlights include a kitchen table scene between a mother and her two daughters; church ladies gossip and strut their stuff; navigating queer and gender identity in the Filipin* community; and Tita superheroes come to the rescue in a mystery/action adventure story. And even music director Ayaka Kinugawa, supplying live piano accompaniment, gets in on the act!

Tita Jokes is jam-packed with love, family, community and Tita power—and loaded with LOLs and ‘Now you know’ moments.

Tita Jokes continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until January 19. You have a few more chances to catch the show during this Next Stage run; check the show page for exact dates, times and advance ticket purchase. Yesterday’s show was so packed, they had to open the balcony—so advance booking is strongly recommended.

Love, joy & connection in the deeply moving, inspiring Between Breaths

Darryl Hopkins, Steve O’Connell & Berni Stapleton. Set & costume design by Shawn Kerwin. Lighting design by Leigh Ann Vardy. Photo by Rich Blenkinsopp.

 

Factory Theatre continues the celebration of its 50th anniversary with a presentation of Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland’s production of Robert Chafe’s Between Breaths, directed by Jillian Keiley, assisted by Sharon King-Campbell, with music direction by Kellie Walsh. A biographical memory play, the reverse chronological storytelling highlights key moments during the final years of the life of Jon “The Whale Man” Lien, an animal behaviour professor from South Dakota who came to find a home in Newfoundland when he took a position at Memorial University. Eventually becoming known for his work saving over 500 whales caught up in fishing nets before dementia took his mobility, memory and ability to engage with the world as he once did, his relationship with the gentle giants of the sea reminds us of how interconnected are land and sea, man and animal.

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Darryl Hopkins & Steve O’Connell. Set & costume design by Shawn Kerwin. Lighting design by Leigh Ann Vardy. Photo by Rich Blenkinsopp.

Otherworldly, yet grounded in time and place; intensely magical and real, Between Breaths takes us on a reverse trajectory from Jon Lien’s (Steve O’Connell) final days in a long-term care facility, to the frustrating and life-altering onset of his symptoms, to his emerging calling toward saving whales caught up in fishing nets, and salvaging the costly nets for the fishermen. Throughout, Jon is both supported and doubted by his beloved wife Judy (Berni Stapleton), and whale-saving friend and colleague Wayne (Darryl Hopkins), who are alternately exasperated with and taken up by his passion, drive and vision.

Beyond the conservation work, there is a kindred spirit connection between Jon and the whales; an inexplicable, ancestral calling that began the moment he viewed the Rock from the plane—his Viking DNA drawn to the rocky green and surrounding ocean. Present, passionate and proactive in an unwavering commitment to follow through with thoughts and impulses that eventually gel into a broader vision, Jon endeavours to save the gentle giants of the sea and the precious, costly nets that trapped them—contributing to both species conservation and the economic well-being of fishermen.

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Steve O’Connell & Berni Stapleton. Set & costume design by Shawn Kerwin. Lighting design by Leigh Ann Vardy. Photo by Rich Blenkinsopp.

Lovely, compelling work from the cast in this counter clockwise journey of a man, his work with the beautiful creatures he works to save, and his life and work partners. O’Connell gives a mercurial, profoundly poignant performance as Jon Lien. Charismatic, impulsive and at times infuriating in his single-mindedness, Jon has a sharp mind and enormous heart that can be a challenge for his family and colleagues to keep up with, but he always has a way of turning situations—and people—around. He is well-supported by Stapleton’s Judy, a loving wife and partner in life who holds the fort at home with their children, and continues to reach out in the face of his advanced dementia, even when it’s unclear that he can understand or respond. And by Hopkins’ gruff, salty Wayne; initially cynical and skeptical of Jon’s motives and vision—and wary of folks from away—Wayne is won over by Jon’s contagious optimism, passion and energy. And Wayne gradually comes to trust in himself as much as Jon does.

Accompanied by a live acoustic and vocal soundtrack performed by The Once (Brianna Gosse, Steve Maloney and Kevin Woolridge), and featuring beautiful, haunting whale song, the scenes are performed with minimal set pieces and props on Shawn Kerwin’s stunning blue stage, where the action plays out as if under water. The swirling blues and greens below the sparkling ripples reflecting the sun and sky above—and a C-shaped ramp wraps the playing area—evoking the unseen life beneath the surfaces of the ocean and the mind; the sights and sounds both mirror and complement the action.

Between Breaths reminds us of the strength and fragility of even the largest and most powerful of Earth’s creatures; and Jon Lien’s struggles with evolving dementia run parallel to the experience of a trapped whale—with all the notes of grief that accompany those moments when a living being comes face to face with its own mortality. Life, love, joy, memory and connection happen between those breaths. It is both heartbreaking and inspiring to witness.

Between Breaths continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until December 8; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416- 504-9971. Go see this.

 

 

Classic Canadian Gothic comes home in the quirky, magical, lyrical Trout Stanley

Natasha Mumba, Stephen Jackman-Torkoff & Shakura Dickson. Set & costume design by Shannon Lea Doyle. Lighting design by Raha Javanfar. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography.

 

Claudia Dey’s Canadian Gothic classic Trout Stanley comes home to Factory Theatre for a new production, cast through an African Canadian immigrant lens, directed by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, assisted by Coleen MacPherson—opening last night in the Mainspace. Quirky, magical and lyrical, twin sisters celebrating their 30th birthday—the same day their parents died 10 years ago—find an unexpected guest in their secluded house in the woods. Love, family and devotion are assessed and put to the test as relationship dynamics evolve in hilarious and poignant ways.

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Shakura Dickson & Natasha Mumba. Set & costume design by Shannon Lea Doyle. Lighting design by Raha Javanfar. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography.

Set in 1990s rural B.C., twin sisters Sugar (Shakura Dickson) and Grace (Natasha Mumba) Ducharme have only had each other since their parents died on their birthday 10 years ago. The introverted Sugar hasn’t left the house since, and refuses to stop wearing their mother’s track suit; while extrovert Grace dons a stylin’ mauve jumpsuit and goes to work at the town dump every day, scoring the occasional print modelling gig—including a recent billboard ad. It’s their 30th birthday; and along with the tragic memory of their parents’ deaths, the date seems to be extra cursed. Every year since they were orphaned, a woman in the area who shares their birthday has gone missing and turned up dead, found by Grace. And this year, the Scrabble Champ stripper has disappeared on her way home from work.

Things get even stranger when an unexpected guest on a mission turns up at the twins’ secluded house in the woods: a young, handsome-ish man with the unlikely name Trout Stanley, who we soon learn has much in common with the sisters—and who is immediately and inexplicably drawn to Sugar. Like the twins, he was orphaned and has set out on foot, searching for the lake where his parents drowned—and now he’s lost. But, with a possible murderer on the loose, can Sugar and Grace trust him?

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Stephen Jackman-Torkoff. Set & costume design by Shannon Lea Doyle. Lighting design by Raha Javanfar. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography.

Outstanding work from the cast in this captivating, mercurial, lyrical three-hander; playing characters that are all both feral and fragile in their own way. Dickson brings an adorable child-like sweetness to the soft-spoken, broken-hearted Sugar; singing snatches of made-up songs, and singing and dancing to her mother’s old Heart record, Sugar lives in a world of her own, surrounded by dozens of the tragic biographic figurines she used to make (shouts to set designer Shannon Lea Doyle for the beautiful, detailed set of the Ducharme home). Mumba brings a self-confident swagger and fierceness to Grace; entertainingly vain and ferociously protective of Sugar—her polar opposite and perfect complement—Grace more than lives up to her nickname of Lion Queen. The world the sisters have created together is a poignant and unique combination of tender personal rituals and pragmatic harsh realities. For Sugar, the world is full of nostalgia, music and magic; drawn to the macabre, it’s the everyday moments that overwhelm her. Grace sees and smells the hardness of the world every day, but still manages to find wonder and beauty—even at the dump. Jackman-Torkoff is a playful, puckish delight as Trout Stanley; mercurial and impish, Trout is part wild man, part philosopher, part poet. He has big feelings and huge dreams; unflinching in his cause, his encounter with the sisters changes him too. As unexpected as his lost boy arrival is for the twins, what he finds is both new and surprising.

This fairy tale-like adventure plays out with memory, heart and singular individuality as all three characters reveal their secrets and find a way to move on with their lives.

Trout Stanley continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until November 10; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416- 504-9971.

In the meantime, check out Phil Rickaby’s Stageworthy Podcast interview with actor Shakura Dickson.

 

 

Toronto Fringe: Conflict, family & connection in the compelling, moving Checkpoint 300

Back: Brittany Cope. Front: Ori Black & Lizette Mynhardt. Photo by Adrianna Prosser.

 

Tamaya Productions, this year’s winner of Fringe’s First Play Competition, presents Checkpoint 300, written and directed by Michelle Wise, assisted by Duncan Rowe, and running in the Factory Theatre Mainspace. A tragic incident at the Israel-Palestine border involving the first female soldier assigned to a checkpoint brings two women from opposite sides together as the soldier deals with the aftermath and a reporter looks for answers in this compelling, moving story.

Shiri (Lizette Mynhardt), a young Israeli soldier, has just completed punishing training and rigourous testing in order to be the first female soldier assigned to an Israel-Palestine border checkpoint. Her mother Tivka (Jorie Morrow) is concerned but supportive, and her father Benny (Geoff Mays) worries and wonders why she couldn’t have aimed for a safer office position. Shiri’s commanding officer Shay (Ori Black) is taken aback by the posting, but takes it in stride, acknowledging that she’s passed the same training and testing the male soldiers have, and makes a place for her on the team.

On the Palestinian side, reporter Amelie (Brittany Cope) leaves her family home for Paris, for a life away from the oppressive environment of constant policing, control and monitoring. Her gentle, easy-going father Bashir (Mays) and mother Nabila (Morrow) want her close to home, and on a more traditional path, including a husband and family. Her younger brother Walid (Amir Pour) works with their father as a mechanic when he’s not playing soccer.

Amelie and Shiri are brought together following a tragic incident at the checkpoint, where an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian man were killed—the latter a terrorist suspect. Shiri refuses to speak of the incident to anyone, and her mother arranges a meeting with Amelie in the hopes that Shiri will get to tell her side, and achieve some closure and relief. And as the story unfolds, Shiri and Amelie’s personal connections to the incident are revealed.

Lovely work from the cast in this often intense tale of conflict, family and connection; and where everyday life proceeds with humour and a sense of pragmatism, coloured by which side of the border one lives on. Mynhardt’s Shiri is a tightly coiled combination of determined ambition and nervous anticipation; Shiri wants to do something that makes a difference, but is all too aware of the many eyes on her with this historic posting. Cope’s performance as Amelie reveals a sense of resilience, drive and heart; like Shiri, Amelie is an ambitious, hard-working professional in a male-dominated field—and must now navigate personal feelings as she seeks to find the truth.

Black is a likeable, irreverent, and highly skilled leader as Shay; not too sure how this girl at the checkpoint thing is going to work, Shay takes a professional attitude and becomes a mentor to the rookie Shiri. Pour brings a sense of fun and mischief to the cocky youth Walid; clocking time at the shop with his father, he dreams of a life away from there—and glory on the soccer pitch. The casting of Morrow and Mays as both sets of parents is both fitting and poignant here, as it serves to highlight the commonalities on opposite sides of the border. Parents worry and try to usher their children toward what they think is best for them. And, no matter where they are, they want much the same thing: for their families to be safe and for their children to have a good future.

Even in an environment of conflict, opposing sides always have something in common—a way to connect. But easier said than done when fear and mistrust run so deep and for so long. Can hope and love have a chance?

Checkpoint 300 continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace for two more performances: July 13 at 10:15 and July 14 at 4:00; check the show page for advance tickets.

Toronto Fringe: Coping with loss & freeing the stories in the enchanting, playful adventure Through the Bamboo

Carolyn Fe & ensemble. Set design by Nina Lee Aquino & Farnoosh Talebpour. Costume design by Farnoosh Talebpour. Lighting design by Michelle Ramsay. Photo by Lyon Smith.

 

The Uwi Collective presents a Philippine mythology-inspired adventure in storytelling in the enchanting, playful, poignant Through the Bamboo, running in the Factory Theatre Mainspace. Written by Andrea Mapili and Byron Abalos; directed by Nina Lee Aquino, assisted by Mapili; and with music direction by Maddie Bautista, we follow the reluctant hero’s journey of a young girl as she seeks to free her Lola (grandma) from a strange, faraway land ruled by Three Sisters who have outlawed storytelling.

Philly (Angela Rosete) is sad and angry; her beloved Lola (Carolyn Fe) has died and her family is packing Lola’s things all wrong. When she discovers Lola’s favourite story book Through the Bamboo, she also finds Lola’s malong (a multi-purpose Philippine garment, worn here as a sash) tucked inside. She puts the malong on, and it comes to life, whisking her away to Uwi, ruled by Three Sisters—Isa (Karen Ancheta, who also plays Philly’s mom), Dalawa (Marie Beath Badian) and Tatlo (Joy Castro)—who have banished storytelling from the land.

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Marie Beath Badian, Karen Ancheta & Joy Castro. Set design by Nina Lee Aquino & Farnoosh Talebpour. Costume design by Farnoosh Talebpour. Lighting design by Michelle Ramsay. Photo by Lyon Smith.

Upon her arrival, Philly is greeted by the villagers as the one foretold in a prophecy who will free them from their oppression at the hands of the Sisters. All she wants to do is go home, but when she visits Matalino the seer (Nicco Lorenzo Garcia) and learns that Lola is there, she partners with two stalwart allies, Giting (Lana Carillo) and Ipakita (Ericka Leobrera), to find her. Along the way, they are assisted by mythical creatures: the sea creature Koyo (Anthony Perpuse), made mute by the Sisters’ magic; and the trickster forest creature Kapre (Perpuse). And all the while, they are pursued by the Sisters’ spy, the formidable flying Ekek, and the fierce horseman solider General T (both played by John Echano). Will Philly be able to save Lola—and is she really who everyone thinks she is? Will the Sisters maintain their vice-like grip on the land, where even memories—which constitute stories—are forbidden?

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Angela Rosete, Lana Carillo & Ericka Leobrera. Set design by Nina Lee Aquino & Farnoosh Talebpour. Costume design by Farnoosh Talebpour. Lighting design by Michelle Ramsay. Photo by Lyon Smith.

It’s a big fun, fantastic ride for all ages as everyday household items and moving boxes transform into a variety of magical creature costumes, props (shouts to props master Farnoosh Talebpour) and places: tennis rackets become Ekek’s wings, a wicker rocking horse transforms into General T, and swimming noodles become bamboo stalks. And lovely, imaginative, high-energy performances from the cast as they shift from our everyday world to the magical world of Uwi.

Rosete brings a feisty fierceness to the strong-willed Philly; hurt and angry, and missing her Lola, her determination and resilience make her a true hero. Fe gives a beautiful, gentle and touching performance as Lola; at first confused and disoriented in her earthly dementia state, Lola’s memory returns, revealing great power and strength. Great comic turns from the Sisters Ancheta, Beath Badian and Castro—reminiscent of the three sisters in the movie Stardust, who age whenever they use their power. Garcia makes for a jolly wise man as Matalino, adding a playful Yoda-like quality to the wisdom. Echano is both comic and intimidating as the flying spy Ekek, bringing to mind the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz; then all menace as the merciless horseback soldier General T. And Perpuse is adorable and puck-like as the mute sea-dwelling Koyo, who must communicate with gestures; and as the mischievous forest-dwelling Kapre, renowned for playing tricks.

A reminder that stories are how we connect, how we remember loved ones we’ve lost—and important tools for working through the grief of that loss. You may find yourself feeling like a kid at story time, and maybe even brushing away a tear or two at the end (I know I did).

Through the Bamboo continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace for three more performances: July 11 at 2:30, July 13 at 6:15 and July 14 at 12:00; visit the show page to book advance tickets online. Definitely book in advance, as these guys have been selling out.

Toronto Fringe: Reaching back & out to overcome loneliness in the entertaining, heart-wrenching The Big House

Tracey Erin Smith. Set and lighting design by Steve Lucas. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

There’s nothing like a family dinner to bring out the best and the worst in us; and maybe even an insight or two on the nature of loneliness. SOULO Theatre founder/A.D. Tracey Erin Smith takes us on her deepest, most personal storytelling journey yet in the entertaining, heart-wrenching The Big House, directed by and co-created with Sarah Garton Stanley; running in the Factory Theatre Mainspace.

Set during a Passover Seder, Smith has invited her family to her small apartment as she  seeks a way to overcome loneliness during the holiday. A fraught family history and long-held resentments burst out around the dinner table. And then, branching out from this gathering, memories from childhood and the recent past: her father’s incarceration when she was seven, and a unique volunteer experience at California’s Kern Valley maximum security men’s prison in 2018, where she provided feedback on inmates’ ideas for starting up their own business after they get out. Beyond being a common colloquialism for jail, “big house” is also the large Forest Hill home her mother was forced to downsize from with two small children after Smith’s father went to jail. Forced confinement and forced exodus—both huge, life-changing events.

Believing that everyone has a story to tell and making a safe space for that to happen, Smith walks the talk as she dives deep into the messy, wonderful place that is the human soul to discover what hidden gems of wisdom she may find there. Smart, funny and insightful as she shifts from character to character, her performance is vulnerable, edgy and full of chutzpah—delivered with heart, charisma and even a song or two as she takes us along to witness these unfolding moments along the road to realization and release. A gentle storyteller even at the roughest of times, Smith takes us by the hand even as she takes her seven-year-old self by the hand.

While it’s possible to find contentment in being alone, there’s also the hesitant outreach of loneliness in a crowd. We need to be able to tell the difference. And common ground and genuine connection—as well as love and forgiveness—can be found in unexpected places. We just need to be brave enough to go there.

The Big House continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until July 14; check out the show page for exact dates/times and advance tickets. Advance booking strongly recommended; Smith is a popular performer—and the house was packed at last night’s opening.

In the meantime, give a listen to this Classical FM 96.3 interview with Smith on Oasis, hosted by Mark Wigmore.

Gender power dynamics get a table flip in the provocative, timely Beautiful Man

Foreground: Ashley Botting, Mayko Nguyen & Sofía Rodríguez. Background: Jess LaVercombe. Set design by Gillian Gallow. Costume design by Ming Wong. Lighting design by Jason Hand. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography.

 

Factory Theatre closes its 2018-19 season with Erin Shields’ Beautiful Man. Directed by long-time Shields collaborator Andrea Donaldson (now the new AD at Nightwood Theatre), assisted by Keshia Palm, Beautiful Man was first produced during SummerWorks in 2015—a few years before the #MeToo movement exploded into public consciousness. A hilariously sharp, satirical and thought-provoking turnabout of gender power dynamics, Shields has revised the original script to reflect the #MeToo landscape; and has added a section that provides a sense of everyday realism—in both cases, flipping gender power roles in surprising, provocative ways.

I first saw Beautiful Man at SummerWorks 2015—and loved it. Not for the feint-hearted when it comes to adult language, and discussions of graphic sex and violence, the razor-sharp, bawdy, no holds barred script and the playful, rapid fire performances turn the tables on who is marginalized and objectified. Three women—Jennifer (Ashley Botting), Sophie (Mayko Nguyen) and Pam (Sofía Rodríguez)—get into a passionate discussion about popular scripted media; all stories in which the female characters hold the power, and men are subject to objectification and violence. A movie about a world-weary, tough yet haunted female homicide detective on the hunt for a female serial killer who preys on beautiful men. Exhausted and zoning out in front of the TV, the detective watches a violent, graphically sexual Game of Thrones-esque fantasy fiction series featuring a powerful, cruel queen and her amazon warrior sister. Within the TV show, the queen watches a play with a plot that’s similar to Julius Caesar, but with women in the key roles; and within that play, a puppet show starring a lusty cave woman. Yep, it’s a puppet show within a play, within a TV series, within a movie—all within a play!

Throughout this first fantasy section of the play, the Beautiful Man (Jesse LaVercombe) is a peripheral character, always present in the background, with little to say as he gradually removes his clothing throughout. A sensitive, supportive but frustrated husband; a poignant murder/rape victim; a conquered sex slave. Valued only for his beauty and usefulness to the women in charge, his name is perpetually forgotten. In the epilogue, the shifted power dynamic continues, but in a markedly different way, as a woman relates personal anecdotes of navigating everyday corporate oppression, mansplaining, harassment, self-doubt and chastisement, and fear for her safety.

Outstanding performances from the entire cast in this thought-provoking, timely piece of theatre. Beyond mere fan girl involvement with the media they’re consuming and discussing, the three women engage on a deeply personal level with the movie, TV series, play and puppet show. Botting’s Jennifer displays wry wit and shameless enthusiasm; Nguyen’s Sophie brings an edge of precision and authority; and Rodríguez’s Pam relishes the sensual and forbidden. At times misremembering details in their reverie, these three  women find a titillating oasis in these stories of sex, violence and dominant female characters. And LaVercombe gives a sensitive and moving performance as the Beautiful Man. Viewed as eye candy, the “other half”, a sex object, a victim, and only subjectively and conditionally seen as useful—this is a man standing in places traditionally endured by women.

Despite the graphic sex and violence described during the first part of the play, not to mention the fact that these women are really getting off on it, the second part is perhaps the most provocative. What impact does it have on the conversations about these issues? Will the everyday oppression of women be better understood when told in this manner? Who gets the last word?

Beautiful Man continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until May 26; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416- 504-9971.

Check out this Intermission Spotlight piece on Shields and her work by Carly Maga, including chats with Shields, Donaldson and Maev Beaty. And Megan Robinson’s conversation with Shields and Donaldson in In the Greenroom.

A lesser known perspective of WWI in the compelling, eye-opening, thought-provoking Gods Like Us

Zazu Oke & Vince Deiulis. Set construction by Erica Causi. Lighting design by Wes Babcock. Photo by Kelsi Dewhurst.

 

Theatre Nidãna challenges what we think we know about WWI as it commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the Armistice of the First World War, giving us a little known perspective with the world premiere of Gods Like Us. An allegory that incorporates a traditional Nigerian lullaby and storytelling, and original music (composed by Nathan Radke and played by Mark Whale), Gods Like Us was devised by Zazu Oke and Vince Deiulis, who both perform in this compelling, eye-opening and thought-provoking two-hander; opening last night in the Factory Theatre Studio.

It’s November 1917, and a Canadian Recruiter (Vince Deiulis) approaches a Nigerian yam Farmer (Zazu Oke) in hopes of convincing him to join the Allied forces in their campaign to push back the Germans’ advance in East Africa. Taking a sales pitch angle on the ask, the Recruiter offers money, promising the Farmer increased status and respect within the village—and the ultimate advanced status of being “like us” (white men).

However, the British army—and by extension the Recruiter—have erred on gauging their audience. Assuming they’d be addressing uneducated, simple-minded African villagers who know nothing of the outside world, the Recruiter is faced with an intelligent, socially aware man who has personal, direct knowledge of the actual “opportunity” he’s being offered. Black men are not taken on as soldiers, but as carriers; and being denied a weapon, how are they to defend themselves? And the enhanced status pitch is inaccurate at best and at worst a lie.

The Farmer tells the Recruiter the story of the Tortoise and the Birds; the Birds are tricked by the Tortoise’s sweet words into helping him, only to find themselves cheated out of their promised reward. Instead of being helpless victims of a swindle, the Birds plot and get their revenge on the Tortoise—forever marking him as a crooked creature. While the Recruiter is charmed by the tale, he clearly doesn’t get the connection to their current circumstance.

As the Recruiter struggles to control his soldier’s heart (PTSD) episodes, the Farmer grapples with his anger at the sheer nerve and hypocrisy of his request. A British protectorate, the colonization of Nigeria has come at great, and tragic, personal and economic cost to its people. The Farmer has lost his family; and the farm is hanging by a thread as he tries to scrape by, selling his produce at lower prices to the British compared to what he could earn from his former German customers. Why should the Farmer fight for those who’ve done nothing but take from him and his people? And when the tone of the debate shifts from a battle of wits to playful wager to enraged face-off, the Farmer finds himself facing a moral choice: Does he use the power at his disposal to take revenge or does he let it go?

Riveting performances from Deiulis and Oke in this intimate tale of war, colonialism and race relations; the two-hander dynamic serving as a microcosm of the larger picture. Deiulis leaves us some room for empathizing with the Recruiter, who is under orders and navigating PTSD; but our sympathy for him only goes so far. Avoiding a sleazy, snake oil salesman approach, the Recruiter uses more friendly, insidious means to get the “natives” to sign on. Toeing the company line in his promise of white, god-like status, the Recruiter is entirely clueless to the fact that he’s adding serious insult to mortal injury. Oke is both impressive and heartbreaking as the Farmer. In deep mourning for the loss of his family and struggling to keep the farm—and himself—alive, the Farmer is patient and hospitable with the Recruiter; but his civility is tested when the Recruiter keeps pushing the Allies’ agenda, bringing the Farmer’s painful history of oppression and loss to the surface, and forcing him to push back.

Lesser known stories like this one need to be told. One has to wonder, had there been any attempt at reconciliation and reparation—and approached as a connection of equals and true partners—maybe prospective Nigerian recruits would have had a real reason to risk their lives in this war. But this observation is, of course, made through a 2018 lens. And while we honour those who served, we must also acknowledge and appreciate those who were unable to serve, or whose service was minimized, or coaxed or coerced with bait and switch methods, due to the colour of their skin.

Gods Like Us continues in the Factory Theatre Studio until November 17; advance tickets available online, or by calling 416-504-9971 or visiting the box office (125 Bathurst Street, Adelaide Street Entrance).

In the meantime, check out Oke and Deiulis’s Stageworthy Podcast interview with host Phil Rickaby.