Secrets & dark suspicions in the eerie, Gothic family drama Gripless

GriplessCastBWStanding: David Huband & Amber Mackereth. Seated: Margaret Lamarre.

 

Green Garden Equity Artist Collective gives us a disturbing tale of family secrets and dark suspicions in Deborah Ann Frankel’s eerie family drama Gripless; directed by Frankel and on now for a short run at Red Sandcastle Theatre.

On a stormy night in a small town, brother Ben (David Huband) and sister April (Amber Mackereth) bring their mother Elaine (Margaret Lamarre) home from a birthday celebration dinner in honour of their deceased father Daniel. Uncomfortable and anxious to leave, intimidating younger sister April appears to be the alpha to her more easy going older brother. But try as they might to leave their family home, something Elaine says keeps drawing them away from the door and back into the living room.

As the action unfolds, we learn that Elaine remarried about a year after Daniel’s death; an abusive brute of a man named Tim, who recently had a stroke. We get the sense that there are some uncomfortable unsaid truths in the closet of this family’s history; and memories shift from nostalgic reverie and childhood shenanigans to disturbing discoveries and suspicions—hinting at a troubling and violent dynamic.

Compelling work from the cast in this unsettling, spooky story of family dysfunction and conflicting perspectives. Lamarre’s Elaine is damaged, adrift and also manipulative; poignant yet unsettling, Elaine’s selective memory targets only the happy moments and she seems oddly disconnected from what’s happening right in front of her. As April, Mackereth’s tough-talking, bully exterior masks a deeply hurt, vulnerable child; unforgiving with her mother, April has tender feelings for her big brother, the only one who’s ever been on her side. Huband’s Ben is the perfect foil for Mackereth’s April; wry-witted, quiet and introspective, Ben is clearly the peacemaker in the family—but even his easy-going demeanour gives way to moments of haunted reflection.

Writer/director Frankel, who folks will recognize as Red Sandcastle’s intrepid SM, will be taking over as General Manager when AD Rosemary Doyle heads to Kingston in August as the new AD of Theatre Kingston; multitasking in this production, she’s also juggling box office and SM duty in booth—and created one heck of a dark, atmospheric set and soundtrack.

Gripless has two more performances at Red Sandcastle Theatre: tonight (July 22) and tomorrow (July 23) at 8 p.m.; book tickets in advance at deborahannfrankel@gmail.com or pay cash at the door.

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The inescapable ghosts of the past meet tricks of the memory in the haunting, complex The Late Henry Moss

Anthony Ulc in The Late Henry Moss. Set design by Adam Belanger. Costumes by Janelle Joy Hince. Lighting by Steve Vargo. Photo by Curt Sachs.

 

Unit 102 Actors Co. takes us to an adobe shack in the middle of nowhere New Mexico in their intimate production of Sam Shepard’s The Late Henry Moss, directed by Scott Walker and running at their new home at The Assembly Theatre.

When Ray (David Lafontaine) arrives at Henry’s place after getting a phone call from his estranged older brother Earl (Mark Paci), their father (Anthony Ulc) is already dead, his corpse covered with a blanket on a cot. And when Ray presses Earl to repeat the details of the circumstances of Henry’s death, he gets the sneaking suspicion that something’s not right.

Earl got a call from Henry’s neighbour Esteban (Matthew Gouveia), who was worried about Henry’s welfare. We learn that Henry had a girlfriend named Conchalla (Jennifer McEwan), and a young Texan taxi driver (Michael Eisner) fills in the blanks about driving Henry on a strange fishing trip shortly before he died. Shifting back and forth between past and present as we see the story play out, we witness a tangled web of lies, secrets and selected memory unravel.

This is classic Shepard, featuring all the dark comedy, family dysfunction, alcoholism, secrets and haunting, conflicting memories—the stark realism tinted with moments of magic and poetry. The underlying sense of cruelty and violence starts at a slow boil, the heat getting turned up throughout with explosive results as inner demons are revealed and unleashed. In the end, the truth is both troubling, poignant and complicated.

Excellent work from the cast on this intense, intimate journey. Paci gives a compelling combination of a lost life lived in a state of exhausted estrangement and a longing to reconnect; there are things, moments, that Earl can’t bear to look at—but he finds himself unable to turn away from his dying father. Lafontaine’s tightly wound, mercurial Ray is the perfect foil for the more taciturn Earl. Menacing in his suspicion, and with a tendency towards cruelty and violence, Ray recalls bits of family history that his older brother has blocked—but memory is a trickster even for him.

Like Earl, Ulc’s Henry is a picture of haunted, hungover isolation; trying to forget, erasing his past with a bottle and a woman, Henry fears death as much as he courts it. McEwan is sensuous, mysterious and shaman-like as Henry’s girlfriend Conchalla; adding an otherworldly taste of magic, ancient tradition and heated romance—including some sexy choreography, with the dance illustrating their relationship—it’s like she’s acting as Henry’s guide to the next world.

Eisner’s taxi driver and Gouveia’s Esteban add some great—and much needed—comic relief. Eisner is adorably friendly and entertainingly cocky as Taxi; and, as Esteban, Gouveia is the sweet, guileless Good Samaritan with a lusty streak.

The inescapable ghosts of the past meet tricks of the memory in the haunting, complex The Late Henry Moss.

With shouts to the design team Adam Belanger (set), Janelle Joy Hince (costumes) and Steve Vargo (lighting) for transforming the venue into this blue and orange world outside of the rest of the world.

The Late Henry Moss continues at The Assembly Theatre until January 20; get advance tickets online.

 

Casual cruelty & family secrets in ferociously funny, devastatingly poignant August: Osage County

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Marie Carriere Gleason (foreground), with Paul Cotton, Kelly-Marie Murtha, Melinda Jordan, Pearl Ho & Andrew Batten – photos by Bruce Peters

Alumnae Theatre Company cordially invites you to attend a family gathering at the home of Beverly and Violet Weston in Pawhuska, Oklahoma.

Alumnae opened its production of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County on the mainstage last night. Directed by Victoria Shepherd and featuring a talented ensemble, this is family dysfunction at its grittiest, no holds barred best.

When the Weston family patriarch (Thomas Gough) goes missing, middle daughter Ivy (Andrea Lyons) – the only child who stayed in town – rallies the family around her ailing mother Violet (Marie Carriere Gleason). Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Carol McLennan) and husband Charlie (Rob Candy) are the first to arrive, and we get a sense of the estrangement that underpins the family dynamic. The Weston’s oldest daughter Barbara (Kelly-Marie Murtha) is the most wanted – but least wanting – to be there; she arrives from Colorado with husband Bill (Paul Cotton) and 14-year-old daughter Jean (Melinda Jordan) in tow. Add to this mix youngest Weston girl Karen (Kathleen Jackson Allamby) and fiancé Steve (Chris Peterson), and cousin Little Charles (Neil Cameron), and the family circus is complete – occasionally witnessed from the outside by housekeeper/caregiver Johnna (Pearl Ho) and Sheriff Deon Gilbeau (Andrew Batten). The atmosphere becomes rife with nostalgia (for better or worse), secrets and schemes as things fall apart and come together only to fall apart again and again.

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Marie Carriere Gleason & Andrea Lyons

Nice work all around from this large, engaging cast. The play runs two and a half hours, plus intermission, but doesn’t feel like it. The Weston family women anchor this story – and the cast is particularly strong here. Gleason’s Violet is a complex puzzle of illness, addiction and survivor; quick to offer unsolicited – and decidedly not feminist – advice to the women in her life, her brutal honesty is shockingly unforgiving. Moments of manipulation and Hollywood-calibre drama queen can turn (seemingly) into flashes of genuine tenderness. Lyons gives a lovely, multi-layered performance as the put-upon Ivy; a character that could easily become a one-dimensional family doormat, she pushes back with a sharp wit and dark sense of humour. She has a pure heart and the patience of a saint, but as the main butt of her mother’s criticism, even she has her limits. Murtha’s Barbara is the picture of a woman on the edge, struggling with a complex set of emotions as her whole world is crumbling around her. The family rock, she strives to keep things together even as she’s falling apart herself – by turns angry, exasperated, protective and acerbically funny, putting out one fire as another appears. Allamby’s Karen is a beautiful contradiction; a high-energy chatterbox, Karen strives for self-awareness and adulthood, but comes off as flakey and deluded, with a poignant, child-like quality to her rose-coloured family nostalgia, born of selective memory. McLennan’s Mattie Fae, like her sister Violet, is a complex woman of contradiction – as cruel in her judgemental criticism (in her case, aimed at her son Little Charles) as she is fiercely protective of her family, including her son. And Jordan brings a precocious, wise child edge to Jean; a self-possessed young film buff coming into herself as she deals with her parents’ relationship issues.

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Pearl Ho & Thomas Gough

Other stand-outs include Gough’s wry-witted, melancholy alcoholic Beverly; a lauded poet and academic at the end of his rope, we only see him at the top of the play, but his presence resonates and stays with us. Batten brings an understated, quiet and boyish bashfulness and sense of anticipation to the Sheriff, a former beau of Barbara’s. And Peterson’s Steve is both charming and skeevy; a smooth operator under that sweet, helpful exterior.

It’s like watching a train wreck – and you can’t look away. The high drama of this family gathering is tempered by sharp-edged, dark humour – which the family uses for both self-protection and sniper attacks – and occasional moments of genuine, loving connection. Nothing brings out a family’s true colours like tragedy.

With shouts to set designer Alexis Chubb’s minimalist, multi-level set, with its inventive and effective multiple playing areas and nooks for the various family vignettes. And to John Stuart Campbell for the sound design and original composition; his song “Can’t Run Far Enough” features vocals by Vivien Shepherd and Ron Smith on harmonica – and haunting, wistful western sounds.

Casual cruelty and family secrets abound in Alumnae’s ferociously funny, devastatingly poignant production of August: Osage County.

August: Osage County continues on the Alumnae mainstage until April 23; check here for ticket purchase/info. Performances include a pre-show chat with the design team at noon tomorrow (Sun, Apr 10); and a post-show talkback with the cast and crew on Sun, Apr 17.

Related trivia/info: Former Alumnae President (and damn fine actor) Dinah Watts is in a London Community Players’ production of August: Osage County in London, ON right now. Lett’s first play Killer Joe is in production at Coal Mine Theatre till April 24 (I’m seeing it on Tuesday). And founder/playwright at Cue6 Theatre Sarah Illiatovitch-Goldman (who was in Alumnae’s production of Wit, and has play We Three running now at Tarragon) is on the Steppenwolf Theater Company’s literary team for the world premiere of Letts’ play Mary Page Marlowe.

Oh yeah, and here’s the awesome trailer for the Alumnae production of August: Osage County (video by Nicholas Porteous):

 

Do you know The Pillowman?

When I enter the intimate space of the Propeller Gallery, it is filled with a couple of rows of chairs facing a minimalist playing space (set designed by Tracy Lam, who also designed costumes and props). A table, a file cabinet, a couple of chairs. Three metal frame-encased light bulbs hang from the ceiling. Stage right, there is a projection screen, currently blank.  The works of six local artists,* created specifically for the production, hang on the white upstage wall. The images are beautiful, freakish, violent and nightmarish – each bordered and connected to some of the others with black tape. Like a homicide detective’s whiteboard. Or a bizarre family tree. Relationships. Causality. Connections.

This is opening night of Rarely Pure Theatre’s production of Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman, directed by Ryan Quinn. As with McDonagh’s other works (The Lonesome West and the film In Bruges), this play is not for the faint-hearted. And in this space, the action is even more up close and personal, drawing the audience in even as it repels.

Katurian (Chris George) is a writer of strange, wondrous and often grotesque stories –  many involving young children in macabre fairy tales that would make the Grimm boys blanch. He is also in police custody in a totalitarian dictatorship – blindfolded when we first see him – with no idea why he’s there. Detectives Tupolski (Davydd Cook) and Ariel (Spencer Robson, also one of the company’s ADs and producer for this show) interrogate Katurian, who soon learns that his intellectually challenged older brother Michal (David DiFrancesco) is also in custody. Two children have been found murdered and a third (Maria – Maya Kawale) is missing, presumed dead. If the brothers are found guilty, the police have the power to go straight to execution. No trial. No jail time.

Twists and turns abound in this  deeply disturbing, moving and brutally funny play. Quinn and his cast have done a marvelous job of mining these characters, presenting the multiple facets of each, ever aware of how high the stakes. No one is as he seems at first – and any notion of good cop/bad cop, hero/villain, innocent/guilty are turned upside down as the action progresses. As the protagonist Katurian, George is especially remarkable, displaying an extraordinary range of vulnerability, strength and emotion in a single performance. Each character holds strong convictions – and when they clash, it is both terrible and thought-provoking to behold. Intimidation, torture, wordplay and storytelling share the stage in this gripping and moving drama. The stage right screen I mentioned earlier is put to good use, with projected illustrations (by Lauren Dobbie) of Katurian’s stories appearing as he narrates them — like the stories, both lyrical and terrible. And Katurian’s fight to save his art rivals that of his fight to save himself or his brother.

*Shouts, too, to the contributing artists, whose work is available for sale (speak with the box office folks): Mike Ellis, Tiffany Huta, Jennifer Ilett, Emily Kouri, Suharu Ogawa and Tyler Tilley.

The Pillowman runs just till March 3 at the Propeller Gallery – and seating is limited – so I’d strongly suggest booking in advance at TicketBreak. Go see this.

An excavation of mothers & daughters in Midden

First off, let’s get a big question out of the way – I know it was a big one for me. What the heck is a “midden”? Director Maureen Lukie answers this question in her Director’s Notes in the Midden program: it is a “form of burial mound found in archeological digs, where you can see layers of relics revealing how ancient peoples lived.” The word has also been used to refer to a messy space, as in a child’s disaster area bedroom, and also as a place where witches reside.

In the Toronto Irish Players’ (TIP) production of Morna Regan’s play Midden, “midden” refers to the place where family history is kept “preserved but not whole” – and open to a variety of interpretations when unearthed. The same story is never told the same way twice – and retold moments and events are shaped by individual points of view and rationalizations, and complex, multiple layers of family dynamic.

Yulia Shtern’s beautiful and practical set, the Sweeney kitchen, recently redecorated in anticipation of a daughter’s return, illustrates the sense of layers perfectly. The lower half of the walls is the colour of clay and the upper half is wallpapered with a pattern that appears to be close-up images of the seashore – layers of sea shells and stones washed up along the water’s edge – and the linoleum floor below like clay stones underfoot. The kitchen is ground zero for this multi-generational excavation. Even Ruth’s clothing designs (gorgeous costumes designed by Bernie Hunt) include a family history: Irish lace and three dropped stitches, taught to her by Dophie, so as to avoid the hubris of perfection. Three generations of mothers and daughters, secrets and grudges.

Ruth returns home after a long, somewhat estranged absence in America, now a successful fashion designer preparing to launch her Maiden City collection in Ireland. While she was away, struggling to establish her career, her grandmother Dophie has been struggling with Alzheimer’s, her Ma with looking after Dophie, and her younger sister Aileen with trying to leave home and establish a small transport business with her boyfriend. Ruth is also dealing with an identity crisis, both personal and cultural, and has just fled from her impending marriage to her fiancé Matt. The significant men in each woman’s life, some no longer living, are mentioned but never seen – and it is the women’s relationships, especially among the family, that is the focus here.

The lovely all-female cast features Lucy Farrell (Ruth),  Cliona Kenny (Dophie, Ruth’s grandmother), Barbara Taylor (Ma, Ruth’s mother), Sharon Taylor (Aileen, Ruth’s younger sister – doing double duty as producer) and Jennifer Hough (Mabs, Ruth’s friend and business partner). Farrell does a nice job with Ruth’s internal and external conflicts, trying to reach out and establish connections while keeping her boundaries intact at the same time – as are all the characters here. Kenny gives a lovely nuanced performance as Dophie, haunted by memories of the past that are all too clear compared with her tenuous grasp of the present. Barbara Taylor shows in Ma a woman caught up in the lives of her family, who she loves, but who has given up so much of herself and become embittered in the process – in North America, we’d say she was of the sandwich generation. Sharon Taylor’s Aileen, at turns hurt and rebellious, is also caught – unable to leave home and caught between life with her family and the life she longs for with a business and family of her own. Hough is a spit fire riot as Mabs – Ruth’s touchstone and confidant – juggling a family of her own with work and managing to look on the lighter side of things.

In Midden, as in life, we see – along with Ruth – that “You can go home, but you can’t go back.”

Midden continues its run on the Alumnae Theatre main stage until March 9. Please visit the TIP website for details and reservations: http://www.torontoirishplayers.com/index.php

And congrats to TIP for being named Irish Person of the Year 2013!