FireWorks Festival: Navigating the media circus in the face of profound loss in the moving, razor-sharp, thought-provoking Grief Circus

Bronson Lake & Alison Dickson. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Paige Foskett. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Bruce Peters.

 

Alumnae Theatre opened its second week of the FireWorks Festival last night, with Crystal Wood’s Grief Circus, directed by Paige Foskett. As moving as it is razor-sharp, this timely multimedia piece holds up a mirror to society’s morbid fascination, involvement and sharing in the death of strangers. A family has lost a beloved daughter and sister, an event that becomes fresh meat for the news and social media feeding frenzy. As they navigate the media circus that follows, mother and sister take very different paths to work through their grief.

Leah (Alison Dickson) speaks to us directly, our host and narrator as we witness scenes—sometimes in flashback—around the events of her older sister Jesse’s (Claire MacMaster) disappearance. Jesse’s body was later found in a ravine, and both Leah and her mother Carol (Bernadette Medhurst) find themselves in the spotlight of an often intrusive, uncaring news media—even confronted by a photographer (Jack Everett) on the steps of their small-town church when they attend Jesse’s funeral. In the aftermath, while Leah finds herself slogging through a callous, click bait world of modern news and social media, bombarded with ignorance and cruelty as she struggles to work through grief and loss, she is appalled to find her mother joining in—writing a book about the experience of losing her daughter, and working with PR folks to book interviews.

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Alison Dickson & Claire MacMaster. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Paige Foskett. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Bruce Peters.

Alternating between past and present, we see a 15-year-old Leah interacting with Jesse, who is her best friend, advisor, confidante and go-to source of info on the state of their parents’ shaky marriage; then a few years later being invited to a party with Jesse and her friends in Toronto, where Jesse disappears after leaving on her own. We see Leah go head to head with Carol over Carol’s making an industry of Jesse’s death; and the battle for Leah’s participation in a television interview, taking place the same day as her first day at university. And Leah has a meet cute with Charlie (Bronson Lake), an awkward but sweet university student; they go on a sort of date, but his motives are called into question when an altered recording of a chat he had with their server (Everett) turns up on the news, showing Leah in the worst possible light as the troubled sister of a famous dead girl.

Lovely work from the cast in this timely, moving and razor-sharp exploration of how news and social media can intrude upon and dishonour the departed, and have a profound impact on their loved ones. Dickson gives a stand-out performance as the whip-smart, introverted, wry-witted Leah; precocious, irreverent and wise beyond her years, Leah can be her own worst enemy as she keeps herself informed about world events—events that spark deep anxiety over the possibility of catastrophe. Conflicted about engaging with the Internet following Jesse’s death, what she finds there only serves to make her journey through grief more difficult.

MacMaster gives an energetic, luminous performance as the bubbly extrovert Jesse; the best big sister Leah could have, she’s super supportive and encouraging—balancing a respect for Leah’s boundaries with gentle pushes outside her comfort zone. Medhurst does a nice job with the conflicted Carol; a mother who’s lost her daughter, she deals with her grief the only way she knows how—honour Jesse’s memory so she won’t be forgotten. Lake gives an adorably awkward performance as the bashful Charlie; somewhat of an introvert himself, Charlie is interested in Leah, but unfortunately not very media-savvy. And Everett offers a great range of news media folk, from the intrusive jerk photographer at the funeral, to serious CTV reporter, to sleazy “journalist”.

Timely, moving and sharply funny, Grief Circus incorporates video and projected social media messaging (video design by director Foskett) to illustrate the scope of the family’s loss of a wonderful, energetic young woman—and the inappropriate, at times heartless, thoughtless and intrusive, response of the public. Strangers turning up at the funeral, or making comments in person or online; and, worst of all, the anonymous social media posters who cast negative, clueless aspersions about Jesse’s character—especially the trolls who say that Jesse had it coming.

Grief Circus continues in the Alumnae Studio Theatre until November 17; get tickets online, by calling 416-364-4170 (ext. 1) or in-person at the box office one hour before curtain time (cash only). There will be a post-show talkback with the director, playwright and cast following the Saturday, November 16 matinée performance.

FireWorks continues its three-week run until November 24, presenting a new show each week. The festival closes with Genevieve Adam’s If the Shoe Fits, directed by Heather Keith (Nov 20-24).

 

Fond & foolish love & sport in Shakespeare BASH’d delightful, cheeky, passionate A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Julia Nish-Lapidus. Photo by Eliza Martin.

 

Shakespeare BASH’d opens its 2019-20 season with its own take on a magical, wacky fun Shakespeare favourite with its production of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Catherine Rainville and James Wallis, choreographed by John Wamsley, with music composition and direction by Hilary Adams—on for a short run at the Monarch Tavern. As fairies make sport of mortals, so too do royals make fun of commoners in this delightful, cheeky and passionate tale of love, transformation and jumping out of your comfort zone.

Theseus (a proud and regal Nick Nahwegahbow) and Hippolyta (Hilary Adams, in royal Amazon queen warrior form) are preparing for their wedding. A meeting with wedding planner Philostrate (a fastidious and fabulous John Wamsley) are interrupted when noble Egeus (Megan Miles, with intimidating, harsh, unforgiving my-way-or-the-highway parenting) arrives, requesting judgement on her daughter Hermia’s (a feisty and forthright Eliza Martin) disobedience regarding an arranged marriage to popular young noble Demetrius (Mussié Solomon, bringing an edge of slick arrogance to the player vibe). Hermia is in love with Lysander (a somewhat nerdy, but sweet, turn from Justin Mullen); meanwhile, Hermia’s best friend Helena (a vulnerable, yet crafty and resourceful Nyiri Karakas) is in love with Demetrius, who now scorns her. Theseus orders Hermia to obey her mother or else face death or life in a convent. Hermia and Lysander hatch a plan to flee Athens—which Helena divulges to Demetrius in hopes of winning his love—and the four young people end up lost in the woods.

Also in the woods are a group of Athenian tradespeople, gathered to rehearse a play they hope will be chosen as entertainment for the royal wedding. Amiable and organized director Peter Quince (Miles) assigns parts to Bottom (an adorably goofy, child-like turn from Julia Nish-Lapidus, bringing considerable clowning skills into play), Snug (Adams), Snout (Nahwegahbow) and Flute (Wamsley).

Unseen by the mortals in the forest, a battle of wills rages among the fairies, between its King Oberon (Kate McArthur, combining an imperious, passionate presence with a soft, romantic heart) and Queen Titania (a fierce and sensuous performance from Zara Jestadt). He wants the young Indian boy in her care as a page for himself; and she refuses, having adopted the boy when his votary mother died. Coming upon Demetrius repelling Helena’s attentions, Oberon orders Puck (a gently playful Michelle Mohammed) to fetch a magic flower, and use its juice to make Demetrius fall in love with Helena. When Puck mistakes Lysander for Demetrius, both young men now love Hermia—leading to strife and betrayal revealed for the two women, and the possibility of a mortal battle between the men. Oberon has also played with Titania, using the flower to make her fall in love with the next creature she sees—which turns out to be Bottom, who Puck has turned into a donkey! Learning of Puck’s mistake with the young lovers, Oberon orders her to make it right; and having secured the young Indian boy from Titania, releases her from his spell and Bottom from her donkey persona.

Emerging from the woods, the action shifts to the wedding and a play within the play, where the sorted out lovers are given blessings, and the tradesfolk are invited to perform their comical tragedy, to heckles from the nobles—and hilariously over-the-top performances from Bottom as the hero and Flute as the heroine; and shy, bumbling turns from the terrified Snug and slow-witted snout (outstanding comedic chops, with big LOLs from Adams, Nahwegahbow, Nish-Lapidus and Wamsley here).

Featuring minimal, but very effective costuming, props and set, the magic is highlighted by Adams’ otherworldly music composition and brisk, tight staging. It’s always a good time with Shakespeare BASH’d and its ensemble, with text and intention-focused, accessible productions that make for an enjoyable and engaging theatrical experience, as well as fresh and contemporary takes on the Shakespeare cannon. You may have seen this play before, but not like this.

Just as the fairies make sport of mortals, so too do the nobles with the commoners—all in good fun, with the magic creatures making things right, while the nobles appreciate the tradespeople’s’ passion and enthusiasm. The magic happens in the transformations—offering different perspectives that can change points of view, especially when one is thrown out of one’s comfort zone.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream continues at the Monarch Tavern until November 17; please note the 7:00 pm curtain time. Advanced tickets are sold out, but if you come early, the good folks of Shakespeare BASH’d will try to squeeze you in (doors open at 6:30 pm).

ICYMI: Check out Arpital Ghosal’s interview with actor Zara Jestadt on SesayArts.

Up next for the company: A Very Merry Karaoke BASH’d (Friday, December 13 at 8:00 pm) at The Theatre Centre

Cymbeline (February 4-9) at Junction City Music Hall 

And a great chance to support a local theatre company: check out Shakespeare BASH’d’s Indiegogo campaign for the 2019-20 season.

The Real Housewives meets Molière in GBTS’s hilariously delightful The Learned Ladies

Ensemble. Set & costume design by Brandon Kleiman. Lighting design by Siobhan Sleath. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

The George Brown Theatre School (GBTS) graduating class opened its 2019-20 season at the Young Centre this week with a hilariously delightful take on Molière’s The Learned Ladies, translated by Richard Wilbur, directed by Sue Miner and choreographed by Bob McCollum. It’s The Real Housewives of Paris meets Molière as the translated text combines with a contemporary backdrop in a razor-sharp send-up of attention-seeking celebrity rich people and the famous poseur artists they fawn over. Plus ça change…

We are introduced to the characters in etalk red carpet style, complete with director (a hyper-efficient, clipboard-bearing Amelia Ryan), and self-involved celebrity hosts Joshua (sunglasses-wearing cock of the walk Jack Copland) and Salique (Siobhan Johnson, with runway model fetching fierceness). The parade of artifice and authenticity gives us a glimpse at the nature of the people we’re about to meet as they walk, stroll and pose across Brandon Kleiman’s colourful pink explosion of a set (think Barbie meets Dr. Seuss).

Left behind the glamourous clamour is the bespectacled, introverted Clitandre (an adorkably sweet turn from Barry McCluskey), trying to catch up with his sweetheart and intended bride Henriette (played with vulnerable resilience and independence by Cait MacMullin). When Henriette meets with her more popular older sister Armande (a hilariously vain and self-absorbed performance from Hannah Forest Briand) in a café, we learn that Clitandre was once smitten with Armande, who has sworn off traditional relationships like marriage in the interests of academic and artistic learning, and rejected his love.

Of course, the young intended couple have barriers to overcome, chiefly Henriette’s overbearing, judgmental mother Philaminte (a domineering Kardashian-esque philosopher turn from Jessica Pellicciotta), who boasts a small army of “learned ladies” in a self-directed academy of their own making: Arganiette (wacky, woo bottle carrying Ilona Gal), expert in Health and Health Trends; Violette (an imperious, verbally agile Renisha Henry), expert in Government and Justice; Dorimene (a fastidious, unforgiving librarian-esqe Amy Leis); and Lucillia (a spacy, star-gazing Lauren Merotto), expert in Stars and Other Worldly. They are joined by Philaminte’s sister-in-law (her husband Chrysale’s sister), self-proclaimed heart-breaker Aunt Belise (played with outrageously funny, delusional panache by Jane Neumier).

On Henriette and Clitandre’s side are her brow-beaten father Chrysale (played with goofy cowardly lion kindness by Kareem Mark Vaude) and his other sister, lawyer Aunt Ariste (Nastasia Pappas-Kemps, with brilliant, level-headed good sense and wide-eyed energy). Rounding out the group are Chrysale and Philaminte’s household servants: Martine the maid (a cheeky, forthright and irreverent Iris Hallman) and Butler Lepine (Ian Williams, with a combination of uptight decorum and the enthusiasm of one who’s swallowed the poseur Kool-Aid).

Philaminte has other plans for Henriette, choosing celebrity boy wonder poet Trissotin (a hysterically classic, physical poseur artist turn from Brian Le) as husband for her youngest daughter. Trissotin has his eye on someone else; and problems of his own, when his talent and reputation are challenged by poetry performance power couple, lovers Vadius (Sansom Marchand, in a proud, haughty cypher turn) and Mademoiselle Fosina (an intimidating, sensual turn from Jacqueline JD Plante). Adding insult to injury, Philaminte gives her blessing when the jealous, attention-seeking Armande decides she wants Clitandre back!

Finally finding the gumption to stand up to his bossy wife, Chrysale hatches a plan with his sister Ariste to make it right for Henriette and Clitandre. And, as this is Molière, things have a way of working out—in some unexpected, surprising and wacky ways.

The Learned Ladies, George Brown
Ensemble. Set & costume design by Brandon Kleiman. Lighting design by Siobhan Sleath. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

The razor-sharp satire pokes great fun at the fond and foolish rich people who become celebrities for no apparent reason other than for their over-the-top antics and ridiculous wealth; and those among the art and media glitterati who achieve fame with their mannequin good looks and artiste du jour popularity. And it rips into those who are slavishly and superficially dedicated to learning, their noses stuck in books and their heads up their asses—intolerant of and excluding those who don’t meet their unforgiving, idiotic standards. Through the red carpet galas; spa days; poetry tableaux; and yoga classes that are part yoga, part Tai Chi, part voguing—we see how artificial and disingenuous these idle rich folk are. Thankfully, authenticity, acceptance and inclusion win the day.

The Learned Ladies continues at the Young Centre until November 16; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

Check out GBTS’s 2019-20 season, and keep up with this year’s graduating class on Facebook.

 

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.

 

 

Getting real at the movies in the intimate, entertaining, immersive The Flick

Durae McFarlane & Amy Keating. Set & lighting design by Nick Blais. Projection design by Nick Bottomley. Costume & lobby design by Anahita Dehbonehie. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Outside the March and Crow’s Theatre join forces to present Annie Baker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning love letter to the 35mm movie theatre in The Flick, directed by Mitchell Cushman, assisted by Katherine Cullen and Rebecca Ballarin, and running in the Guloien Theatre at Streetcar Crowsnest. Intimate, entertaining and immersive, workplace shenanigans, friendship, loyalty and personal demons emerge in the world of a run-down dive of a neglected movie house and the lives of three people who work there for minimum wage.

When you enter the Guloien Theatre, the audience seating faces rows of empty movie theatre seating, with a raised projection booth up centre. As the lights go down, the projector comes to life in the booth (projection design by Nick Bottomley), accompanied by Richard Feren’s sound design, giving you the full movie theatre experience—from a different perspective from the one we’re used to experiencing—including production company theme music and movie soundtrack snippets that play along with the light show.

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Durae McFarlane & Colin Doyle. Set & lighting design by Nick Blais. Projection design by Nick Bottomley. Costume & lobby design by Anahita Dehbonehie. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

It’s Avery’s (Durae McFarlane) first day on the job at The Flick Cinema, a run-down endangered species of a 35mm movie house in Massachusetts run by absentee owner/manager Steve (who we never meet). Veteran usher Sam (Colin Doyle) shows him the ropes of the walk-through—sweeping up and collecting trash in between screenings (and even waking up the occasional sleeper: Brendan McMurtry-Howlett). Rose the projectionist (Amy Keating) is working up in the booth; and despite Sam’s enthusiastic attempts to catch her attention, she’s not having it.

Avery is a college student, working there as a summer job; and he’s a big-time movie nerd and six degrees of separation savant, as Sam soon learns, much to his amazement. Sam’s broad tastes in movies include more popular, mass appeal films; and Avery is a serious film snob. And while Sam pursues the attentions of Rose, Rose seems to be interested in getting to know the new guy Avery.

As the relationship and workplace dynamics unfold, the three gradually and selectively reveal themselves to each other—and to us. Avery is dealing with some heavy psychological and emotional shit, including family issues. Sam is resentful that younger, less experienced staff are being promoted over him; and he keeps his family life close to the chest. Serial monogamist party girl Rose thinks there’s something wrong with her. And rumour has it that Steve may be selling The Flick; and in an age where 35mm is being replaced with digital, this means it will likely be updated with a digital projector—something that film buff Avery can’t abide. Various levels of privilege are highlighted; while Avery is Black, and having a professor father means a free ride to college, he’s the most likely to get blamed (by their racist boss) for screw-ups at work. Sam and Rose enjoy white privilege, but their familial and financial circumstances mean heavy student debt or no college at all, and a struggle to survive with minimum wage jobs. In the end, friendship and loyalty are put to the test as revelations and consequences emerge.

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Foreground: Amy Keating. Background: Colin Doyle & Durae McFarlane. Set & lighting design by Nick Blais. Projection design by Nick Bottomley. Costume & lobby design by Anahita Dehbonehie. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Remarkable work from this outstanding cast, each creating a sharply-drawn, authentic and flawed character that we all end up rooting for; and like in real life, they’re all putting on a show of sorts, wearing the public masks we all don on a daily basis—and occasionally, the masks are lifted and things get real. Doyle is endearing and entertaining as Sam; there’s a combination of grumpy old man and chill young dude that masks Sam’s discouragement at being personally and professionally rejected. He’s in love, but can he bring himself to say so? McFarlane is an adorkable delight as Avery; highly intelligent, socially awkward and longing for a friend, there’s a lost little boy quality about Avery that hints at a deeper internal conflict. Keating brings a lovely combination of fire and vulnerability to the high-octane, free spirit Rose; as much of an extrovert as Avery is an introvert, Rose is a free spirit whose desires are expressed in brief and intense sexual relationships. Even though Rose does what she likes and likes what she does, she wonders about the long term—and if something is really wrong with her.

All the world’s a stage—or in this case, a movie screen—and we’re all merely players. Real life isn’t like it is in the movies, but sometimes we can hit some of those sweet spots. And we all have opportunities to choose to get real and drop the stereotype mask for a moment, or not.

The Flick continues at Streetcar Crowsnest, extended by popular demand to November 2; advance tickets available online. Advance booking recommended; this is a really popular show.

See for yourself in the trailer:

Desperation, desire & cruelty in the ferocious, electric, heart-breaking A Streetcar Named Desire

Amy Rutherford and Mac Fyfe. Set design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Rachel Forbes. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Soulpepper sets the stage on fire with a slow burn of desperation, desire and cruelty in its ferocious, electric, heart-breaking production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by AD Weyni Mengesha, assisted by Tanya Rintoul, and running at the Young Centre. The contemporary take on the Williams classic highlights the class, race and gender issues that make for simmering, then explosive tensions as a delicate, fragile woman finds herself adrift in the loud, bright, hard world of an urban working class neighbourhood.

When we first see Blanche DuBois (Amy Rutherford), she stands alone with her suitcase on a dimly lit, mostly bare stage. Action, sound and light erupt around her as the sights, music and ethnically diverse people of a big city take over the stage, setting up Stanley and Stella’s two-room apartment in New Orleans. It’s a dynamic, startling visual representation of culture shock for a woman who grew up on a plantation estate in rural Mississippi; and whose only contact with people of colour would have been household servants. Her gentle, crisp world of southern privilege now exchanged for the hard, steamy environment of a working class neighbourhood, she is alone and must rely on others to survive.

With the help of Stella’s upstairs neighbour and landlady Eunice (played with warmth and a suffering-no-fools edge by Akosua Amo-Adem), Blanche finds her way into Stella and Stanley’s apartment—and is mortified to learn that her sister is living in two rooms, separated by a sheer curtain. Stella (Leah Doz) is overjoyed and surprised to see her sister; Stanley (Mac Fyfe) is friendly, but on guard, and wonders how long she’ll be staying. Blanche, a high school English teacher, both withholds and reveals the reason for her stay, confiding to Stella that their childhood home and estate is lost, gambled away over the years by careless ancestors and lately needed to pay for the funerals of their last surviving family members. Stanley’s suspicions about Blanche’s motives for being there are piqued when he learns this, thinking Blanche may have swindled them out of their share of the estate.

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Foreground, clockwise from top: Lindsay Owen Pierre, Mac Fyfe, Gregory Prest & Sebastian Marziali. Background: Oliver Dennis, SATE & Kaleb Horn. Set design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Rachel Forbes. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Blanche looks upon this loud, hard new world with distaste and even contempt, trying in her own small way to brighten the place. Her description of Stanley and his poker pals reads like a field guide in the wild—and she fears her dear, sweet sister has “gone native”. Escaping into drink and reminiscences that are part memory, part fantasy, she is exhausted, desperate and grasping for a solution; she can’t go home and has nowhere else to go. She finds momentary distraction with the paper boy (Kaleb Horn), who possibly reminds her of her tragically lost girlhood love; and hope and a kindred spirit in Mitch (a boyish, bashful turn from Gregory Prest), Stanley’s long-time army buddy, over for a poker game with friends (Sebastian Marziali and Lindsay Owen Pierre). But, as Stanley unearths and reveals Blanche’s secrets, her world becomes even more unravelled—ultimately falling to pieces as he exerts power over her in the most brutal and cruel ways. Betrayed by those in whom she sought refuge, and her hopes for a new life destroyed, she must rely on the kindness of strangers (Oliver Dennis as the Doctor and SATE as the Nurse).

Mengesha’s direction takes the piece on a gradual crescendo toward its final explosive finale, with early moments of comic lightness fading into cruelty and darkness as Blanche’s past is exposed. And the multitasking ensemble is instrumental in creating atmosphere and flavour—including serving up some hot jazz, featuring SATE on sizzling vocals, and Marziali, Pierre, Dennis and Horn on various instruments (music direction by Mike Ross and sound design by Debashis Sinha). The sheet metal on the walls surrounding the playing area is a sharp contrast to the relative warmth of the apartment and its sparse, distressed furnishings (set design by Lorenzo Savoini and lighting design by Kimberly Purtell). And Rachel Forbes’ present-day costuming brings the story front and centre into the now of a city so modern, yet still so primal.

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Mac Fyfe & Leah Doz. Set design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Rachel Forbes. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Stunning, searing performances from Rutherford, Fyfe and Doz. Rutherford’s Blanche is a picture of wilting southern charm and privilege, the gentility and flirtation both a mask for the darkness and secrets beneath, and an armor against a world that feels hard, menacing and foreign to such a delicate, fragile soul. Feeling and fearing the relentless march of time and age, Blanche employs desire, magic and fantasy as a balm against death, trauma and desperation—like she says, desire is the opposite of death. Misunderstood, slut-shamed and betrayed, her final moments are deeply poignant and heart-wrenching to witness. Fyfe gives a finely crafted, nuanced performance as Stanley; an alpha male capable of explosive brute force, there’s sweetness and a lost boy quality to the man, especially evident in his relationship with Stella—where outbursts of rage turn to contrite, wailing pleas for reconciliation. Neither sophisticated nor educated, Stanley has good instincts and smarts; but his drive to dominate weaponizes his knowledge. Doz is both fierce and heartbreaking as Stella; caught in the middle between her beloved sister and a husband she’s crazy for, Stella is forced into the role of pacifier and peacemaker. More adaptable and resilient than her sister, Stella takes this new urban life in stride, rolling with the punches, and savouring the good times with the loved ones and music that surround her. But, in the end, taking Stanley’s side is devastating for both Blanche and herself, as well as for Mitch, who is also stuck in a Madonna/whore perspective of women.

The city is a hard place for a fragile soul. And while some may lose their troubles in music, liquor and sex—there still exists a clear divide on who is and is not allowed to dance away from death and toward desire.

A Streetcar Named Desire continues at the Young Centre until October 27; advance tickets available online, or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

ICYMI: Check out actor Amy Rutherford’s Artist Perspective piece in Intermission Magazine.

Questions of perception, assumption & expectation in the powerful, riveting, provocative Actually

Tony Ofori & Claire Renaud. Set design by Sean Mulcahy. Costume design by Alex Amini. Lighting design by Steve Lucas. Photo by Joanna Akyol.

 

The Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company, in association with Obsidian Theatre, opens its 13th season with Anna Ziegler’s Actually, directed by Philip Akin, assisted by Kanika Ambrose; and running in the Greenwin Theatre at the Meridian Arts Centre (formerly the Toronto Centre for the Arts). Two Ivey League freshmen, a Black male student and a Jewish female student, make a connection that becomes sexual in nature—and each has a very different experience and account of the night they spent together. Powerful, riveting and provocative—featuring compelling and genuine performances—this timely two-hander takes you on a see-saw ride of belief, empathy and understanding; highlighting perceptions, assumptions and expectations based on race, gender and class.

Excited, terrified and determined to do well, Amber (Claire Renaud) and Tom (Tony Ofori) arrive at Princeton for their first year of studies. She’s quirky and awkward, with romantic notions of sex and limited experience; he’s got swagger and game, with a sexually active lifestyle and a commitment to sowing his youthful wild oats. Opposites attract on common ground as the two make a connection; and attraction brings them together in Tom’s bed.

During their encounter, Amber finds that something changes for her; and their initially sexy fun times experience becomes uncomfortable and unwanted. She relates how she attempts to put a stop to it by getting off the bed, saying “Actually…” Tom believes she was into it, and later remembers nothing from her verbal communication or body language that would have suggested otherwise. Amber comments on the night to a friend, and the response prompts her to report the incident to the university, which launches a sexual misconduct investigation and hearing. Amber believes she was raped, and Tom is shocked and mortified by the allegation.

As their individual and collective stories unfold, the audience goes from being confidante—as we hear about their lived experiences with family, sex, desire, what inspires them—to university hearing panelist as they make their statements. Both had a lot to drink on the night in question. Both feel like outsiders with much to prove, anxiously navigating their first year at a prestigious school, along with raging 18-year-old hormones, and a culture of sex and partying. Not the best conditions for making good choices. Both live with body issues: Amber with the pressures of traditional feminine beauty standards; and Tom with the everyday racism and prejudice that accompany the colour of his skin. The seriousness of Amber’s rape charge lands particularly hard on Tom—a young Black man living in a world stewed in toxic, ongoing systemic racism. And Amber’s initial tacit consent that night, going to his room for the purposes of sex, combined with her behaviour earlier that evening, puts her credibility in question.

Compelling, genuine and nuanced performances from Renaud and Ofori in this vital, timely piece of theatre. Renaud brings a big spark of light, energy and pathos to the adorkable, hyper-talkative Amber; a young woman desperately treading water to stay afloat in a new world of classes, assignments, squash practice and obligatory partying. Amber finds herself wanting and not wanting at the same time; pressed forward by social media-driven peer pressure, she engages in activities and behaviour even when her heart isn’t really in it. Ofori’s Tom is a complex portrait of a confident, frank young man who wants to do his family proud; Tom is the first of his working class family to attend university, let alone at an Ivey League school. There’s a sensitive soul beneath the swagger, expressed through Tom’s love of classical music and piano playing—where he finds a space to be free.

It would be grossly simplistic to call this a “he said/she said” story. As you vacillate between believing and sympathizing with one, and then the other, in the end you may find yourself believing both of them. And if both are right, on which side of this 50/50 situation will the feather land in the final decision? In this age of #MeToo and #consent, and with all of these complex and intersectional variables to consider, audiences will no doubt come away with questions, conversations and reflections. This story is a prime example of why sex, sexuality and consent need to be taught in elementary and secondary schools.

Actually continues in the Greenwin Theatre at the Meridian Arts Centre (formerly the Toronto Centre for the Arts) until September 29. Advance tickets available online by clicking on the show page calendar.

ICYMI: Check out assistant director Kanika Ambrose’s Artist Perspective piece for Intermission Magazine.