The list of lasts

The following is my list of lasts from the Before Time (pre-COVID-19)—the last time I ventured outside my neighbourhood on transit and had in-person contact with other people. It really sums up the people, places and things I love—and really miss.

Last time I saw my parents: November 3, 2019 at the Elm Hurst Inn (Ingersoll), for our extended family pre-holiday brunch (they headed to Arizona that week and returned home in March)

Last time I saw my sister, brothers, sisters-in-law and nephews: December 26 at my sister’s house for our annual Boxing Day feast (brother-in-law was in New Zealand; saw him last at Elm Hurst Inn brunch)

Last time I saw a close friend: Dee, on March 11 at Presse Café at Bloor/Yonge

Last hug: March 11 (see last time I saw a close friend—we totally forgot to do the elbow bump)

Last time riding TTC: March 11 (see last time I saw a close friend)

Last reading I saw: March 6, Studio 180 Theatre’s The Cane at Buddies in Bad Times

Last brunch: March 7, with friends Brenda and Kerri at 7 West Café

Last play I saw: March 7, ARC’s OIL at Geary Lane

Last thrift shopping: March 4, with my friend Lizzie in the Bloor/Lansdowne area, finishing at Value Village

Last dinner out: February 27, in the Distillery at Mill St. Brew Pub with my friend Myriam, before seeing Lucid Ludic/Why Not Theatre’s Brain Storm at Dancemakers Studio

Last hair cut: February 25 at Top Cuts, with Rhonda at Avenue/Lawrence

Last art show I saw: February 23, Winter Stations at Woodbine Beach

Last gathering: February 22, friend Zoltan’s birthday party at his/Lizzie’s place

Last movie I saw: February 17, Portrait of a Lady on Fire at the Varsity

When was the last time you saw loved ones in person? The last hug you gave/received? The last movie you saw at a movie theatre?

p.s. Since I wrote this post and scheduled it for publishing, the Government of Ontario announced that Toronto and Peel will be heading into stage 2 today (Wed, June 24). Now, as we’re gradually able to be together again—still following public health measures—we can finally look forward to some firsts.

Reaching out during COVID-19

In these strange new normal times of physical distancing, we’re reminded how important it is to stay connected—staying in touch with family, friends and colleagues, as well as neighbours who may need company or assistance, is so important for both our mental and physical health.

Even introverts like myself, while generally well-equipped for staying home and keeping our distance, can miss the in-person contact; the hugs, physical presence and closeness of loved ones.

It really reminds us just how much we need each other; and people are coming up with innovative ways to connect: co-worker meetings and even drinks time, and online weddings, via Zoom; people singing from balconies, reading plays and sonnets, recording music and sharing video; coffee chats over Facebook video chat or Google Hangouts; and people are actually using their cellphones to make phone calls!

At first, keeping safe space between us and others was called “social distancing”, but this has since been replaced with “physical distancing”—a more accurate, descriptive term that also recognizes the need for us social animals to reach out and connect with others remotely/electronically.

The two-metre spacing image has also evolved into a two-metre bubble—making sure we have safe distance in three dimensions. It also feels like a more protective space. Thinking about physical distancing in terms of a bubble made me feel a lot easier about going out for a short walk along quiet side streets in my neighbourhood on Sunday (I am well and not a candidate for self-isolation)—a beautiful, unseasonably mild day that I didn’t want to waste by staying indoors.

Being together apart can be challenging—but it’s what we need to do right now. And, together, we’ll get through this.

And just think how joyful those physical reunions will be!

 

For info, check out these websites:

City of Toronto: http://toronto.ca/covid-19

Province of Ontario http://ontario.ca/covid19

Government of Canada: http://canada.ca/covid19

 

Saying goodbye to the youth of Ireland in the lyrical, hopeful, entertaining Many Young Men of Twenty

Foreground: James Phelan, Tina McCulloch, Emmet Leahy and William Laxamana. Background: Martin McGuane. Set design by Tim O’Connell and Sean Treacy. Costume design by Bernadette Hunt. Lighting design by Karlos Griffith. Photo by Gregory Breen.

 

The Toronto Irish Players take us to a time of desperate hope and dreams, leaving and staying behind, with its lyrical, hopeful and entertaining production of John B. Keane’s Many Young Men of Twenty, directed by Gregory Breen and Tim O’Connell, with musical direction by Donna O’Regan and Dan Schaumann—and running at Alumnae Theatre, where it played to a packed house last night.

It’s Southern Ireland in 1961, as we enter a village pub that serves as a microcosm for the comings and goings of local residents—and a point of departure and return for the wave of young people being sent off to England to find work in order to help support their struggling families back home. Opening with vocalists Gemma Healey-Murphy and Orlaith Ní Chaoinleáin, accompanied by Dan Schaumann on acoustic guitar, then performing a cappella, we’re transported to a time and place with evocative music, sung in both English and Irish.

The intimidating Seelie (Donna O’Regan, in an imperious, dominating turn as the boss) owns and runs the pub with her whiskey-loving brother Tom (Martin McGuane, in a complex combination of childish obstinance and adult frustration). Peg (a wistful, but fierce performance from Aoibhinn Finnegan), a young unwed single mother with a talent for making up songs on the spot—including the catchy titular tune—waits tables, plays peacemaker and nurses a broken, distrusting heart.

The large cast of characters that parade through the pub is impressive, entertaining and revealing. There’s Danger Mullaly (a thoroughly entertaining, poignant Thomas O’Neill), the local scoundrel about town; adept at getting others to spot him a pint of porter gold as he peddles miniature holy pictures, he’s a lovable scallywag with his own tale of woe. Then there’s local farm family the Dins, led by patriarch and matriarch Daheen Timineen and Maynan (played with Irish Gothic severity and resolve by James Phelan and Tina McCulloch), sending a new pair of young adult children off to England. Kevin (Emmet Leahy, as the stand-up, protective elder of the two) and Dinny (William Laxamana, as the soft-spoken, anxious younger lad) have a foreman older brother waiting for them with jobs at a London factory. And as he awaits their train departure, Kevin takes a shine to Peg and promises to write.

A year later, the Din boys return for a visit—and one of them has brought a British wife to meet the family: Dot (played with vivacious flare by Sofie Jarvis). Their parents are preparing to send another pair off; this time, daughters Maggie and Mary (shy and anxious twins Healey-Murphy and Emma Darmody). Also bursting onto the scene are local fortune teller Kitty Curley (Anne Harper, with a larger-than-life jocularity and penchant for the mysterious), with her melodeon player colleague Davy in tow (Schaumann); and local member of Irish Parliament J.J. Houlihan (David Eden, in a pompous, entitled politician turn), who’s just procured a plum position for his underqualified son Johnny (Liam Keenan, quiet and unassuming). And there’s the new schoolteacher Maurice Brown (played with affable, awkward charm by Aaron Walsh), one of the few among the younger generation to stay behind—and who also has his eye on Peg.

Weaving lively and wistful songs with snatches of daily life, we’re in a world that has one foot in the past and the other in the future, as generations-old farming families continue to find themselves forced to give over to ever-changing modern times, sending their children off into the strange world and temptations of the big city in a bid to survive. Hopes and dreams of future prosperity blend with the heart of, and longing for, home; with brave faces and humourous antics masking the pain and heartache beneath.

many young men 20 cast & crew
Cast & crew. Set design by Tim O’Connell and Sean Treacy. Costume design by Bernadette Hunt. Lighting design by Karlos Griffith. 

Melancholy and hopeful, spirited and wistful, Many Young Men of Twenty takes us to a period of youthful immigration—coming in waves that stretched well before the 1960s and onward into today—where young people must grow up quickly as they leave home for new countries to make a new life for themselves, often while tasked with supporting their families back home. Brave, heartbroken and anxious—yet hopeful, aspiring and determined. And universal in its portrayal of the choices and sacrifices that are made in the face of a changing world.

With shouts to the design team: Tim O’Connell and Sean Treacy (set), Bernadette Hunt (costumes), Karlos Griffith (lighting) and Dan Schaumann (sound), and the small army worked behind the scenes, for their fine, evocative work on creating this time and place.

Many Young Men of Twenty continues on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage until February 29; advance tickets available online or by calling 416-440-2888.

A grownup cautionary fairy tale of loyalty, betrayal & love in Shakespeare BASH’d fast-paced, highly entertaining, resonant Cymbeline

Catherine Rainville. Photo by Kyle Purcell.

 

Shakespeare BASH’d invites us to hear a grownup cautionary fairy tale of loyalty, betrayal, ambition, jealousy, love and family. Relationships are put to the test with evil and foolish schemes, and women’s and commoners’ true worth—for better or worse—are grossly underestimated in its fast-paced, highly entertaining, resonant production of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, directed by Julia Nish-Lapidus, assisted by Bailey Green, and on for a short run at Junction City Music Hall.

Incensed at his only daughter Innogen’s (Catherine Rainville, bringing fierce strength and gentle vulnerability to the sharp-witted, independent princess) marriage to his ward Posthumus Leonatus (Jesse Nerenberg, giving an earnest, fiery passion to the popular, good young man), Cymbeline, King of Briton (David Mackett, in a chilly and decisive imperious turn) banishes the youth and puts his daughter under house arrest. Strongly influenced by his new Queen (Mairi Babb, deliciously arch as the cunningly manipulative, two-faced Queen), his second wife and Innogen’s step-mother, Cymbeline had intended Innogen for the Queen’s son Cloten (Emilio Vieira, giving a great comic turn as a quarrelsome, entitled idiot).

Having exchanged tokens with Innogen and fled to Rome, and despite pleas to the contrary from his level-headed host Philario (Kiana Woo, who gives a great multitasking performance, notably as the wily doctor and a saucy, irreverent servant), Posthumus agrees to enter into a foolish wager with Philario’s friend Iachimo (Daniel Briere, in a hilariously edgy turn as a sly, lascivious scoundrel of a Roman lord), whereby Iachimo bets he can prove Innogen false. Obtaining his proof through trickery, Iachimo wins the bet—and, out of his mind with anger and grief, Posthumus charges Innogen’s servant Pisanio (Bailey Green, bright-eyed and energetic as Innogen’s unwaveringly faithful right hand) with killing Innogen. Apprising her mistress of Posthumus’s plan for revenge, Pisanio helps Innogen disguise herself as the boy Fidele and flees the palace.

Meanwhile, in the wilds of Briton, banished noble Belarius (James Wallis, bringing a warm, protective sweetness to the rough seasoned warrior) hunts with his daughters Guiderius (Melanie Leon, suffusing the rough and tumble young woman with a mature wisdom) and Arviragus (Déjah Dixon-Green, bringing gentle, poetic tone to the stalwart younger sister)—and come upon a weary, hungry Innogen in disguise when they return to their cave dwelling.

Back at the palace, the proud Cymbeline—egged on by the Queen—incites war with Rome by refusing to pay tribute; and Cloten has learned of Innogen’s whereabouts and is in hot pursuit, intent on having her under any circumstances. Personal and political clashes ensue, secret plots and identities are revealed, and foolish assumptions and conflicts are set to rights.

When you go to a Shakespeare BASH’d show, the audience is treated like family; and Nish-Lapidus, Wallis and company are the gracious hosts—creating an atmosphere of welcome, warmth and inclusion that adds to its signature storytelling; using minimalist but effective set and costumes, focusing on the text and the relationships to deliver a production that is both accessible and resonant for today. This particular production nicely supported by music from Matt Nish-Lapidus.

And with a script that can easily turn to melodrama, the staging, pacing and direction go big with an edgy, dark sense of humour; huge, beautifully poetic declarations of love and fidelity; and impassioned action-packed narratives of conflict. A cautionary tale on a number of levels, what especially speaks to audiences today is the inherent misogyny; society underestimates and undervalues its women, for better or worse—blinding all, especially men, to women’s capacity for both good and evil. The play also speaks to a strict and accepted code of classism, whereby men and women alike are judged by their station in life as opposed to their character and actions—leaving the rich and powerful to do as they wish, often with little or no consequences. This play could have easily been called Innogen—but Cymbeline suits, as it is his actions and ill-conceived decisions that set these events in motion, causing both personal and national distress and loss.

Cymbeline continues at The Junction City Music Hall until February 9. Advance tickets are sold out, but if you get there early, they’ll do their best to squeeze you in. Please note the early curtain time of 7:00 p.m.; box office opens at 6:30 p.m. ($25 cash only at the door).

Real-life ghost stories come out of the dark in the compelling, entertaining, thoughtful The Ghost Project

Karie Richards. Photo by Tanja-Tiziana.

 

Playwright/performer/producer Karie Richards opened the Toronto premiere of her documentary solo show The Ghost Project to a sold-out house in the BMO Incubator at The Theatre Centre last night. Originally directed by Jeff Culbert, The Ghost Project was a hit at the Fringe circuit, premiering at the Halifax Fringe 2018, and went on to the London Fringe and Winnipeg Fringe in 2019. Distilling 13 stories from 28 interviews with friends and family, Richards weaves a series of monologues, all told in the first person, from the storyteller’s point of view—capturing the gamut of emotional and rational responses; and exploring the thoughts, feelings and questions about what happens to us after we die. The result is a compelling, entertaining and thoughtful piece of verbatim storytelling.

Do you believe in ghosts? Have you ever encountered one? While Karie Richards isn’t sure what she thinks, she believes the stories told to her by friends and family—personal experiences with spiritual manifestations that defy explanation and everyday frame of reference; and that ultimately make us question the nature of the afterlife. Each real-life character reveals their story, be it from their university days, childhood or adulthood, or even an experience their child had while they were present. People reacting and responding in the moment; and, in some cases, wondering aloud what it all means. Are these the actual souls or spirits of the departed, or the energy traces they left behind? Or are these encounters a chance look through a thin veil of everyday reality, providing a glimpse of another time or plane of existence while the one experiencing it remains rooted in their own?

Encounters with, and messages from, deceased loved ones; former homeowners looking in on new residents/guests; and unexplained events at a haunted theatre space (Alumnae Theatre folk and fans will be familiar) all come into play—with manifestations ranging from malevolent to friendly, frightening to calming, everyday to ethereal. Experiences of shadowy figures blacker than the darkness, a floating blue girl, a surprising encounter during an Indigenous ceremony, the comfort of a nurturing parental energy, and the high-spirited insistence of a youthful presence that evoked profound responses for the storyteller emerge in Richards’ performance. Navigating myriad emotions, from paralyzing fear, to grief and loss, confusion, relief and joy, each character is vulnerable, curious, wonder-struck and thoughtful. Do these spirits want to be noticed and acknowledged? Are they relieving boredom with their spooky shenanigans? Do they have something to tell us?

Deftly shifting from character to character—signified by the collection and return of a single costume piece or prop from a wardrobe, and remarkable adjustments to voice, facial expression and posture—with a gentle calmness and the care of ceremony, Richards conjures up each storyteller for us, presenting with nuance and profound sensitivity the experiences, reactions and thoughts of each. And her carefully, finely-drawn embodiment of each storyteller makes for a compelling and entertaining performance that goes beyond the storytelling itself. In many cases, it’s the first time the storyteller has revealed their experience to anyone—requiring a high level of trust in, and comfort with, Richards during the interview process that preceded the creation of the piece. The results are eerie, funny, deeply moving and thought-provoking.

Richards’ performance is nicely supported by Glenn Davidson’s minimalist, effective production design, as well as John Sheard’s haunting composition, and atmospheric sound effects supplied by Peter Thillaye and Steve Munro.

Whatever you believe, The Ghost Project engages as much as it challenges the audience to open up and reach out into the unknown—and entertain the suggestion that death is not the end of our journey, but the beginning of a new one. If you have the opportunity, stick around for the post-show talkback, where audience members are invited to ask questions and share their own ghost stories.

The Ghost Project continues in the Incubator space at the Theatre Centre until January 26, with evening performances at 7:00 p.m., and matinées on Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are available online, in person at the box office, or by calling 416-538-0988. It’s a very short run and seating is limited, so advance booking or early arrival is strongly recommended; please note the 7:00 p.m. curtain time for evening performances.

 

 

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: 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.

Good silly panto fun in Jack and the BeansTalk—A Merry Magical Pantomime

Torrent Productions presents its annual Coxwell/Gerrard neighbourhood holiday panto with Jack and the BeansTalk—A Merry Magical Pantomime, written and directed by Rob Torr, with music direction by Paul Moody and choreography by Stephanie Graham; running at Royal Canadian Legion Branch #001 (243 Coxwell Ave, Toronto, just south of Gerrard St. East). A missing treasured chicken, magic talking beans, a saucy Dame, a love-smitten young hero and a diabolical villain combine with song, dance, slapstick and wordplay for some good silly fun for all ages in this panto adaptation of a fairy tale classic.

When a banished, disenchanted Fairy (an adorably sweet and wry-witted Jamie McRoberts) catches wind that the Giant (voiced with menacing force by Cynthia Dale) has sent the evil villain Fleshcreep (Cyrus Lane, living up to the name and relishing the deliciously diabolical nastiness) to find a magic chicken that lays golden eggs, she begins to reclaim her magic and casts a spell to protect the chicken. This, however, doesn’t stop Fleshcreep from pressuring local Squire (played with regal dignity and moral conflict by William Fisher), who knows something about that chicken, to raise taxes on an already financially stressed population.

Local farmer Dame Trott (Greg Campbell in a saucy redhead Queen Mum meets Coronation Street maven turn) is at her wit’s end about how to pay the rent and instructs her son Jack (played with charismatic high energy by Caulin Moore) to sell their beloved cow Daisy (operated by Christopher Fulton and Tim Funnell, giving her eyelash-batting cuteness and swagger). In a series of tricky transactions, Jack ends up selling Daisy for a handful of talking beans! Meanwhile, the Squire’s daughter Jill (Teresa Tucci, with feisty determination and positivity) has been taken by the Giant. Good thing those beans, with the help of the Fairy, grow into a massive beanstalk that leads to the Giant’s castle—and Jack sets off to save Jill. Our hero is assisted throughout by the hilarious Ed #1 (Tim Funnell) and Ed #2 (Christopher Fulton), who entertain us and befuddle the bad guy.

Heroic deeds, secret plots, surprising revelations, and even a wedding, emerge; all accompanied by pop music favourites, some impressive hoofing and synchronized movement, and wacky slapstick and wordplay. And, of course, since this is a panto, audience participation is encouraged and appreciated. There’s a real community atmosphere with this production, with both the company and the folks from the neighbourhood making this an annual holiday tradition; and local business sponsors are shouted out throughout the performance, with live commercial spots.

Jack and the BeansTalk continues till December 29; please note the early curtain time of 7:00 pm for evening performances. Advance tickets available online, by calling 1-800-838-3006 or at the door.

Shades of gray in the intimate, entertaining, deeply poignant Between Riverside and Crazy

Allegra Fulton & Alexander Thomas. Set design by Anna Treusch. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Lighting design by Steve Lucas. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Coal Mine Theatre opened its Toronto premiere of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Between Riverside and Crazy to a packed house at its home on Toronto’s Danforth Avenue last night. Directed by Kelli Fox, the intimately staged storytelling plays in the gray areas of family and the legal system as a widowed retired NYPD cop holds firm in his bid for justice while being a father figure to a strange and diverse assortment of adults both in his home and on the job. Highlighting issues of politics, government, race and racism, Between Riverside and Crazy reveals, with candor and humour, a world where everyone is hustling and everybody lies.

Riverside&C-photobyDahliaKatz-Jai Jai Jones, Alexander Thomas, Nabil Rajo
Jai Jai Jones, Alexander Thomas & Nabil Rajo. Set design by Anna Treusch. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Lighting design by Steve Lucas. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Widowed retired NYPD cop Walter “Pops” Washington (Alexander Thomas) lives in a sweet rent-controlled apartment on New York City’s Riverside Drive, which he’s currently sharing with his son Junior (Jai Jai Jones), recently released from jail; Junior’s girlfriend Lulu (Zarrin Darnell-Martin), a college student studying accounting; Junior’s friend Oswaldo (Nabil Rajo), a recovering addict and ex-con; and a dog (which we never see). He’s also juggling a discrimination suit against the City of New York after being shot six times by a white rookie, who also called him the n-word, during a raid on an after-hours bar back when he was still on the job; a lot of time and money have been going toward this bid for justice, with no immediate end in sight-and on top of losing his beloved wife Dolores, the entire ordeal has impacted on him both physically and psychologically.

Complicating matters for Walter, a friendly catch-up dinner at his place with his former partner Det. Audrey O’Connor (Claire Armstrong) and her fiancé Lt. Dave Caro (Sergio Di Zio) becomes an intervention of sorts when they try to convince him to drop the lawsuit and take the settlement the City has been offering before the deadline arrives. Cajoling turns to manipulation turns to threat, as Dave’s entreaties take a nasty turn—putting Walter’s home, and Junior’s newly acquired freedom from jail, in jeopardy. In the meantime, Junior is suspected of using the apartment to store stolen goods; Lulu says she’s pregnant; and Oswaldo’s visit to family goes terribly wrong. Then, there’s the impending drop-in from the local Church Lady (Allegra Fulton), who turns out to be a substitute for Walter’s usual church visitor—and even she has an angle to work on him!

Riverside&C-photobyDahliaKatz-Sergio Di Zio, Claire Armstrong, Jai Jai Jones, Alexander Thomas, Zarrin Darnell-Martin
Clockwise from left: Sergio Di Zio, Claire Armstrong, Jai Jai Jones & Alexander Thomas. Set design by Anna Treusch. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Lighting design by Steve Lucas. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Stellar work from Thomas as the gruff but loveable Walter; a bear of a man, Walter has a big heart, but finds it difficult to express it. An older and less vital man than he once was, he lashes out by refusing to eat well or take his meds, and self-medicates with alcohol. But despite his stubborn, grouchy demeanour, we come to really care about Walter; during intermission, a woman who sat beside me remarked (as we were so close to the action in the living room) that, at one point, she wanted to reach out to comfort him.

Jones brings an edge of vulnerability to the cool, streetwise Junior; a young man who needs his father’s good opinion as he struggles to be a grown adult and get his life on track. Rajo’s Oswaldo is a struggling lost boy whose knowing swagger belies a fragile soul; and Darnell-Martin’s sweet but dim-witted Lulu isn’t as clueless as she appears. Armstrong’s warm, Tyne Daly-esque O’Connor plays nicely off of Di Zio’s slick, charismatic Caro; while O’Connor’s brand of manipulation is more motherly, Caro employs that reserved for the darker side of politics—shifting from flattering appeals to reason, to mercilessly going for the jugular. And Fulton’s eccentric clairvoyant Church Lady adds some much needed comic relief and magic following some intense moments at the end of the first act.

Nothing is clearly black and white here—all of these moments and relationships play out in the gray areas. Everyone’s on the hustle and everybody lies, so it can be hard to tell who and what to believe. That doesn’t necessarily mean these are bad people; just flawed and desperate, using whatever resources they can—especially manipulation—to get what they want. The big question is: will they do what’s right or what’s easy? Just like real life.

Between Riverside and Crazy continues at Coal Mine Theatre until December 22; advance tickets available online. Please note the 7:30 p.m. curtain time for evening performances; matinées are Sundays at 2:00 p.m.

 

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.

grief circus 2
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).