Mystery & memory in the delightfully whimsical, darkly funny, compelling DIANA (I Knew You When We Were Fourteen)

Ian Goff & Alexa Higgins. Photo by Barry McCluskey.

 

Falling Iguana Theatre Co., in association with The Centre for Drama, Theatre & Performance Studies (CDTPS), University of Toronto, presents the delightfully whimsical, darkly funny and compelling DIANA (I knew you when you were fourteen), by Falling Iguana co-founders Alexa Higgins and Ian Goff, with contributing playwright Sarah Higgins. A physical theatre, dark comedy mystery journey—weaving movement, memory, fantasy, fact and fiction in a fairy tale-like detective story—when Diana disappears after a high school dance, Michael is determined to find out what happened to her. Supported by consulting director Gillian Armstrong and dramaturg Sharisse LeBrun, DIANA opened for a short run in the Robert Gill Theatre at U of T last night—presented as this year’s CDTPS Alumni Performance Project.

Inspired by a footnote at the end of Michael Ondaatje’s poem Elimination Dance that read: “Diana Whitehouse, where are you?”, DIANA traces the individual paths of high school classmates Diana (Alexa Higgins) and Michael (Ian Goff) as they grow into adulthood—with Michael determined to find out what happened to Diana when she disappeared after a high school dance when they were in grade nine. Stretching out across the years, across Canada from small-town New Brunswick, to Vancouver, to Toronto—with side trips in Europe—we’re introduced to the cast of characters they cross paths with; all set to a sparkly, rockin’ 80s soundtrack.

Fact, fiction, fantasy and memory intertwine in a tale that is part dark comedy mystery and part fairy tale. Incorporating music, dance, movement and a cast of characters, we watch Michael investigate as gossip and recollection merge in the stories and perceptions about Diana and her parents. And we see events unfold from Diana’s perspective; confirming, denying and refining what people think they know about her and her family. Darkly funny, at times tender and compelling, lyrical and balletic, the audience gets caught up in both journeys as Michael searches for the truth, and Diana reaches out for a life away from the small-town rumour, judgement and assumptions about her and her parents.

Outstanding work from Higgins and Goff in this 60-minute marathon of storytelling; conveying character, emotion, action and place through monologue, dialogue, dance, movement and practically zero props/set pieces with energy and precision. Higgins brings a sardonic sense of humour with an edge of loneliness to the pragmatic, restless Diana. An enigmatic presence at school—which is what draws Michael to her—Diana struggles with flying under the radar of the small-town gaze while at the same time longing to break free. Goff is delightfully awkward, earnest and curious as Michael; unlike Diana, Michael is an open book, and his sharp focus and positive demeanour keep him on his mission to find Diana, in spite of his own personal heartbreak. And the two are hilarious as honeymooning couple Steve and Sarah; experiencing comic misadventure during a tandem bike tour around Paris. And as assorted elderly and/or gossiping neighbours, telling tall tales of the family who used to live in that house.

Memory can really be a funny thing; and can often say more about us than about the actual events we’re recalling. Tainted by judgement and assumption, and eroded by time, we may not really know what we think we know.

DIANA continues at the Robert Gill Theatre until September 15, with evening performances at 8pm, and matinées at 2pm on Sept 14 and 15; tickets available online or at the door.

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The power of love, music & colour in the visually rich, magical, ground-breaking The Black Drum

Corinna Den Dekker, Dawn Jani Birley, Yan Liu & Daniel Durant. Set & props design by Ken Mackenzie. Costume design by Ruth Albertyn. Makeup by Angela McQueen. Video & projection design by Laura Warren. Lighting design by Chris Malkowski. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Commissioned and produced by the Canadian Cultural Society of the Deaf, the Deaf Culture Centre presents the world premiere of Adam Pottle’s Deaf musical The Black Drum,* in partnership with Soulpepper at the Young Centre. Directed by Mira Zuckermann, assisted by Jack Volpe, with movement and choreography by Patricia Allison, The Black Drum combines signed music, dance, movement and projected imagery to tell the story of a woman’s journey through loss and grief to find the power of her inner music, as her tattoos come to life and launch her into a strange, dark world dominated by a sinister force. The result is a visually rich, magical and ground-breaking piece of storytelling.

As the story begins, we are introduced to the Minister (Bob Hiltermann), a sinister and controlling presence who dominates a world devoid of music, laughter, love and freedom. Meanwhile, performing artist Joan (Dawn Jani Birley) is reeling from the loss of her beloved wife Karen (Agata Wisny), inconsolable as her roommates Bree (Yan Liu) and Oscar (Daniel Durant) try to reach through her grief. Propelled into the world of the Minister, Joan’s tattoos Butterfly (Liu) and Bulldog (Durant)—beauty and strength—come to life.

In this dark, grim and desolate place, Joan encounters the Minister’s reluctant lieutenant Squib (Natasha C. Bacchus) and Ava (Corinna Den Dekker), who dances with a group of children (Jaelyn Russell-Lillie, Sita Weereatne and Abbey Jackson-Bell). Ava tells Joan that the Minister controls this world, a place between life and death, with magic—his black drum (drum accompaniment by Dimitri Kanaris), the embodiment of his empty black heart. And Joan also learns that Karen is the Minister’s prisoner. Charged with using her colour and music, Joan sets out with her friends to defeat the Minister and free her beloved from his clutches.

drum-5
Agata Wisny & Bob Hiltermann. Set & props design by Ken Mackenzie. Costume design by Ruth Albertyn. Makeup by Angela McQueen. Video & projection design by Laura Warren. Lighting design by Chris Malkowski. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Hiltermann brings a nightmarish, supernatural edge to the menacing, arrogant Minister; his sharp-featured white face mirrored by the spooky talking head projections that flank the stage—occasionally speaking they guide us through the story (voice acting by Raquel Duffy and Diego Matamoros). Birley’s performance as Joan beautifully weaves the devastation of grief with the perseverance of resistance as Joan strives to free Karen, despite the fact that she’ll never be able to get her back.

Lovely work from a supporting cast that hails from all over the globe; Liu’s Butterfly is both balletic and delicate, with a feisty will that doesn’t back down from a fight; and Durant brings comic relief as the tough, yet sweet and big-hearted, Bulldog. Den Dekker’s meek and timid Ava reveals inner strength as her longing for freedom for herself and her dancing children turns into action; and Bacchus’s Squib may be a hard-ass soldier serving the Minister, but is as much under his control as the others, and would choose otherwise.

Visually stunning, magical and moving, this Deaf-led, ground-breaking piece of storytelling resonates; both allowing Deaf audience to experience their culture on stage, and giving hearing audience a new perspective on how a story can be presented and communicated. Hearing audiences are used to using their ears to hear the music and dialogue; here, we see and feel the music, the vibrations physically resonating through our bodies and the rhythms dancing across our minds—all aimed at our hearts. And it’s a compelling reminder, for all of us, that love, colour and music are powerful weapons against the dark forces that haunt our everyday lives.

The Black Drum continues at the Young Centre until June 29; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

*Note: This production is presented with Written and Voice Synopsis & Audio Assist Devices and is accessible to non-ASL audiences.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memories of grade 6 & the search for identity in the brave, endearing, immersive ERASER

Clockwise from top centre: Christol Bryan, Marina Gomes, Yousef Kadoura, Tijiki Morris, Nathan Redburn & Anthony Perpuse. Set & costume design by Christine Urquhart. Lighting design by Rebecca Vandevelde. Photo by Sam Gaetz.

 

Eraser Theatre brings the world premiere of its immersive production ERASER, presented as part of Why Not Theatre’s RISER Project 2019, to The Theatre Centre’s Incubator stage. Created by the ensemble, along with director/choreographer team Bilal Baig and Sadie Epstein-Fine, ERASER invites the audience into the world of the six performers’ grade 6 memories and fantasies, weaving their individual experiences together as their young student selves navigate their tween lives and struggle to figure out who they want to be.

The endearing, brave, high-energy ensemble features Christol Bryan (Whitney, the Queen Bee), Marina Gomes (Tara, the Know-it-all), Yousef Kadoura (Jihad, the Follower), Tijiki Morris (Afroze, the New Kid), Anthony Perpuse (Eli, the Space Cadet) and Nathan Redburn (Noah, the Sad One). As you enter the theatre space, you’re given a lanyard that bears the name and image of one of the students; this student will be your guide throughout the experience, and you’re invited to join them in their space before the action begins.

ERASER - Anthony Perpuse
Anthony Perpuse. Set & costume design by Christine Urquhart. Lighting design by Rebecca Vandevelde. Photo by Sam Gaetz.

I was put on team Eli (Perpuse), and we joined him in his room, hanging out and getting to know him before the start of the new school year. A gayby kid of Filipino heritage, nearly 12-year-old Eli has two moms—with one mom’s brother being the sperm donor for the other mom’s pregnancy. He’s a chill, affable, curious kid who loves to hang out in his room, stretching and playing video games, especially Pokémon; and he’s got a nostalgic side, favouring games he played as a kid (i.e., an even younger kid).

Audience members following a character* become that student’s group of friends, their confidantes, their posse—and we follow them through the sixth grade minefield of gym and math class, the cafeteria and playground, class presentations, a game of Truth or Dare, and a school dance. Each character reads as an archetype for someone you surely knew—or maybe even were—in grade 6 yourself; interesting dynamics emerge, and theories and rumours abound. How did Noah’s brother die? What’s the deal with the new kid? Who has a crush on whom? Who’s failing math?

The remarkable ensemble invites us in as they open their hearts, minds and sixth grade experiences to us. The six individual stories are woven together with scenes, movement and audience interaction—with engaging and moving results; and the appearance of their teacher, Miss Hall, is indicated with the footstep sounds of her heels. Bryan’s Whitney may be the alpha kid on the playground, but her confident, take-charge demeanour masks the profound sense of frustration and oppression she, the only Black kid in the class, feels over being singled out for discipline when the whole class was involved. Gomes’s A-student Tara relishes learning and academic success, and dreams of becoming an important political figure—while, underneath it all, she just wants to belong and have a nice, cute boyfriend. Kadoura’s Jihad, who wears a prosthetic leg, seems happy to follow his friends, yet he’s the one they call upon to approach the new kid; he has a big, open heart and a supportive network, but you get the sense that he’s struggling with his place in the world.

Morris’s Afroze, a white girl raised in Pakistan, is navigating both culture shock and being the new kid in a group of kids who’ve grown up with each other. Struggling to make friends as her classmates treat her like some strange, exotic creature, she holds the familiar comforts of home close as she works out a way to fit in to this new world. Perpuse’s laid back Eli reveals a pensive, sensitive soul struggling with math class—and wondering why his friend Noah is ignoring him after they got so close over the summer. Sometimes, Eli needs to give himself a time out from it all, craving a solitary moment so he can sort things out in his head, or let his pent-up frustration safely erupt. And Redburn’s Noah desperately wants his life to just get back to normal after his brother died this past summer; reaching out, then pulling away from his friend Eli as he grapples with grief, loss and attraction.

If you’re an adult audience member, you may find yourself becoming that kid you were in grade 6—or at least remembering what it was like. The emerging hormones and curiosity about sex, the gossip and note passing, the mortifying shyness at the school dance, the joyful fantasies of future success, and fears of failure or having your most secret desires made public. Some of it comes to matter deeply, some of it doesn’t. And while each audience member will experience the show in their own personal way, everyone will take away something from the experience.

ERASER continues in the Incubator at the Theatre Centre until May 14, with performances May 10, 11 and 13 at 7:00, and matinées on May 9, 11 and 14 at 2:00 (with a 30-minute talkback following matinées). Tickets available online, in person at the box office, or by calling 416-538-0988.

*There is seating for those with mobility issues; they will have a good vantage point—and, in some cases, the action will come to them.