Freedom of expression & political oppression in a digital age in the chilling, intersectional, provocative Theory

Sascha Cole. Set & lighting design by Joe Pagnan. Projection design by Cameron Davis. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Photo by Cylla von Teidemann.

 

Under what circumstances should freedom of expression be censored or policed? At what point does politics, however liberal or progressive, become unforgiving and oppressive? Tarragon Theatre’s production of Norman Yeung’s Theory, directed by Esther Jun, assisted by Stephanie Williams, examines the impact of film and social media on modern-day discourse through an intersectional lens, where academia meets art—with chilling and provocative results.

I saw the genesis of Theory, first as a reading at Alumnae Theatre’s New Ideas Festival and then as a full production at SummerWorks, back in 2010. It appeared again at Alumnae during FireWorks Festival 2013—at which point, at the suggestion of dramaturge Shirley Barrie, lead character Isabelle’s boyfriend was re-written as a female character. I missed the 2013 production, but was happy to see the evolution of the piece in the current Tarragon presentation, where Isabelle has a wife who is also a person of colour.

Rookie film studies prof Isabelle (Sascha Cole, in the role from the very beginning) has set up an online message board off the campus server—a bit of a rogue move that becomes even more so with an ‘anything goes’ policy. Her film theory students will self-moderate and there are no plans for censorship. And, in a classic Dead Poets Society moment, she has her students tear out the film screening list from the syllabus—full of white male directors—and replaces it with a more diverse, contemporary list. Even her core group of vocal, engaged students—Davinder (Bilal Baig), Safina (Asha James), Richard (Kyle Orzech) and Jorge (Anthony Perpuse)—have questions and misgivings about the nature of the message board and revised film list, which includes the controversial Baise Moi, translated into Rape Me in an English release.

Isabelle’s wife Lee (Audrey Dwyer)—a Black, tenured prof at the same university—also has reservations about the student message board; and like her, one can’t help but wonder if Isabelle is trying too hard to look cool and connect with her students as adults and academics. Racist and homophobic remarks begin to emerge on the message board—presented onstage via projection (design by Cameron Davis)—some of which are directed at other students.  And, while Isabelle insists that nothing offends her and refuses to censor the board—viewing the remarks in the context of fodder for adult, academic conversation and exploration—some of her students don’t see it that way.

Video messages start appearing, at first referencing films the class is studying, then getting increasingly graphic and violent, and directed toward Isabelle. Becoming obsessed with finding out who the perpetrator is, the strain on Isabelle and her relationship with Lee starts to show; she keeps putting off their plans to have a baby and starts spending an inordinate amount of time on the message board.

As the messages get more personal and close to home, showing up in her personal email, text messages and even on her doorstep, Isabelle blocks a user called @Richard69 and turns to department head Owen (Fabrizio Filippo) to see if she can launch a complaint or investigation to learn the identity of the student. It’s during this meeting that she learns there’s been a complaint launched against her. Isabelle begins to suspect the culprit is among her core group of students, but has no solid proof.

Photo-featuring-Sascha-Cole-and-Audrey-Dwyer-by-Cylla-von-Tiedemann-2-1024x686
Sascha Cole & Audrey Dwyer. Set & lighting design by Joe Pagnan. Projection design by Cameron Davis. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Photo by Cylla von Teidemann.

Outstanding work from the cast in this chilling multi-media psychological thriller. There’s a taut scholarly edge in Cole’s performance of Isabelle; and an awkwardness in Isabelle’s attempts to connect with her students on a laid back, personal level. Under pressure to make tenure, Isabelle must walk the line between provoking thought and keeping her students and  superiors happy. Dwyer’s good-humoured academic veteran Lee goes beyond being a great foil and complement to Cole’s Isabelle—she’s the sociopolitical conscience in the relationship and in the piece. A supportive and nurturing partner, Lee has no trouble calling Isabelle out when she’s neglecting their relationship or forgetting to check her privilege. Filippo gives a great turn as the cool guy department head Owen; like Isabelle, he’s invested in keeping everyone happy—but his flip, hip dude exterior belies the institutional administrator who must also answer to higher powers in the university.

Really nice, sharply drawn work from the student chorus. Baig’s sassy, queer South Asian Davinder and James’ earnest, politically aware Safina (Asha James), who is Black, are particularly aware of and sensitive to the homophobic and racist remarks posted online; and Safina is uncomfortable with some of the course content. Both are open and willing to expand their minds and engage in debate; but they understandably draw the line at hate messaging. Perpuse brings a fun class clown energy to Jorge, who posits that porn should be given equal consideration with other genres. And Orzech’s nerdy, curious Richard seems affable enough, but there’s a dark undercurrent to this curious, white kid as he pleads “context” to his observations on films featuring storytelling filtered through a racist lens.

Photo-featuring-Bilal-Baig-Anthony-Perpuse-Asha-James-Kyle-Orzech-and-Sascha-Cole-by-Cylla-von-Tiedemann-2-1024x614
Bilal Baig, Anthony Perpuse, Asha James, Kyle Orzech & Sascha Cole. Set & lighting design by Joe Pagnan. Projection design by Cameron Davis. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Photo by Cylla von Teidemann.

Isabelle realizes that she’s underestimated the power of a digital media and the accompanying anonymity of user names, which make for an easy, consequence-free platform for hate speech and intolerance; and she’s forced to examine her inconsistent handling of conversation that veers toward hate speech. Her progressive feminist liberal politics and attempts at provoking thought have pushed buttons and opened a Pandora’s box of alt-right ill will. Is she complicit in fostering oppression by holding back on deleting racist and homophobic comments? Timely in its recognition of alt-right backlash, Theory reminds us of the inevitable pendulum backswing on progressive sociopolitical change.

Theory continues in the Tarragon Extraspace until November 25. Get advance tickets online or by calling the box office at 416-531-1827.

Advertisements

Preview: A friend in need in Cue6’s powerful, intimate, intense Dry Land

Mattie Driscoll. Photo by Samantha Hurley.

 

Funny how it’s easier to share a secret with someone you barely know—and ask them to help you execute a critical decision. Dora award-winning Cue6—who brought us pool (no water)—presents an intimate and intense Toronto premiere of Ruby Rae Spiegel’s Dry Land. Directed by Jill Harper, this powerful and timely story of female friendship, abortion and perseverance previewed to a packed house at The Assembly Theatre last night and opens tonight.

Set primarily in the girls’ locker room of a Florida high school, we witness the evolution of the relationship between swim teammates Amy (Veronica Hortiguela) and new girl Ester (Mattie Driscoll). Both grappling with issues of sexuality, identity and the future, the tough-talking, sexually experienced, popular Amy and the introspective, naïve, socially awkward Ester are an unlikely pairing, to say the least. But Amy can’t bring herself to tell her mother or even her BFF Reba (Reanne Spitzer) about her unwanted pregnancy, so she turns to the new girl for help. Meanwhile, Ester is facing the pressures of being scouted by a university swim team—and dealing with her own desires and demons as she makes decisions about her future.

The stakes go up with each strategy Amy concocts, with Ester acting as a sounding board, personal assistant and devil’s advocate. Compelling, layered performances from both Driscoll and Hortiguela in this odd couple friendship. Driscoll rounds out the mousy Ester with hidden reserves of strength, determination and chutzpah; and Hortiguela deftly navigates the conflicted Amy, who masks her profound sense of vulnerability with cruelty and a “slut” image. Amy pushes Ester away when things get too real, too close—and only in the end does Amy realize how much she cherishes the relationship.

dry land 2
Mattie Driscoll, Reanne Spitzer & Veronica Hortiguela.

Spitzer gives us a great comedic turn as Reba; a bubbly, irreverent and sharply observant gossip queen, Reba’s presence adds some much needed comic relief. The two male characters—university student Victor (played with likeable, awkward affability by Jonas Trottier), the son of a friend of Ester’s mother who hosts her during her university try-out, and the high school Janitor (Tim Walker, in a nicely understated, protectively watchful and largely silent role)—are secondary witnesses and assistants to the events that unfold. Amy and Ester are in the driver’s seat for their actions and the trajectory of their future—and the tight friendship that unfolds between them proves that old proverb “a friend in need is a friend indeed.”

With women’s reproductive rights constantly being challenged south of the border; and the sex ed curriculum here in Ontario being knocked back into the previous century, Dry Land is a candid, timely look at some serious feminist issues—particularly those facing women in their teens.

Dry Land continues at The Assembly Theatre until September 22; get advance tickets online or at the door (cash or credit card).

In partnership with Planned Parenthood Toronto, Cue6 will be presenting two post-performance talkbacks on September 13 and 20 to discuss the play and how it relates to sexual health challenges faced by youth in our current climate.

 

SummerWorks: Revolution, gratitude & being with a roar in The AMY Project’s brave, bold Lion Womxn

The AMY Project returns to SummerWorks with the brave, bold and deeply personal multimedia, multidisciplinary ensemble-generated Lion Womxn. Directed by Julia Hune-Brown and Nikki Shaffeeullah, assisted by Jules Vodarek Hunter and Bessie Cheng, Lion Womxn ran for three performances at the Theatre Centre—I caught their closing night show in the Incubator last night.

lion-womxnCreated and performed by nevada-jane arlow, Clara Carreon, Olivia Costes, Gabi M Fay, Carvela Lee, Megan Legesse, Laya Mendizabal, MORGAN, Whitney-Nicole Peterkin, Rofiat Olusanya, Aaliyah Wooter and Fio Yang, Lion Womxn is a theatrical collage of personal storytelling; told through a combination of monologue, dance (choreography by Jasmine Shaffeeullah), song, poetry and projection (design by Nicole Eun-Ju Bell).

With high-energy and soul-bearing performances, each shares her/their own joy, pain, rage, gratitude, struggle and strength—shouting out feminism, self-care, respect, gratitude, community and sex-positivity; and calling out misogyny, racism, homophobia and transphobia, body shaming and slut shaming. Raw and poetic at the same time, the result is heartbreaking, charming, anger-inducing and, ultimately, inspirational.

This was the final performance of Lion Womxn at SummerWorks, but keep an eye out for The AMY Project and future productions. Learn more about The AMY Project on their website—and give them a follow on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Toronto Fringe: Calling out manipulative sales in the quirky, edgy, razor sharp Everyone Wants A T-Shirt!

Brittany Miranda, John Wamsley, Charlin McIsaac & Madeleine Brown. Photo by Graham Isador.

 

Has a slogan or statement on a product ever made you want to change your life?

Prairie Fire, Please explores the impact of—and calls bullshit on—corporate manipulation of our heart strings in Madeleine Brown’s Everyone Wants A T-Shirt! Directed by Aaron Jan, assisted by Anthony Tran, the satirical, thought-provoking piece is running in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Backspace for Toronto Fringe.

Beatrice Little (Brittany Miranda) and her partner (John Wamsley) need funding to grow Potatogram, their innovative, new messaging business. When Bea’s pitch is turned down by a local shopping mall business maven (Charlin McIsaac), a chance meeting with a former university classmate (Madeleine Brown) offers an opportunity to earn some money in a hot new business: selling products emblazoned with the statement “Women Rule The World”.

Faced with unfriendly responses to her sales pitches, zero sales and competition from a fiercely ambitious colleague (Wamsley), Bea realizes that selling t-shirts isn’t as easy as she thought and finds herself manipulating women so she can meet her weekly sales quota. And what’s that mystery influencer dude on the scooter (Wamsley) up to?

Edgy, quirky and insightful, Brown’s intelligent, darkly funny script plays devil’s advocate on the pyramid scheme sales model, manipulative sales relationships and commercialized feminism; and calls out systemic racism-induced barriers and the cult of celebrity. The sharp, entertaining cast is more than up for the challenge, with Brown, McIsaac and Wamsley shifting deftly between multiple hilarious characters; and Miranda juggling Bea’s journey through the insanely competitive world of the independent retailer (IR), all while trying to keep her primary partnership and business alive. As Bea confronts the dishonesty of it all, she’s got some serious prioritizing and hard choices ahead of her. Can a slogan on a t-shirt be the catalyst for real change—or is it just a way for some corporate entity to make money off our hopes and dreams?

Everyone Wants A T-Shirt! continues in the TPM Backspace until July 14; check the show page for exact dates/times. These guys are selling out—including last night’s 10 p.m. performance—plus it’s an intimate space, so booking ahead is a really good idea.

Sex, death, snakes & the healing power of flowers & family in Red Betty Theatre & the G Girls’ political, theatrical Ganga’s Ganja

We struggle in birth. We struggle in death.

I popped over to Geary Lane last night for Storefront Theatre’s presentation of Red Betty Theatre and the G Girls’ production of Radha S. Menon’s Ganga’s Ganja, directed by Jennie Esdale. Ganga’s Ganja headlines the Feminist Fuck It Festival (FFIF), a two-week curated festival of multidisciplinary women and non-binary-identifying artists presenting new, bold and entertaining works.

Set sometime in the not too distant future, sisters Mena (Pam Patel) and Ganga (Senjuti Aurora Sarker) have gone off the grid, living on a piece of land where Ganga grows and tends to medicinal marijuana to help ease Mena’s excruciating Multiple Sclerosis symptoms and give her some quality of life. Ever moving in and out of Mena’s consciousness is Kadru (Amanda DeFreitas), a black and gold snake that only Mena can see. Is Mena hallucinating or is Kadru her escort into the next life?

While Mena self-medicates with weed, deeply inhaling the smoke like oxygen, Ganga’s medicine is one-night stands that often keep her out all night, always returning to her caregiving in the morning. Mena is afraid of leaving Ganga alone, and Ganga is terrified of losing Mena. When their marijuana crop is stolen and they meet the fast-talking, charmer Nero (Jesse Horvath), a man with a shiny silver briefcase and a lot of ideas, the sisters’ world is turned upside down. In a world where non-prescription drugs have been criminalized, but big pharma is happy to use plants to create their products, who can they trust—and how will they find a way to let go of each other?

Political and theatrical, the themes of sex, death and alternative medicine combine with feminism, Hindu deities and sticking it to the man. Patel and Sarker have great chemistry as the sisters; and do a nice job layering their respective inner and outer conflicts. Patel’s Mena is cheerful and positive, despite her devastating diagnosis—this all masking her concern, which is more for her sister than for herself. Mena wants to die, to leave her suffering behind and start over in the next life, but she can’t bring herself to leave Ganga. As Ganga, Sarker is a combination of attentive caregiver and devil-may-care party girl; drowning her guilt and fear in random hook-ups, Ganga struggles with the harsh truth that Mena doesn’t have much time left. DeFreitas brings a sensual and fierce edge to Kadru; ever watchful and ever waiting, Kadru is not the menace she appears to be—and appears to represent the faith, tradition and ritual of the sisters’ Indian ancestors. Horvath’s Nero is the perfect picture of white, male entitlement; charming, mercurial and donning a bad boy rebel image, Nero is a 21st century snake oil salesman dealing in mainstream pharmaceuticals. He is the embodiment of Western right-wing conservative, corporate misogyny—all wrapped up in a pretty bleach blond, white linen package.

With shouts to the design team—Tony Sciara (set), Tula Tusox (costume) and Maddie Bautista (sound)—for their work in creating this evocative, otherworldly space that reflects both the South Asian culture of the sisters, and an intriguing environment that’s out of time and space.

Sex, death, snakes and the healing power of flowers and family in Red Betty Theatre and the G Girls’ political, theatrical Ganga’s Ganja.

Ganga’s Ganja continues at FFIF at Geary Lane (360 Geary Ave., Toronto) until April 22, every night (except Mondays) at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2:00 pm, followed by nightly programming at 9:00 pm and 10:30 pm. Get advanced tickets for Ganga’s Ganja online and check out the rest of the FFIF line-up.

Repost: The search for a woman’s lost voice in the vocal, physical, emotional tour de force Mouthpiece

mouthpiece
Norah Sadava & Amy Nostbakken in Mouthpiece – photo by Joel Clifton

I had the pleasure of revisiting Quote Unquote Collective’s Mouthpiece, presented by Nightwood Theatre and Why Not Theatre—and back by popular demand on stage at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava’s stunning virtuosic performance rocked the packed house last night, receiving a standing ovation with sustained applause.

The film version of Mouthpiece, produced by Patricia Rozema, recently finished wrapping up; and the script has been published by Coach House Books. Mouthpiece continues at Buddies until April 22; the entire run is sold out online, but there may be some tickets held at the door.

The following is a re-post of my review of the premiere performance of Mouthpiece, which opened Nightwood’s 2016-17 season.

Nightwood Theatre opened its 2016-17 season at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre last week, with a unique double bill of Quote Unquote Collective’s Mouthpiece and Anna Chatterton’s Quiver. Mouthpiece was the second show I saw last night.

Mouthpiece is a Dora award-winning Quote Unquote Collective production; created and performed by Norah Sadava and Amy Nostbakken, and directed/composed by Amy Nostbakken, it was featured as part of The RISER Project last year. I missed that production and was so glad I got to see it this time around.

A unique piece of theatre that combines a cappella harmony, dissonance, dialogue and physical theatre, the two performers tell the story of Cassandra, who awakes one morning to discover she’s lost both her mother and her voice. She must pick a casket, flowers and a dress to bury her mother in – and write and deliver the eulogy. And she can’t seem to get out of the tub.

Both performers often play a single character, at times speaking in unison; and, in Cassandra’s case, create a dialogue with herself. From the hauntingly beautiful a cappella harmonies, to unison voice characterizations, and socially apt insertions of fashion magazine titles, ad copy and modern-day references to violence against women, the audience is both moved and tickled as Cassandra struggles with conflicting emotions, inner turmoil and a funeral fashion crisis. How well did she – or anyone – really know her mother? Her grasping for words, as well as her voice, opens up into the broader search for women’s voices. How women speak. How women are heard. How women are perceived.

Sadava and Nostbakken give compelling and entertaining performances. Shifting seamlessly from moment to moment, they execute gorgeous, fluid a cappella harmonies, unison spoken word and expressive movements. Conveying tenderness and ferocity, their work makes for a truly engaging and evocative piece. And they pull off some fabulous celebrity impersonations too, as well as some fun audience participation.

The search for a woman’s lost voice in the vocal, physical, emotional tour de force Mouthpiece.

Mouthpiece continues at Buddies until November 6. You can see it in the double bill with Quiver or on its own. Tickets are sold separately; you can book in advance online or by phone.

You can keep up with Nightwood Theatre on Twitter and Facebook.

Check out the Mouthpiece trailer:

 

 

 

Toronto Fringe: Peeling back the layers in the funny, frank, insightful feminist excavation Operation SUNshine

Jennifer McKinley takes us on an unusual reclamation project in her father’s basement bathroom in her one-woman show Operation SUNshine, directed by Clara McBride and running at St. Vladimir Theatre for Toronto Fringe.

Tasked with preparing her father’s home for sale, McKinley tackles the most complex—and unusual—part of the cleaning and purging process: the basement bathroom that was at one time part of her father’s friend Bill’s living space. Walls and ceiling have been wallpapered with Toronto Sun Sunshine Girl clippings. And as she carefully excises these women from their bathroom prison, she discovers more than just a collection of pin-up girls.

Seeing these images as a piece of childhood/family history—not to mention that they present real women living real lives away from their photo shoots—instead of simply scraping the photos off, McKinley chooses to carefully cut and peel. Rescuing these photos and the lives that go with them, she preserves as many of the images as she can and reads the news stories of the day on the other side of each photo page. What she finds are many stories of tragedy and loss—missing and murdered women and children, and the men who put them there—that still resonate 25 years later in that they are still all too common.

The physical activity of removing the photos becomes introspective, inspiring memories of family history, as well as curiosity about the lives of these women. Using specific physical and vocal attributes, McKinley creates a series of compelling, often funny, sharply defined characters, including her father and her younger selves—and a selection of her (and Bill’s) favourite Sunshine Girls. These are women who enjoy their bodies and their sexuality, in some cases promoting themselves and/or earning a living. The rescue mission turns into a feminist excavation—of these models, the accompanying male gaze and, most importantly, of personal self-discovery. She uncovers a hidden part of herself, one that involved choices intended to make herself invisible and safe.

Peeling back the layers in the funny, frank, insightful feminist excavation Operation SUNshine.

Operation SUNshine continues at St. Vladimir Theatre until July 15; advance tickets available online.