Ergo Pink Fest: Character is fate & sisters start doing it for themselves in The Women of Casterbridge

Ergo Arts Theatre opened the Ergo Pink Fest at the Small World Music Centre at Artscape Youngplace last night. A three-day festival of new plays by female and non-binary identified playwrights, script criteria includes: “at least two women/non-binary people, who both have names; 2. These two people talk to each other; 3. They talk about something other than a man.” So these are Bechdel-tested works!

The festival opened with Claire Ross Dunn’s The Women of Casterbridge, a feminist retelling of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, directed by Diana Leblanc.

Sold in the market to a kind sailor (David Storch), by her drunken brute of a husband Michael Henchard (Patrick Galligan)—who blames them for his lack of social and financial opportunity and advancement—Susan (Catherine Fitch) and her four-year-old daughter Elizabeth Jane (Laura Schutt) leave England to live with the sailor, Richard Newson, in Newfoundland. Years later, after Newson is declared dead in a ship wreck and they’re evicted from their sailor’s lodgings, Susan (who is now quite ill) and Elizabeth Jane have no choice but to return to England in search of Henchard, in hopes that he will lend them some assistance and secure their survival.

In the intervening years, Henchard has quit drinking and sorted himself out, eventually owning a successful grain business and becoming the Mayor of Casterbridge. A miraculously changed man, when Susan finds him, he asks her forgiveness and plans to make things right. Elizabeth Jane is unaware of the circumstances that sent her and her mother away, so Henchard hatches a plan to woo Susan anew and marry her; in doing so, he must break off his understanding with his lover Lucetta (Kat Gauthier). He also has big plans for innovation with his business, convincing young Scot Donald Farfrae (Sergio Di Zio) to stay in Casterbridge and work with him. Farfrae and Elizabeth Jane, who is an unusually independent and strong-willed young woman for her time, are drawn to each other.

When Susan dies, Henchard decides to renew his relationship with Lucetta, newly returned to Casterbridge a wealthy heiress. She takes Elizabeth Jane, a like-minded independent woman, on as her companion; she also catches the eye of Farfrae, who favours her over Elizabeth Jane. Henchard’s inner demons of greed and pride rear their ugly heads; jealous of Farfrae’s popularity and charm, and of Lucetta’s interest in him, he fires him from the company and returns to the bottle, setting in motion a self-fulfilling prophecy that rolls out over the subsequent years. Turning his anger upon Lucetta, Henchard has letters from her that reveal their prior relationship, spelling her ruin if released. A group of townspeople (Marium Carvell, Stuart Clow and David Storch) catch wind of their earlier affair and make a public spectacle. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Jane, hungry for knowledge and “enlargement” herself, works hard and overcomes the heartache of losing Farfrae to Lucetta, who’d taken her on as a companion.

Excellent work from the entire—and mostly multitasking—cast. Chock full of melodramatic (and comedic) twists and turns, startling revelations and heartfelt confessions, Susan’s motto “character is fate” plays out for all.

Ergo Pink Fest continues in the Small World Music Centre this weekend, closing tomorrow (March 25). Coming up next at the Fest:

March 24 @ 1:30 pm: Being Helen by Laurie Fyffe, directed by Andrea Donaldson

March 24 @ 4:00 pm: The Sister Op by Shelley M. Hobbs, directed by Susan A. Lock

March 24 @ 8:00 pm: Witts: Ballad of the Queer Cowboys by Calla Wright, directed by Anna Pappas

March 25 @ 1:30 pm: The Next Mary by Mairy Beam, directed by Rebecca Picherack

March 25 @ 4:00 pm: Sol by Araceli Ferrara, directed by Anita La Selva

March 25 @ 6:45 pm: Manners by Nastasia Pappas-Kemps, directed by Sue Miner

The Fest also includes two free panels:

March 25, from 12:00 – 1:00 pm: Bridging the Gap: The Value of Mentorship and Relationships between Artists (Room 106). Mediator: Thalia Gonzalez Kane. Panelists: Tamara Almeida, Angela Besharah, Martha Burns, Erin Carter, Marcia Johnson, Heath V. Salazar.

March 25, from 5:00 – 6:30 pm: Colour. Culture. Curtain. Cross-racial Casting on Contemporary Stages (Room 106). Mediator: Nicole Stamp. Panelists: Dian Marie Bridge, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, Tanisha Taitt, Paula Wing.

Check the full line-up details and book advance tickets. It’s an intimate venue, and last night was sold out and then some, so advance booking strongly recommended.

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Giving a voice to the brave, resourceful women of The Odyssey in the engaging, theatrical The Penelopiad

The ensemble in The Penelopiad—photo courtesy of George Brown College

The George Brown Theatre School class of 2017 closes its 2016-17 season with Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad (directed by Sue Minor) and David Ives’ new version of Georges Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear (directed by Todd Hammond and Jordan Pettle) in the Michael Young Theatre at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, located in Toronto’s Distillery District. I caught The Penelopiad last night.

The Penelopiad is a retelling of The Odyssey from Penelope’s point of view, told with an all-female cast. Featuring the overlooked, abandoned and condemned women usually relegated to the background while Odysseus and his band of brothers are off for 20 years, fighting in the Trojan War, and having scrapes and adventures with various gods and monsters, it also provides a perspective of the 12 maids, executed for their licentious behaviour with Penelope’s would-be suitors.

Speaking to us from the Underworld after her death, Penelope (Kyrah Harder) starts her tale with the foot race for her hand, won by the short-legged Odysseus (Gabriella Albino), who thwarts his opponents by getting them drunk before the event. Brought into his parents’ household, she finds herself ruled by his disapproving mother Queen Anticlera (Emily Cully) and fastidious nursemaid Eurycleia (Lucy Meanwell). With the running of the house—and even the raising of her child Telemachus (Kayla Farris)—taken over by others, she resorts to weaving to pass the time.

Penelope’s role changes when Odysseus’s time away grows longer, his mother dies and his father King Laertes (Morgan St. Onge) wanders off, losing his mind; and finds herself forced to take over the running of the kingdom and Odysseus’s business affairs as she patiently awaits his return. When 10 years turns to 20, various suitors appear on her doorstep, circling like vultures and making themselves at home without invitation. Taking the 12 youngest maids into her confidence, she hatches a plan to keep the aggressive young men at bay. She tells the men she will choose a husband once she’s finished her father-in-law’s burial shroud. Each day, she and her 12 maids weave; each night, they undo their day’s work. The maids distract the suitors with attention and flirting; and when the suitors take out their frustrations by raping the maids, Penelope entreats them to hold fast—buying time until Odysseus returns.

Not apprised of Penelope’s plan, Telemachus and Eurycleia are mortified at the goings-on in the palace. And when Odysseus returns, he takes his revenge on the suitors; also unaware of what Penelope and the maids have been doing out of loyalty to him and to keep his kingdom safe, he punishes the maids. It is only through Eurycleia’s entreaty that he doesn’t execute all the maids—but just the 12 closest to Penelope.

While Penelope and her 12 maids prove themselves as cunning and steadfast as any man, in the end they are subject to the will and whims of men, who ultimately hold the balance of power.

A masterful piece of storytelling from a feminist perspective, the ensemble captures the edgy humour and despairing tragedy of this journey. Harder does a lovely job with the wry wit, desperate longing and firm resolve of Penelope. Haunted by her failure to protect them, she is shunned by the maids even after death. Lovely chemistry with Albino’s charming, wily and adventurous Odysseus; it is a complex relationship, for while Odysseus treats her with tender respect, he can’t help but succumb to the wanderlust that draws him away from her—even after death.

Stand-outs include Caroline Bell’s vain and flirty Helen (yes, that Helen and Penelope’s cousin) and Justine Christensen’s watery, ethereal Naiad (Penelope’s mother). Emily Cully brings in icy imperiousness to Queen Anticlera (Odysseus’s mother) and Tymika McKenzie-Clunis gives a hilarious turn as her pet goat. Lucy Meanwell also brings some comedy as Odysseus’s doting, gossiping and well-meaning but bossy nursemaid.

With shouts to the design team for bringing this otherworldly environment to life: Jackie Chau (set), Erin Gerofsky (costumes) and Nick Blais (lighting); and to the ensemble for arranging the music to Atwood’s words, in song and soundscape.

Giving a voice to the brave, resourceful women of The Odyssey in the engaging, theatrical The Penelopiad.

The Penelopiad continues at the Young Centre in the Michael Young Theatre until April 22; click here for ticket and pass info or book by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.  A Flea in Her Ear also runs until April 22; online tix available. It’s a great chance to see emerging acting talent before they head out into their careers.

You can also keep up with George Brown Theatre’s class of 2017 on Twitter and Facebook.

And check out the trailer for The Penelopiad here: