Preview: Survival, resilience & resistance in the powerful, raw, timely Four Sisters

Bea Pizano & Company. Production design by Kaitlin Hickey in collaboration with Susanna Fournier. Wardrobe and props design by Patrick Peachey Higdon. Video design by Steph Raposo. Photo by Bernie Fournier.

 

Four Sisters is the final installment of Susanna Fournier’s Empire trilogy; produced by Paradigm Productions and commissioned by Luminato, and running this week at the Theatre Centre. Directed by Fournier and choreographed by Amanda Acorn, this powerful, raw and timely tale takes us to the Empire 259 years after the events of The Scavenger’s Daughter; into a world of plague and social cast-offs, where a 279-year old former madam raises the orphaned children of women who worked for her. A doctor arrives, promising to help as she works to come up with an inexpensive cure for marginalized, low-income populations; and she needs to experiment on the children.

We are in the Skirts, an outlying neighbourhood on the outskirts of the city where society’s marginalized and cast-off people dwell—the poor, mostly women and sex workers. And because this is the Empire, this is a world where only those with money, power and connections can afford to survive and thrive in the toxic, disease-ridden mess left behind after centuries of greed, violence, war and cut-throat capitalism. Former madam Sarah (Bea Pizano) has managed to cheat Death and now finds herself being mother to Abby (Chala Hunter, Krystina Bojanowski, Yolanda Bonnell), Beah (Aria Evans, Ximena Huizi, Jennifer Dahl), Cassie (Claudia Moore) and Dee (Virgilia Griffith)—children of women who worked for her, who all died of plague. When a Doctor (Krystina Bojanowski, Yolanda Bonnell), driven by the desire to find an inexpensive cure that can be used on the low-income population, arrives from the city with the promise of medical help, Sarah must decide if she’s willing to let her girls be Guinea pigs or die of plague.

The story plays out both within and without time and space—on a bare stage, sculpted with light and punctuated with video on a solitary TV screen (designed by Steph Raposo), the chilling atmosphere hauntingly complemented by Christopher Ross-Ewart’s sound design. Time folds and bends in on itself, with the multiple casting for Abby and Beah allowing for both younger and inner selves to speak to these characters, with shades of things to come for an older Beah. And the ongoing role swapping between the actors playing Abby and the Doctor (Bojanowski and Bonnell) shines a light on the choices health care practitioners have when it comes to their practice: to play a role in the male-dominated arenas of capitalism and Big Pharma, promising low-cost health benefits at unknown personal and societal cost, or working on the front lines of health care among those who society has discarded.

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Krystina Bojanowski & Company. Production design by Kaitlin Hickey in collaboration with Susanna Fournier. Wardrobe and props design by Patrick Peachey Higdon. Video design by Steph Raposo. Photo by Bernie Fournier.

Compelling work from this remarkable cast, as the staging incorporates movement, video and voice-over to tell a story that, like the earlier parts of this trilogy, is both visceral and cerebral, past and present, present and future. Pizano nicely balances Sarah’s wry-witted madam pragmatism with the tender-hearted, concern of a good mother. Bojanowski and Bonnell mine the Doctor’s clinical detachment and sense of social responsibility to great effect. Are the Doctor’s later efforts a move toward redemption—or too little, too late?

The four girls grow before our eyes, from children playing in Sarah’s kitchen into conflicted adults struggling to choose a path in a world where paths are being cut off and replaced with walls—literally and figuratively. Hunter, Bojanowski and Bonnell bring sharp focus and inner conflict to Abby, who becomes an apprentice to the Doctor even as she longs to be a mother—and in the painful light of her new-found medical knowledge and expertise. Evans, Huizi and Dahl are loveable and heartbreaking as the energetic, resilient Beah; the dancer sister who longs to study at the academy—her exhausted, battered feet continuing to create despite the unexpected turns her life takes. Griffith brings both profound vulnerability and power to the deeply wounded, angry Dee; self-medicating in an effort to deal with troubling visions, Dee becomes an addict and an outcast among her own marginalized family, setting her on the path toward a surprising evolution. And Moore’s Cassie is adorable and wise; ever a child, Cassie sees and responds to unfolding events with innocent honesty.

Operating both in and out of time and space, we witness what the Empire has come to following centuries of war and social disintegration—leaving us wondering what, if anything, will rise from the ashes. (During intermission, you can view artifacts in the National Museum of the Empire installation in the upper lobby, outside the theatre.) In the end, through pain, grief and loss, there is resilience and resistance. It is apocalypse with a glimmer of hope. And all with the recognition—both disturbing and reassuring—of our own time and place.

Four Sisters continues in the Franco Boni Theatre space at the Theatre Centre until June 16. Post-show talk backs with the artists are scheduled to follow the 8 pm performance on Fri, June 14 (hosted by Ted Witzel); and the 2 pm performance on Sat, June 15 (hosted by Maria Vamvalis). Advance tickets available online; it was a full house at last night’s final preview performance, so advance booking or early arrival is strongly recommended.

If you’re like me and missed the first two installments of the Empire trilogy, or want a refresh before seeing Four Sisters, you can catch up and listen to the podcasts of The Philosopher’s Wife and The Scavenger’s Daughter on The Empire website, co-produced with Expect Theatre’s PlayMe Podcast.

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The good, the bad & the ugly of modern motherhood in the hilarious, heart-wrenching Secret Life of a Mother

Maev Beaty. Scenic design by Camellia Koo. Costume design by Erika Connor. Lighting design by Leigh Ann Vardy, with Kaileigh Krysztofiak. Photo by Kyle Purcell.

 

The collective theatrical baby of four female theatre artists—written by Hannah Moscovitch, with Maev Beaty and Ann-Marie Kerr, and co-created with Marinda de Beer—Secret Life of a Mother, directed by Kerr, opened at The Theatre Centre to a sold out house last night. Part autobiography, part confessional; it’s real and raw, hilarious and heart-wrenching—and it cracks open the good, the bad and the ugly of modern motherhood.

Six years in the making, Secret Life of a Mother was created through The Theatre Centre’s Residency program, during which time the four creators’ research was up close and personal; interviewing parents and drawing on their own first-hand observations of motherhood, including Beaty’s and Moscovitch’s own exhausting, guilt-ridden struggles of being a new mom while also working as an extremely busy, in-demand artist.

Beaty portrays Moscovitch throughout, occasionally popping out of character to speak to us as herself, as she takes us on this motherhood exploration journey in five acts—and we go right along with her as she rides the physical, psychological and emotional rollercoaster of miscarriage, labour, birth, fear of being a bad mom and getting invaluable support from a good friend. It’s personal, candid and more than a bit meta, with Beaty as Moscovitch, at times talking about herself from Moscovitch’s perspective; and we even get some first-hand commentary from Moscovitch—most intriguingly via video, projected on a piece of the script. But for all the neat multi-media elements—the mirrored backdrop, the two aquariums filled with water (scenic design by Camellia Koo and lighting by Leigh Ann Vardy, with Kaileigh Krysztofiak) and projection (Cameron Davis, with Laura Warren), not to mention the really cool, wonderful thing that happens at the end (which you’ll have to come see for yourself)—the storytelling is mostly low-tech, intimate and conversational. Like sitting with a good friend over a glass of wine.

Beaty and Moscovitch tell it like it is, no holds barred. It’s scary and confusing, messy and painful—even horrific and bizarre—and that’s just up until the baby comes out! After that, more confusion, second-guessing, guilt, shame, frustration, exhaustion, self-doubt. The taboo feelings of resentment and anger towards this new little person; and of wanting and needing to work—of splitting time, energy and focus between baby and career—are further kicks to the gut. Then there’s the mind-blowing, achingly disturbing realization that mothers give birth to life and death. And, finally, ongoing healing, support and acceptance as the new mom finds her own jam, and reconciles with the fact that there’s no one way to be a good mom. And then, the joy beyond belief and description.

Beaty gives a beautifully candid, gutsy and vulnerable performance; baring her soul along with Moscovitch in this profoundly human, honest exploration and revelation of modern—and new—motherhood. I doubt there was a dry eye in the house by the end; and more than a few of us wanting to hug our mothers.

Secret Life of a Mother in the Franco Boni Theatre space until November 11. Tickets available online or by calling The Theatre Centre’s Box Office at 416-538-0988 or online. Advance booking strongly recommended.

The run includes an ASL interpreted performance on November 2 at 8:00 pm; and a relaxed performance on November 6 at 8:00 pm.