Toronto Fringe: The savagery of civilized society in sharply insightful, brutally funny God of Carnage

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Halo Productions brings biting social commentary to Toronto Fringe venue the Helen Gardiner Playhouse with Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage, translated by Christopher Hampton and directed by Katherine Bignell.

When their 11-year-old son Henry is badly injured by stick-wielding playmate Benjamin, Veronica (Françoise Balthazar) and Michael (Mike Lummis) invite Benjamin’s parents Annette (Angela Froese) and Alan (Stephen Flett) to their home for a meeting about the severity of the situation. The initially civil discussion turns to heated debate, then to violent argument as the adults get caught up in their sons’ playground altercation and reveal their own deep-seated prejudices, neuroses and hypocrisy.

Set in Veronica and Michael’s living room – the minimalist set design all in red, including two vases of red tulips – it becomes clear that Veronica and Alan are the alphas of their respective pairings, while Michael and Annette defer to their spouses, even to the point of mirroring their opinions; but as the action continues, the true natures and attitudes of all are revealed.

The cast does a great job, transitioning from well-mannered and even legal language to insult and cursing as civil conversation turns into drunken living room brawl. Balthazar brings a crisp, fastidious sense of decorum to the highly educated, well-travelled Veronica; and her liberal thinking and good manners reveal an underlying self-righteousness and ferocity. Flett is suitably despicable as the no bullshit, wry-witted Alan; a lawyer attached to his cellphone as an important pharma client deals with the possibility of a drug recall, he puts his career first, but actually does have a heart under all that brutal honesty. Lummis’s Mike seems affable and caring enough at first, a modern-thinking man who eschews violence and is concerned for his son; he soon reveals himself to be a phoney, as his layers are peeled away to reveal a conservative, callous hypocrite with less than friendly opinions on marriage and children, as well as gender and race. And Froese does a lovely job with the mousy, nervous Annette; adrift and put-upon, she is seething underneath and actually mad as hell. Like Mike, she defers to her spouse till she can’t take it anymore – and erupts in a rant about the state of their lives before settling in to intoxicated bliss.

The savagery of modern civilized society in sharply insightful, brutally funny God of Carnage.

God of Carnage continues at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse until July 9. For ticket info and advance tickets/passes, check out the Fringe website.

SummerWorks: The painful truth on the road to reconciliation in beautiful & compelling The Living

Cast of The Living, photo by Paul Lampert
Cast of The Living – photo by Paul Lampert

How can we move on if we can’t accept the impossible?

Brown paper, like fallen leaves, strewn across the floor – a struggling landscape. Two shrouded bodies, still, unbreathing – the dead. This is the sight on the playing area as you enter the Theatre Centre Incubator space – the stage set for the premiere of Colleen Wagner’s The Living, directed by Ines Buchli for the living project in this SummerWorks run.

The play is dedicated to the women and girls of Rwanda who Wagner met during her travels in Africa – and who asked her to be their storyteller. To tell of what happened after the genocide. The rebuilding. The caring for orphans. The system of transformative justice whereby “perpetrator” becomes part of the “victim’s” life in a new, positive relationship dynamic – healing, reconciling. And maybe even finding redemption and forgiveness.

Anita La Selva in The Living - photo by Paul Lampert
Anita La Selva in The Living – photo by Paul Lampert

Jacqui (Miriam Fernandes) and Henry (Kaleb Alexander) have known each other since they were children, and their memories of their times together take a brutal turn when, on opposite sides of the genocide, Henry becomes a “perpetrator” and Jacqui becomes a “victim.” Henry saves her from the killers only to become part of the rabid mob that kills Jacqui’s father and brother, and one man – a neighbour – rapes her mother (Anita La Selva), leaving her infected with HIV. But then something impossible happens. Henry and Jacqui fall in love.

The Living Beryl Bain Wayne Ward Stephanie Jung photo by Paul Lampert
Beryl Bain, Wayne Ward & Stephanie Jung in The Living – photo by Paul Lampert

The community is in a brittle, fragile state as formerly imprisoned men return home, some still harbouring anger and hate, simmering in their perceptions of the wrong-doing and culpability of the people they sought to exterminate. Three spirits– murdered teenage sisters – emerge on the scene. Restless. Living their deaths over and over again. Played with startling intensity by Beryl Bain, Gabrielle Graham and Stephanie Jung; like the Furies, they haunt, taunt, whisper and hiss for the truth.

Lovely work from this ensemble. Fernandes (luminous in her positive demeanour and fearlessness as Jacqui) and Alexander (repentant and sheepish as Henry, pushing beyond his deep sense of shame towards love) have beautiful chemistry, their conversations taking on a lyrical, poetic tone; two young people struggling to rebuild their lives after the horrors – striving, but hopeful to live in peace. La Selva is heartbreaking as Jacqui’s mother; sick and broken, waiting for death and afraid of facing it alone. As their neighbour Leopold, Wayne Ward brings a complexity of character; bitter and unrepentant after serving his time in prison, he hides with his fear at the bottom of a bottle, leaving his wife with the burden of being the household breadwinner. Cindy Block gives a poignant performance as his wife, a woman once abandoned by her husband’s violence and now abandoned by his hatred of the world, desperately trying to make ends meet as she lives in denial of her own horrid memories and suspicions.

Françoise Balthazar is marvelous and strong as the local barkeep, now running the business alone as her husband continues serving time in jail. Tough-talking and suffering no fools, she is hurt and lonely – and, like her neighbour, feeling the guilt and shame of not speaking up during the rampage to try and stop it. Richard Lee does a nice job with the layers of the town preacher, a  man who has chosen a life of religious service as his path to redemption. His words of love and forgiveness are not entirely selfless, though – including his interest in Jacqui, which while somewhat comical, has a dark edge to it.

And the multicultural casting has the effect of placing this story beyond the borders of any one country, any single ethnicity. The atrocities and the aftermath could happen anywhere.

With shouts to Shawn Kerwin (set and costume design) and Erika Batdorf (movement).

The painful truth on the road to reconciliation in Colleen Wagner’s beautiful and compelling premiere of The Living.

The Living continues at the Theatre Centre Incubator until Aug 16 – check here for the detailed schedule.

Fear & loathing in real estate with a damn fine all-female cast in Jet Girls Productions’ Glengarry Glen Ross

GlengarryPosterOnline-1 - smallAnd the Mametpalooza continues over at Red Sandcastle Theatre. (I saw Headstrong Collective’s marvelous production of Boston Marriage at Campbell House Museum last Saturday.) This time, it’s Jet Girls Productions’ ballsy all-female production of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, directed by Anita La Selva.

With this world premiere of the gender switched Glengarry Glen Ross, Jet Girls has a very ambitious first production on their hands – and they weren’t permitted to change a word of the script. The result is powerful, thought-provoking, darkly funny and more than a bit jarring.

Joining director La Selva on this journey is a fine ensemble of local female actors (in order of appearance): Elizabeth Saunders (Shelly Levene), Julie Brar (John Williamson and co-founder of Jet Girls), Françoise Balthazar (David Moss), Laurel Paetz (George Aaronow), Marianne Sawchuk (Richard Roma and co-founder of Jet Girls), Rosemary Doyle (James Lingk and A.D. of Red Sandcastle Theatre) and Robinne Fanfair (Detective Baylen).

With none of the text altered – including character names – and the men replaced with women, the raw and often brutal language of the play comes across as all the more harsh. Violent verbal exchanges highlighted with name-calling and profanity hit harder coming from the mouths of women, but at the same time there is an unsettling naturalism about it. These are women struggling for survival in a merciless, dog eat dog business driven by the mantra “Always Be Closing.” You don’t close, you don’t eat. Slogging through lists of dead leads in hard, changing economic times, the futility and desperation is palpable. Make no mistake, this is no mere cat fight – competition is fierce and it’s the law of the jungle here.

As Shelly “The Machine” Levene, Saunders gives us a compelling and poignant portrait of a salesperson past her prime, an old-school practitioner struggling along the rat race, ravenously desperate to break a losing streak, and avoid falling into despair. Brar does a lovely job with the aloof, pompous young pup Williamson, revealing hints of ruthlessness and entitlement beneath the cool professional exterior. Balthazar gives a riveting performance as Moss; by turns a rampaging bear and snake-like manipulator, there is something of the ticking time bomb in her. Paetz gives nice layers to Aaronow, Moss’s sidekick; mousey in her righteous indignation over the poor state of their leads, and an easy mark for Moss’s machinations – but this mouse wants to roar when she’s backed into a corner. Sawchuk mesmerizes as the slick operator Roma. All sex and charisma, smooth and sharp and the same time, she is a master of language, flirtation and flattery – anything to get what she wants. As Roma’s mark Lingk, Doyle brings a lovely combination of frumpy, gullible naiveté and a devil may care yearning for adventure to this sexually repressed, hen-pecked woman – but is not beyond standing her ground, albeit on shaky legs, when her place in the world becomes threatened. Very nice work from Fanfair as the no-nonsense, unflappable Detective Baylen; while professional in demeanour, she will brook no shenanigans from this group of real estate hustlers during her investigation.

With shouts to costume designer Jan Venus for the sharp, evocative 80s wardrobe.

Fear and loathing in real estate with a damn fine all-lady cast in Jet Girls Productions’ Glengarry Glen Ross. Get yourself out to Red Sandcastle Theatre to see this.

Glengarry Glen Ross runs at Red Sandcastle until April 26. For advance tix, call 416-845-9411 or email redsandcastletheatre@gmail.com

A powerful exploration of violence & justice – 16Endean Collective’s all-female Julius Caesar

Julius-PosterThe 16Endean Collective opened their all-female production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar last night, to a packed house that quickly became a rapt audience. Directed by Jennifer Parr, the production is running now at Red Sandcastle Theatre.

Staged on a minimalist – but extremely effective – black and red t-shaped playing area (designed by Rosemary Doyle), with spare but beautiful costumes (Jan Venus) and few props (also by Doyle – and this is a swordless Julius Caesar – more on that later in the post), this production also features live percussion music by Morgan O’Leary. This Julius Caesar focuses on the power of Shakespeare’s words, and the actions and relationships of the characters. As Parr states in her director’s notes: At the centre of Julius Caesar is the question “When is it lawful to kill a tyrant; and what happens when you do?” And, so the characters and audience are taken on a gripping journey of violence and justice – and the consequences that emerge from those actions.

Julius Caesar features an excellent ensemble of female talent, including: (in alphabetical order): Françoise Balthazar, Catherine Bruce, Rosemary Doyle, Toni Ellwand, Ellie Ellwand, Elva Mai Hoover, Marcia Johnson, Llyandra Jones, Margaret Lamarre, Lise Maher, Maria Syrgiannis, Deborah Verginella, Andrea Verginella-Paina and Trudy Weiss.

Weiss is imperious and commanding as Julius Caesar, an arrogant, vain man threatened by the younger, more physically fit nobles and warriors around him. Toni Ellwand is compelling as Brutus – stalwart, wise and measured, with a strength of character and firm sense of fair play. Françoise Balthazar’s Cassius is the perfect complement in this friendship of brothers-in-arms, brash – at times impulsive – ambitious and driven; the former spurred by love of his country and the latter enraged at the disposal of undeserved power. Llyandra Jones gives us a young lion of a Marc Antony, as cunning a warrior as he is an orator – he would be a present-day king of spin. There are also a few women playing women: Deborah Verginella brings a Portia (Brutus’s wife) who is passionate, loyal and hard-pressed to learn what keeps her husband awake at night. Catherine Bruce’s Calpurnia (Caesar’s wife) is equally strong; possessed of visions and fiercely protective of her husband – as is Rosemary Doyle’s mysterious and insistent Soothsayer, warning Caesar of the Ides of March at the beginning of the play. All in all, a very fine cast – and excellent work all around; and judging from the surnames, we have a couple of related actors too (Brutus’s young servant Lucius is played by Toni Ellwand’s daughter Ellie, for instance).

As I mentioned earlier, there are no swords – or weapons of any kind – in this production; and I must admit, when I saw the assassination scene coming, I wondered how they were going to pull it off. Very convincingly, it turns out. Through some beautifully – and powerfully – choreographed action (by director Parr), the assassins mime their stabs, and the scene is bathed in red light as the act proceeds in slow motion, each player’s strike highlighted until the final, most startling in its poignancy, stab from Brutus. And so all the scenes of killing and suicide go – all through the strength of movement and a dramatic shift in lighting. And, given the intimacy of the space, no matter where you’re sitting, this all happens close to the audience. Nicely done!

The 16Endean Collective’s powerful production of Julius Caesar runs at Red Sandcastle Theatre until June 22, so you’d best get your tickets early – and be sure to note the 7:30 p.m. start time for evening performances. This is a production you won’t want to miss.

In the meantime, take a gander at my recent interview with actor Françoise Balthazar.

 

Interview with actor Françoise Balthazar – upcoming all-female Julius Caesar

Francoise headshot 1Françoise Balthazar is a Toronto-based actor who took on the role of Richard III in the Toronto Fringe (2006) all-female production Richard 3, Queens 4 (The Deadly Game), directed by Jennifer Parr. Now, in collaboration with Parr and many of the same cast members, Balthazar is playing Cassius in the 16Endean Collective’s all-female production of Julius Caesar, running for 11 performances at Red Sandcastle Theatre from June 11 – 22. I had the chance to interview Françoise Balthazar over email about the production – and doing these intense, violent plays with an all-female cast.

LWMC: Hi, Françoise. Thanks for taking the time to talk about Julius Caesar. You, Jennifer Parr and most of the cast worked together in an all-female version of Richard III in a Toronto Fringe 2006 production. What made you decide to tackle Julius Caesar – and when did the idea take root?

FB: Toni Ellwand, our producer/actor, who is portraying the role of Brutus, saw a production of an all-female Julius Caesar in England that greatly impressed her and which received outstanding reviews. Toni then met our director Jennifer Parr at a theatre gathering just before Christmas, and she shared her interest about mounting a Toronto production of Julius Caesar. Jennifer Parr, a Shakespearean director and scholar, was very keen on the idea and offered to direct the show. It has been an unusually fast process from concept to production.

LWMC: The thing that strikes me about all-female productions like this is that they balance out our perspective of human nature and behaviour – and we see that human beings, no matter what their sex, gender, etc., are capable of a wide range of action and reaction, including violence. Richard 3, Queens 4 explored violence as a means to gain power and position. How did the company go about exploring the relationship between violence and retribution in Julius Caesar?

FB: As actors, we had to explore the personal motivations behind every conspirator’s reasons for wanting to assassinate Caesar, which ranged from pure justice for the good of Rome, to vengeance against Caesar’s tyranny and, as in Cassius’ case, a mixture of personal envy and hatred for Caesar and tyranny itself to wanting to reestablish the legitimacy of the Roman Republic. One of the methods the conspirators used to explore all these issues was a short series of workshops in the Michael Chekhov technique given by Rena Polley, who is an actor and certified teacher in the Chekhov technique, exploring group dynamics and high stakes situation.

LWMC: And it’s all mixed with ambition and a desire to do what’s right, so it’s all very grey in Julius Caesar, and many of the characters who are acting with a righteous sense of retribution don’t have entirely pure motives. How did the company navigate those grey areas, along with the layers of deceit and betrayal?

FB: We began by delineating every character from a historical point of view, both as individuals and as members of Roman society at this specific moment in time. Then, as a company, we explored all the interconnecting personal relationships and the stakes involved in the revolutionary choices that so many of the characters make.

LWMC: Brutus is Caesar’s friend and a respected Roman – and Cassius believes his participation in the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar will add credibility to their cause and garner good public opinion. Cassius engineers Brutus’s involvement, to the point of fabricating notes of support from the public. And, even though he’s using Brutus, it’s clear that Cassius loves and values him a great deal. How did you approach these contrasting – and contradictory – sides of Cassius?

FB: Cassius is a very ambitious extremist, and his primary driving force is to make sure that Caesar is eliminated at any cost, including forging notes of support to ensure that Brutus commits to the conspiracy. Cassius also has a deep abiding love for Brutus because he is virtuous, just and a noble Roman. Cassius’ worth is recognized and validated by Brutus, which makes him all the more precious to him. Having a deep understanding of Cassius’ psychological drives and creating a backstory of this character, along with the insights drawn from the Michael Chekhov workshop that the company attended, allowed me to integrate these contrasting elements of Cassius.

LWMC: When someone commits an act of violence, even for a good cause, they are forever changed. Did that factor into the exploration of the play in this production?

FB: Yes, absolutely. From the beginning of our process, Jennifer Parr our director urged us to explore the question we see at the heart of the play and our production: Is it ever lawful to kill a Tyrant? And what happens if you do?

And, specifically, from Cassius’ perspective, the murder of Caesar liberates him and his fellow conspirators to become heroic figures in the fight against tyranny.

LWMC: Did the ensemble discover anything new about Julius Caesar throughout the process?

FB: Yes, the incredible amount of love and loyalty between characters, whether husband and wives, friends and fellow revolutionaries, and also the unexpected amount of comedy and humour in a play about such a serious topic.

LWMC: I imagine some personal discoveries also emerged. What can you tell us about that experience?

FB: Yes, it’s the first time that I’ve worked with Shakespeare’s First Folio text to such a degree, and I fully realize now how invaluable the clues that Shakespeare presents are incredibly useful to the actor. And, amazingly, speaking this empowering visceral dialogue that is usually reserved for men is a thrilling experience, and makes me feel more bold, expansive and powerful as a performer.

LWMC: What do you hope audiences will take away from this production of Julius Caesar?

FB: We hope they come away feeling that this play speaks to us now, as urgently as it did to Shakespeare’s audience, and that the question of how to change our society in extreme times is never an easy one.

Experiencing the play with an all-female cast, on a thrust stage surrounded by the audience, also brings a new perspective and fresh take on the story, the characters, and the ideas.

LWMC: What’s up next for you?

FB: At the present moment, I’m pouring my heart and soul into this production. Ask me again in three weeks’ time!

LWMC: Anything else you’d like to share?

FB: I’m hoping to take away the learning I experience in playing the complex, powerful and commanding role of Cassius into my future work as an actor. Also, I work as a voice-over artist and am very passionate about creating characters solely through the use of the voice. The virtue of playing Cassius potentially contributes to my work in animation voice-over, which calls for the ability of treating with a broad range of characters, the sophisticated use of breath control, and possessing a great vocal range.

LWMC: Thanks, Françoise!

The 16Endean Collective production of Julius Caesar ensemble includes (in alphabetical order): Françoise Balthazar, Catherine Bruce, Rosemary Doyle, Toni Ellwand, Ellie Ellwand, Elva Mai Hoover, Marcia Johnson, Llyandra Jones, Margaret Lamarre, Lise Maher, Maria Syrgiannis, Deborah Verginella, Andrea Verginella-Paina and Trudy Weiss. Julius Caesar runs at the Red Sandcastle Theatre June 11-22 (preview on June 11 and opening on June 12).