SummerWorks: Forgotten women’s voices emerge from the asylum in the remarkable, haunting Audible Songs from Rockwood

Simone Schmidt. Photo by Jeff Bierk.

 

Fiver brings a remarkable piece of musical storytelling to the stage with Audible Songs from Rockwood, written by Simone Schmidt, created by Schmidt, Shannon Lea Doyle and Frank Cox-O’Connell, and directed by Cox-O’Connell—running in the Franco Boni Theatre at The Theatre Centre. Based on the album of the same name, Schmidt has brought to life the voices of 10 women who were incarcerated at the Rockwood Asylum for the Criminally Insane between 1856 and 1881, taking us on a music accompanied history tour of these women’s lives and experiences at Rockwood—while drawing on issues of colonialism, patriarchy and mental health.

Staged as a piece of solo storytelling theatre, Schmidt shares her inspiration and research—of Rockwood and its inmates, and of Upper Canada law and general history of the time—in between songs, as she draws parallels between colonialism, and the system of white Protestant patriarchy that ruled the land and made property of wives and daughters. Inspired by the experiences of 10 women incarcerated at the Rockwood Asylum for the Criminally Insane, and incorporating two years of research from the case files and ledgers of the facility, Schmidt has created a series of song portraits. Put away by fathers, husbands or the authorities for out of wedlock sexual activity and being “man-obsessed”, melancholia, paranoia over land theft or spousal infidelity, or going incognito (one woman fabricated a life under an assumed name as a single woman from down south, when she was married to a local man), these women were subject to harsh conditions, initially housed in the stables of the former estate as the facility was under construction to house the overflow of mentally ill inmates from Kingston Penitentiary. Silenced and forgotten, some were left there for years after they were deemed fit to return home, their families inquiring about them but not bothering to make the journey to take them back.

Inmates were confined, forced into silence, and subjected to hard labour and cruel punishments for breaking the rules. Lack of funding for mental health shut down plans for more advanced, humane treatment at the facility; moral treatment, based on a Quaker model, whereby patients would have freedom to move about, and be given useful tasks to perform around the facility, like cleaning, cooking or gardening. Lack of funds also meant the facility had insufficient heating in winter, forcing inmates to huddle together for warmth as the contents of their chamber pots froze.

Haunting and mournful, lyrical yet matter of fact, the Appalachian folk-inspired music captures the essence of women whose lives were forever changed; silenced and policed in a harsh penal/mental health system—the stories in the facility documents were essentially told by the male doctors and police officers involved with each case. Schmidt’s vocals are earthy, deep and soulful; accompanied by Laura Bates on fiddle and Carlie Howell on double bass, in addition to back-up vocals/harmonies. Schmidt is well-aware of the possible issue of appropriation of voice here; and she wondered out loud if it’s right for her to tell these stories that aren’t really hers to tell. But if not for her songs—developed through respectful and painstaking research—who would be telling the stories of these troubled, silenced and forgotten women?

The “Audible” in the title may seem redundant, but Audible Songs from Rockwood are the songs of the hearts, souls and minds of women who otherwise would have had no voice.

Audible Songs from Rockwood continues, with three more performances, in the Franco Boni Theatre at the Theatre Centre until August 18; check the show page for exact dates/times. Tickets available online or in person at the box office.

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Love & hate, abandonment & connection in the searing, electric Fool for Love

Cara Gee & Eion Bailey. Set design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Shannon Lea Doyle. Lighting design by Simon Rossiter. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Soulpepper Theatre presents a searing, electric production of Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love, directed by Frank Cox-O’Connell and running at the Young Centre. The shifting temperatures of love/hate and tenderness/cruelty take on new meaning, with the pairing of an Indigenous woman with a non-Indigenous man as the on again, off again lovers—who come together and tear apart, both individually and collectively, in this rough and gentle dance of connection, abandonment, rage and desire.

In a cheap, grotty motel room in the Mohave Desert, May (Cara Gee) and Eddie (Eion Bailey) play out their ongoing cycle of of love, hate, abandonment and connection in a relationship that has come together and broken apart since they were in high school. Fiery, furtive—and playing off each other’s emotional and mental states—the power dynamic shifts as one pulls it together and the other falls apart. Explosions of jealousy, rage and recrimination reveal the simple, awful truth that they can’t live with or without each other.

Watching from the sidelines is the Old Man (Stuart Hughes), a father—a memory or a ghost?—observing the scene, and offering comments and advice from his rocking chair on the sand as he drinks Jack Daniels from a Styrofoam cup. Then, entering this love/war zone is local lawn maintenance guy Martin (Alex McCooeye), there to take May out to the movies. Initially interrogated by Eddie, he becomes an unwitting confessor as Eddie reveals how he and May met—and the nature of their connection.

Outstanding work from the entire ensemble in this intense, fly-on-the-wall look at a deeply complex, conflicted relationship. Gee is both fierce and vulnerable as May; wounded, wary and loving Eddie so much, but refusing to take it any more, May wants him to leave and to stay, to have him and move on. She also doesn’t want to be a dirty secret like her mother. Bailey balances Eddie’s cocky cowboy and hurt little boy; with a family history of abandonment and an unfulfilled longing to connect with an often absent father, he struggles to be his own man—all with the painful realization that he can’t be with May, nor can he quit her. The casting of an Indigenous woman and non-Indigenous man in this production highlights ongoing issues of colonization of Indigenous women’s bodies and minds; and the lies the white-dominated patriarchy feeds to white boys—about women and what they’re entitled to—when only certain white men actually benefit from this system. (Be sure to read Gee’s Artist Note at the front of the program for her lived experience and experience working on this production, as well as shared insights on these themes.)

Hughes and McCooeye provide arms-length—though very different—perspectives of the May-Eddie dynamic. Hughes brings a grizzled, cynical, even haunting vibe as the Old Man; revealing his own life as he reveals theirs. McCooeye’s performance as the sweet but dim Martin rings of a small-town, child-like innocence, and provides some much needed comic relief. There for a simple date at the movies, Martin winds up as a witness to the latest skirmish in Eddie and May’s relationship, and confidante to their personal history together.

With shouts to the design team for their part in creating an environment of heightened realism for this production: the gritty, sparse motel room set (Lorenzo Savoini); regional costuming that is both seductive and practical (Shannon Lea Doyle); the lighting effects that give the room a neon, then a fiery, glow (Simon Rossiter); and sound design and composition (Andrew Penner) that provide both atmospheric highlighting and practical punctuation to the action. And there’s live music, created on the dobro with slide, nicely done by Hughes.

Love as a cycle of possession, addictive desire, oasis, war zone and even shame—it’s easy to see why these lovers can’t be together, yet can’t be apart.

Fool for Love continues at the Young Centre, the run extended to August 11; advance tickets available online, or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188. Advance booking strongly recommended; I saw it on a Tuesday night and it was sold out.

A young hero’s quest for identity in the delightful, inspiring all-ages musical Rose

Rose ensemble, with Hailey Gillis centre. Set, lighting & projection design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Alexandra Lord. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper continues its Family Festival programming with the world premiere of Rose—a brand new original musical three in years in the making, adapted from Gertrude Stein’s only children’s book The World Is Round. With music and book by composer and music director Mike Ross, and lyrics and book by Sarah Wilson; directed by Gregory Prest, assisted by Jennifer Weisz; and choreographed by Monica Dottor, this delightful, inspirational story follows the journey of the nine-year-old titular hero as she sets off in search of her identity. Rose opened at the Young Centre last week; I caught the matinée yesterday.

Narrator Frank the logger (Frank Cox-O’Connell on guitar) and logger bandmates Buddy (John Millard on banjo) and Jessie (Raha Javanfar on violin) welcome us to the town of Somewhere, where everyone likes to say their name and tell you all about themselves. Only the quiet, introverted Rose (Hailey Gill) just can’t seem to say her name, no matter how hard she tries, or how much encouragement she gets from her outgoing BFF Willie (Peter Fernandes) and faithful dog Love (Jonathan Ellul). Rose is a thinker who believes a name means a lot—and she has questions. And maybe the answers to those questions will help her sort out her predicament. After all, how can she say her name when she doesn’t know who, what, where, when or why she is? Mocked by classmates who view her as a weirdo, but determined to learn, she asks her teacher Miss Crisp (Sabryn Rock), who encourages her to try something new.

Rose takes this advice to heart and chooses a different direction, trying on a new, wild personality in the process—a decision that puts her friendship with Willie in jeopardy and further isolates her from her community. Then, inspired by the idea of getting a new perspective from the local mountain top, she sets off alone to climb it to see if she can find her answers there—and ultimately, the voice to say her name.

A tale of navigating life’s contradictions and weirdness, Rose is about love, acceptance and being true to yourself—and the resilience, determination, faith and hope required in the search for the answers to life’s questions. Even if things don’t work out the way you’d hoped or expected, the journey’s the thing. And, oh the places you’ll go, within and without yourself, when you step out of your comfort zone and try something new—all while recognizing and respecting your limits.

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Hailey Gillis. Set, lighting & projection design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Alexandra Lord. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Gillis shines as our young hero Rose, giving an engaging, thoughtful and vulnerable performance as the not so little girl on a big mission. Shy, awkward and pensive, Rose longs to say her name and is driven to crazy lengths to find it within herself to do so. Gillis’s performance resonates in a deep, honest way; we’ve all felt lost and out of step with our lives at times—and identity is an ongoing evolution as we continue to explore our talents, desires and boundaries. Fernandes is an energetic treat as the confident extrovert Willie; the perfect match to the quiet Rose, Willie enjoys life’s simpler pleasures—but even he finds himself starting to ask questions. Ellul makes an adorably sweet and goofy canine pal with the loyal Love; struggling to be heard himself, even Love manages to push past his communication boundaries.

This multimedia, multidisciplinary musical features a multi-talented, multi-tasking ensemble, most of whom play several roles; not previously mentioned are Troy Adams, Michelle Bouey, Alana Bridgewater, Oliver Dennis and Raquel Duffy. Stand-outs include Bridgewater’s fierce Tina Turner-esque turn as the Lion Woman, in a powerhouse performance executed with style and impressive vocal chops. Grown-ups of a certain age will recognize Dennis and Duffy’s hilarious nod to Body Break as Trevor and Beth the Gym Buffs; and Dennis brings rock star charisma and presence as Billie the Lion. Rock gives us an endearing, comic performance as Miss Crisp, the patient, put-upon, high strung teacher.

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Raha Javanfar, Frank Cox-O’Connell & John Millard (foreground), with Raquel Duffy, Oliver Dennis, Peter Fernandes & Scott Hunter (background). Set, lighting & projection design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Alexandra Lord. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

The music makes a joyful noise—inspired by blue grass, folk, gospel, rock and traditional musical theatre—and features a tight onstage band in addition to the three musician loggers: Scott Hunter on bass, James Smith on keys and Adam Warner on drums. The songs will have your heart singing and get you on your feet as you cheer for Rose along her journey. Visually spectacular and sporting a vibrant palette, Lorenzo Savoini’s imaginative and practical set, lighting and projection design, and Alexandra Lord’s playful costumes, add to the magic.

Truly a musical for all ages, Rose has something for everyone—and, like the Lion Woman, you may even see yourself in our young hero. A name really does mean a lot. Say yours loud and proud!

Rose continues at the Young Centre until February 24; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

ICYMI: Check out this Intermission Spotlight by Robert Cushman on Mike Ross.

And here’s the production teaser:

 

Sacrifices, stories & souls in Soulpepper’s startling, lyrical, theatrical Idomeneus

Michelle Monteith, Stuart Hughes and Jakob Ehman. Set, video and lighting design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Gillian Gallow. Photo by Cylla von Tiedeman.

 

Soulpepper Theatre takes us on a turbulent, soul-wrenching homecoming journey in its production of Roland Schimmelpfennig’s Idomeneus, translated by David Tushingham, and directed by Alan Dilworth with assistance from Gregory Prest. Idomeneus is currently running in the Michael Young Theatre at the Young Centre in Toronto’s Distillery District.

The 10-year long Trojan War is over and Idomeneus, King of Crete (Stuart Hughes), is on his way home with his fleet of 80 ships; exhausted, battle-bruised and too long separated from loved ones. So close and so far, they are beset by a terrible storm that takes each ship down one by one. Aboard the last ship afloat, and facing certain death, Idomeneus strikes a bargain with Poseidon: he will sacrifice the first living thing he sees upon his arrival home. He is spared and returns home to the shores of Crete, his ship in tatters.

This is where our journey begins: in a shadow land of conscience, fate and storytelling, of lost souls and conflicting accounts. Which version of the story is true—and which is the version one can live with? Is the first living thing Idomeneus encounters his son Idamantes (Jakob Ehman)? Does he go through with the promised sacrifice? Has his wife Meda (Michelle Monteith) been unfaithful, sharing a lusty bed with an enraged fellow sovereign (Diego Matamoros) bent on punishing betrayal with revenge sex? Version upon version of the stories unfold. What is truth? What is rumour? What is fake news?

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Michelle Monteith, Jakob Ehman, Frank Cox-O’Connell and Idomeneus Chorus. Set, video and lighting design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Gillian Gallow. Photo by Jose John.

Combining storytelling, movement and choral work to create a collage of scenes and variations on scenes, the dark and eerie edge of this tale is highlighted with startling sound (Debashis Sinha) and lighting design, and haunting projected shadow images (Lorenzo Savoini), relieved by moments of dark comedy. The contemporary costuming (Gillian Gallow) is both muted and ghost-like; and the set, with its cracked stone wall and dark earth floor evokes both an ancient place and no place (Lorenzo Savoini).

Beautiful, haunting and compelling work from the ensemble in this unsettling and poetic drama: Akosua Amo-Adem, Alana Bridgewater, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, Laura Condlln, Frank Cox-O’Connell, Jakob Ehman, Kyra Harper, Stuart Hughes, Diego Matamoros and Michelle Monteith.

And, whether Idomeneus goes through with the sacrifice of his son or not, will it have the same outcome? And will he have to pay with his own life regardless of which path he chooses?

Idomeneus continues in the Michael Young Theatre at the Young Centre. Get advance tickets online or call the box office: 416-866-8666 / 1-888-898-1188.