The meaning of life, death & the role of a lifetime in the moving, tender & funny Or Not To Be

Andrew Robinson, Shawn DeSouza-Coelho & Karen Scobie in Or Not To Be—photo by Vic Finucci

 

I was back at Red Sandcastle Theatre last night, this time for Glass Hammer Productions’ presentation of Andrew Batten’s Or Not To Be, directed by Julia Haist. I saw the premiere at Alumnae Theatre’s New Ideas Festival last year and was excited to see the evolution of the piece.

Actor Ben (Shawn DeSouza-Coelho) and director Sebastian (Andrew Robinson), also best friends, are working on putting together a production of Hamlet, with Ben playing the tragic hero. It’s the production of a lifetime—and the role of a lifetime for Ben—in more ways than one. Ben is living with a rare cancer, and his life now revolves around post-op treatments, medical appointments and an uncertain future. Rounding out his support team are his family and partner Sarah (Karen Scobie)—all touched in his or her own way by Ben’s illness.

Beneath the brave face Ben puts on for the world is a deep-seated internal conflict about the project and his treatment. As he struggles with side effects, low energy, frustration, and the fear of forgetting his lines and sucking at the role, he begins to wonder who he’s doing all of this for—and he’s faced with some hard choices, the impact of which will ripple out to those he loves.

Really lovely work and great chemistry from this three-hander cast in this intimate and candid production. DeSouza-Coelho’s Ben is a compelling picture of stoicism and determination, his thousand-mile stare and stillness belying the troubled soul beneath the surface; and he gives us nicely drawn Hamlet in a selection of classic soliloquies. Robinson brings the perfect balance of cockiness and warmth to Sebastian; Ben’s best friend since grade school, his theatrical ambitions are put into perspective by his support and care of Ben. Scobie gives Sarah a poignant sense of vulnerability and conflict as Ben’s lovingly supportive and uncomplaining partner; torn between wanting what’s best for Ben and not wanting to let him go, Sarah must confront her own feelings and motives. These relationship dynamics have all the truth, humour and feeling of people who know each other well—and in Ben and Sebastian’s case, a long time. And while the truth may be hard to take, it’s served up with love and honesty.

In the end, it makes you think. How would you react in Ben’s situation? What would your life be? And, as your life is right now, what’s your Hamlet? We are reminded that time is a precious, non-renewable resource—and despite the best intentions of those we love, it is we who must ultimately decide what path our lives will take.

With shouts to Liz Currie, the intrepid stage manager, lighting designer and tech in the booth; and to Wellspring, an organization—noted in the program—that provides programs and services for people living with cancer and their caregivers.

The meaning of life, death and the role of a lifetime in the moving, tender and funny Or Not To Be.

Or Not To Be continues at Red Sandcastle until January 28, Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm, with 2 pm matinees on Jan 20, 21, 27 and 28. Tickets available by calling the box office at 416 845-9411, or online at this link for first seven shows and this link for the final seven shows.

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Childhood friends grow up, lose touch & take a wacky trip out of bounds in big fun, big-hearted Playday Mayday

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Caitlin Howden, Mike Hughes, Colin Munch, Anders Yates & Matt Goldberg in Playday Mayday – photo by John Gundy

Remember playing Twister, Operation, Risk? Ever have an imaginary friend, pretend you were in space, turn your hand into a firearm? When you were a kid, was there a place in your town or neighbourhood you weren’t allowed to go – a place that was out of bounds?

Uncalled For does it all – and then some – in their thoughtful comic return to childhood games and fantasy in Playday Mayday, running now in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Mainspace, produced in association with the Toronto Sketch Comedy Festival. Written and directed by Matt Goldberg, Mike Hughes, Dan Jeannotte, Jacynthe Lalonde, Colin Munch and Anders Yates, the cast features Goldberg, Caitlin Howden, Hughes, Munch and Yates.

Five friends, once inseparable as they played together around their coastal town, have grown up and apart with adult busy-ness and responsibilities. After all those years of meaning to keep in touch, they gather at the edge of a cliff, awkwardly trying to reconnect at water’s edge. Then, something weird happens. One by one, they each lose their cellphones, watching with horror as the devices fall into the water of high tide below. Bruce (Munch) gets called into work, while the others wait for low tide to venture down. Down into out of bounds (OOB) to retrieve their phones. And then, something magical happens.

OOB is a world of eternal childhood, where grown-ups rekindle their sense of fun and play – and the four friends (Goldberg, Howden, Hughes and Yates) launch into games. Childhood games with an adult twist, like corporate Twister, a deadly game of 20 questions, hand gun arms dealer, a slimy amphibian imaginary friend with an agenda, and a unique version of musical chairs that features hip hop and period dance moves (choreography by Holly Greco and Stephanie McKenna). Oh, and the audience gets to play too – but you’ll have to go see for yourselves.

Meanwhile, Bruce has been working at the games call centre when his boss Mr. Wolf (Hughes) announces that there’s a situation in OOB. Concerned about his friends, Bruce volunteers to go down to save them. Of course, he ends up joining in on the fun and games. Which become not so fun when Mr. Wolf threatens to leave the five friends stranded, with the incoming high tide fast approaching.

Awesome work from the ensemble. Stand-out moments include a spacewalk with a twist; an impressive display of tongue-twisting alliteration in a courtroom scene; and an intergalactic space battle that goes horribly astray, but not for the reasons you might think. Playing together again and banding together against Mr. Wolf, friendship reignites with loads of big fun on the edge of reality.

With shouts to Lalonde for the cool production design, where everyday cast-off object become the stuff of imagination, including red hoodies.

Five childhood friends grow up, lose touch and take a wacky trip out of bounds in the big fun, big-hearted Playday Mayday.

Playday Mayday continues at TPM till Dec 4; check here for show dates/times – please note the 7:30 start time for evening performances. Get your advance tix online at Toronto Sketchfest or Arts Box Office, or call 416-504-7529.

Keep up with all your Uncalled For shenanigans on Twitter and Facebook.

Love, loss & the struggle to avoid getting beached in the poignant, funny Paradise Comics

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Sherman Tsang & Maddie Bautista in Paradise Comics – photos by producer Zach Parkhurst

 

Filament Incubator closes its #8playsin8months season with Caitie Graham’s Paradise Comics, directed by Darwin Lyons. Graham developed Paradise Comics at the Tarragon Theatre’s Young Playwrights Unit, where she now acts as Assistant Writing Instructor. I caught the opening last night at Kensington Hall (in Kensington Market at 56C Kensington Ave., Toronto).

What’s eating 13-year-old Beans (Sherman Tsang)? Is it that she didn’t get selected for science camp? The impending destruction of the planet caused by human disregard for the environment? The fact that her dad George (David Ross) has been sleeping in the car in the garage?

From the moment we enter the theatre, hearing the haunting emo soundtrack (sound by Deanna Choi) and seeing a kitchen strewn with boxes (set by Jingjia Zhang), we enter a melancholy world of disruption and chaos.

The world as Beans knows it is coming to an end. Paradise Comics, her dad’s beloved comic book store, is closing. Plus, he’s been acting weird and sad. So what if she spends more time at the shop than at school? She’s an excellent student, but she has her priorities. Her mom Janie (Sarah Naomi Campbell) has a different take on cutting school, though, and is getting on her case. And her BFF Hannah (Maddie Bautista) is being more hyper than normal, dancing as fast as she can to cheer Beans up. And what has Hannah done to their science project diorama?!

Really lovely work from the cast on this story of family, friendship, heartbreak and devastating change. Tsang brings a dark edge to the whip smart, academically serious and sharp-witted Beans; a science nerd who shares her dad’s love of comic books, she’s caught in the middle of her parents’ troubled marriage and her dad’s impending store closure. Ross is a gentle, laid back, cool dad as George; in some ways still a boy himself, having to say goodbye to his store – representing years of his life, work and passion – has set him adrift. Ross also gives a comic turn as Marvin, the affable and awkward storage company guy who arrives to cart off all the boxes; a comic book aficionado himself, he knows George and and the shop, and provides some surprising insight.

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David Ross & Sarah Naomi Campbell in Paradise Comics

Campbell’s Janie is both ferocious and a big warm hug personified; desperately trying to hold it together, she’s fierce in her fight to save her family from despair and eviction, especially in her attempts to connect with her daughter. Bautista is a quirky delight as Hannah; an outrageously positive kid, but no goody two-shoes, Hannah knows stuff. Finding her ongoing efforts to help Beans constantly shot down, she must decide if she wants to keep on trying or give up.

Beans’ mom and dad, and friend Hannah constitute the equivalent of her whale pod. And, like the whales that rally around an injured pod mate, they all need to be careful to not get beached along with it.

Love, loss and the struggle to avoid getting beached in the poignant, funny Paradise Comics.

Paradise Comics continues at Kensington Hall until Dec 3; it’s an intimate space, so you may want to book your tix in advance. If you haven’t seen a Filament Incubator production this season, what the heck are you waiting for? Get on over to Kensington Hall.

Keep up with Filament Incubator on Twitter and Facebook.

Check out the teaser for Paradise Comics:

Past & present collide as the walls come down in the compelling, intimate Agency

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Earl Pastko, Ben Sanders & Eva Barrie in Agency – photo by Greg Wong

Yell Rebel opened its production of Eva Barrie’s Agency, directed by Megan Watson, in The Theatre Centre Incubator space last Thursday; I caught the show last night.

Searching for answers about the fate of her father Peter (Ben Sanders), Hannah (Eva Barrie) arrives at a Berlin travel agency looking for Thomas (Earl Pastko). Armed with conflicting reports and evidence, and only vague memories, Hannah is determined to find the truth. Convinced that her father may still be alive, the man Hannah seeks answers from was her father’s friend and co-worker – and also a Stasi informant. A story woven across time, through the fall of the Berlin Wall and the historical reunification of Berlin, Agency shows us a world of greys – where nothing is as simple as it appears to be, and where good intentions can come to haunt and hurt.

Shifting across time and space, Agency plays out in intimate two-handers: mainly between Hannah and Thomas in the present, and Thomas and Peter in the past; in some cases, overlapping on the playing space as Thomas recalls a conversation with Peter as he speaks with Hannah.

Lovely, strong work from the cast here. Pastko’s Thomas acts as the bridge between past and present; unflinchingly calm and introverted, there is a kind sweetness beneath that gruff, old-school exterior. An adept spy, he’s struggled to find a way to use his covert talents for good. Barrie’s Hannah is all youthful, haunted energy; fragile and uncertain for all her bravado and research, she longs for the truth and gets more than she bargained for. And Sanders gives us an optimistic, charming and extroverted Peter; acting on instinct and hoping for the best, Peter’s sense of hopefulness and love is put to the test.

In his or her own way each is seeking reconciliation and redemption through these revelations. And, like the birds that repeatedly fly into the agency office windows, they’re butting up against the invisible walls that keep them apart.

Past and present collide as the walls come down in the compelling, intimate Agency.

Agency continues in The Theatre Centre Incubator until Nov 20; get your tix in advance online. Please note the early start times: 7 p.m. for evening performances and 1 p.m. for matinées.

Keep up with Yell Rebel on Twitter and Facebook.

The Devil went down to Old Montreal in the foot stompin’, magical Chasse-Galerie

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Nicole Power, Kat Letwin, Hunter Cardinal, Tyrone Savage, Michael Cox, Tess Benger, Shaina Silver-Baird, Ghazal Azarbad & Alicia Toner in Chasse-Galerie – photo by John Gundy

Soulpepper opened the Kabin/Storefront Theatre production of Chasse-Galerie to a delighted full house at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto’s Distillery District last night. With book adapted by director Tyrone Savage, assisted by Janet Laine-Green; music and lyrics by musical director James Smith; and choreography by Ashleigh Powell, Chasse-Galerie is a big fun, immersive, multimedia adventure that twists, turns and entertains.

When we enter the theatre, we find ourselves in the Flying Canoe pub on New Year’s Eve, greeted by members of the band/cast and availed of bar service – when our narrator Lucy (Ghazal Azarbad) emerges to tell us a tale of the Chasse-Galerie, a folk tale of a wild hunt in which those caught up in its path join the hunt forever.

On another New Year’s Eve, four coureuses des bois (i.e., female lumberjacks) are cold, exhausted and nearly out of whiskey. Alex (Tess Benger) longs to see her sweetheart, the lovely golden-haired fiddle player Jaune; Lea (Nicole Power) misses her red-headed whiskey maker Michel-Paul; coincidentally, so does Michelle (Kat Letwin); and Toba (Shaina Silver-Baird) doesn’t have someone special, but pines for music and romance. Fondly remembering their favourite Old Montreal pub, The Flying Canoe, the four women are dying for a road trip. There’s just one problem: it’s a three-day trek.

Enter Damien (Tyrone Savage), disguised as a weary frozen stranger, who offers them a way to get their wish and travel to the pub in hours. But his magic comes with conditions and a price: they must not swear or touch a cross, and they must be back by dawn. If not, their souls belong to him.

The women agree to his terms and travel by magic flying canoe to Old Montreal; convinced they’ll be fine as long as they don’t drink – especially Michelle, who has the biggest potty mouth of them all. Alex sets off in search of Jaune (Alicia Toner), and Michelle finds the lusty Michel-Paul (Michael Cox) before Lea does. And Toba becomes smitten with the bashful band leader Francois (James Smith), who is equally taken with her and gives her a fiddle lesson. Meanwhile, Lea meets a handsome cowboy who speaks in Shakespearian verse (the angel Uriel in disguise, played by Hunter Cardinal). To ensure that he reaps those four souls, Damien enlists Lucy’s assistance to foil our four heroines at every turn.

All hell breaks loose in the pub and dawn is fast approaching. When all seems lost, Toba challenges Damien to a fiddle duel to save her friends. And you won’t believe what happens next!

Incorporating animation, puppetry, songs and folk dance – not to mention a butt load of Québécois swears, including a very catchy audience participation tune at the end of Act I – Chasse-Galerie is one big fun musical ride of adventure and friendship, featuring performances from an outstanding multi-talented cast. Everyone sings and everyone plays an instrument (in Smith’s case, more than one); the excellent band is rounded out by Justin Han (drums) and Jason O’Brien (bass).

Benger’s Alex is sweet and pious; she may be a virgin, but Alex is full of fierce passion and love for her Jaune. Letwin is hilariously irreverent as Michelle; hard-drinking and a master at cursing there’s a soft gooey centre beneath that tough exterior. Power’s bespectacled Lea is the level-headed brains of the group; and when she finds herself struggling with the prospect of lost love, she gets some unique advice from Uriel about what to do about her love triangle situation. Silver-Baird’s Toba is the peacemaker of the group; not expecting to find love at The Flying Canoe, she is put in the difficult position of choosing between her dream and making it home on time to save her own soul and those of her friends.

Savage is deliciously diabolical as Damien; comic and compelling, Damien’s dead serious when it comes to this deal – and he needs these souls as much as the four women want to keep them. Azarbad is cabaret sexy and delightfully mischievous as Lucy; our storytelling host and Damien’s right-hand minion, she excels at manipulation and even gets on a bit of romancin’ of her own.

With huge shouts to the design team for this remarkable, immersive environment: Lindsay Dagger Junkin (set and props), John Leberg (scenic magic), Holly Lloyd (costumes), Melissa Joakim (lighting), Andre Stankovic (sound) and Daniel Briere (projection and puppetry).

The Devil went down to Old Montreal. A singin’, dancin’, whiskey drinkin’ helluva good time in the foot stompin’, magical Chasse-Galerie.

Chasse-Galerie continues the Young Centre; get your advance tix online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666. it won’t be there forever though – so what are you waiting for?

Update (Nov 17): The run of Chasse-Galerie has been extended, with new shows just added:

  • Tuesday, Nov. 29 – 8:00pm
  • Wednesday, Nov. 30 – 8:00pm
  • Thursday, Dec. 1 – 7:00pm
  • Thursday, Dec. 1 – 10:30pm

Get a sneak peek in the behind-the-scenes video:

Love & loss, assumptions & perspectives in sharp, touching, painfully funny This

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Audra Yulanda Gray & Amanda Jane Smith in This – photos by Bruce Peters

 

Alumnae Theatre Company opened its 2016-17 season with Melissa James Gibson’s This, directed by Rebecca Ballarin, on the Mainstage on Friday night. I caught the matinée yesterday afternoon.

Four college friends, now in their late 30s, share life, love and loss in this poignant, sometimes wacky tale of relationships, and navigating life’s changes and chaos. New parents Marrell (Audra Yulanda Gray) and Tom (Andrew Batten) struggle with sleepless, sexless nights while their friend Jane (Amanda Jane Smith) deals with being a widow and single mom. Meanwhile, their single gay friend Alan (Michael Harvey), whose exceptional memory has earned him a career as a mnemonist, is itching for a new job. Marrell’s attempt to set Jane up with French doctor Jean Pierre (Christian Martel) at a dinner party has an unexpected outcome and, coupled with various assumptions and perceptions, all hell breaks loose – forcing the tight-knit gang to examine their relationships; unable to revise history as Alan corrects their memories of pivotal conversations and moments.

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Audra Yulanda Gray & Michael Harvey in This

Really nice work from the cast with this sharp, mercurial script as the characters riff on modern life’s foibles – from Brita filters to Baby Bjorns – giving a contemporary Noel Coward vibe to the banter. Smith is adorably neurotic and poignantly adrift as Jane, coming up on the first anniversary of her husband’s death; his ashes still in an urn on top of her fridge. Scattered and trying her best to be a trouper, she’s a mess under the relatively together exterior she presents to her friends. Gray brings a great combination of fastidiousness and frustration to Marrell; in command of her household, Marrell is annoyed and perhaps a bit fearful about her non-existent sex life with Tom. Batten gives Tom a lovely beleaguered lost boy quality; desperate, like Marrell, for a decent night’s sleep, Tom struggles with issues of desire, as well as self-esteem.

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Christian Martel, Amanda Jane Smith & Andrew Batten in This

Harvey is a laugh-out-loud delight as Alan; sharp-witted and self-involved, he’s a lovable pain in the ass who keeps the group’s memories of conversations on point. Martel brings a great sense of amusement and observation to Jean Pierre, a physician with Doctors Without Borders; a cultural and social outsider looking in on the group, like Alan he offers perspective on their problems – but his patience only goes so far.

Life is what it is – and sometimes what it is is messy. Love and loss, assumptions and perspectives in sharp, touching, painfully funny This.

This runs on the Alumnae mainstage until Oct 1; you can purchase tickets in advance online or reserve by phone at 416-364-4170, ext. 1.

In the meantime, check out the trailer:

 

Preview: $h!t gets real in sharply funny, brutally honest We Three

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Sarah Naomi Campbell, Hallie Burt & Suzette McCanny in We Three – photos by Samantha Hurley

Last night, it was out to Tarragon Theatre for a preview performance of Cue6 Theatre’s latest offering: Sarah Illiatovitch-Goldman’s We Three, directed by Jill Harper, with script contributions from Harper, and actors Suzette McCanny, Sarah Naomi Campbell and Hallie Burt.

Toronto roommates Skye (Burt), an alternative education PhD candidate, and Jamie (Campbell), a feminist blogger, are excited to be hosting an intimate dinner party for their university friend Blaire (McCanny), who got married and moved to Calgary two years ago, where she works as a very well-paid executive assistant. Their enthusiasm turns to bewilderment and disappointment when they find their friend has changed a lot – both physically and philosophically – and the anxiously anticipated reunion becomes a mine field as the conversation detours from catch-up to heated debate about feminism, rape culture and being a woman in the 21st century.

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Sarah Naomi Campbell & Suzette McCanny

The writing is smart, edgy, real and very funny – and the performances are strong and beautifully nuanced. Burt’s Skye is an adorkable academic; whip smart, with a fastidious and positive energy (if this were the Odd Couple, she’d be the Felix in the equation), she is intensely loyal to her friends – and her more centrist views put her in the middle of the heated debates, making her the ad hoc mediator/peacemaker. Beyond the chipper Mary Poppins exterior are secrets, as well as reserves of bravery and strength, that her friends can only guess at. Campbell and Burt have excellent chemistry as the long-time friends/roommates – so much so, that there is a married couple vibe between Jamie and Skye. Campbell gives an amazing, multilayered performance as Jamie; smart, cynical and fiercely outspoken (and the Oscar of the household), Jamie is painfully aware of her own inner struggles as she tries to reconcile her feminist beliefs with personal body image issues. McCanny mines the depths beneath the sharp, edgy and ambitious Blaire; deeply immersed in a corporate, conservative world, she perhaps hasn’t drunk the Kool-Aid as much as sipped it. She too was anxious and excited to reconnect with old friends – and stunned when the evening doesn’t turn out to be the love-in they were hoping for.

These women have an intensely personal history and a very tight friendship bond. The conversation runs from the ridiculous to the sublime, as they discuss dildos, “Blurred Lines,” university memories and cosmetic surgery. The ferocious debates on feminism, rape culture and womanhood reflect their equally strong love for each other. And they’re fighting tooth and nail – and throwing a living room dance party – to regain a connection they’ve lost, perhaps permanently.

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Hallie Burt & Sarah Naomi Campbell

With shouts to the design team for the lovely and meticulously crafted space and intimate atmosphere for this production: Christine Groom (set/props), Simon Rossiter (lighting) and Tim Lindsay (sound). The empty chair at the dining table (placed at the downstage side of the table) feels like it’s for us, the audience, as we play the fly on the wall to this encounter.

Shit gets real with fierce love, friendship and feminism in sharply funny, brutally honest We Three.

We Three continues at the Tarragon Workspace (aka Studio) till April 17; get your advance tickets here. It’s an intimate space and a popular company, so advance booking strongly recommended.