Toronto Fringe: Art, longing & acceptance in the poetic, heart-wrenching, gender-bending The Bird Killer

Clockwise, from bottom left: Emerjade Simms, Tymika Tafari, Subhash Santosh, Mo Zeighami, Evan Mackenzie & Mike Ricci. Photo by Patrick J. Horan.

 

LET ME IN presents Justine Christensen’s poetic, heart-wrenching modern-day, gender-bending adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull with its Toronto Fringe production of The Bird Killer, directed by Patrick J. Horan and running in the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace.

A group of artist friends grapple with the day-to-day challenges of artistic expression, and personal and professional fulfillment—all while maintaining their relationships and support network. Masha (Emerjade Simms) is a keen observer of her friends’ goings-on, and acts as a host/narrator when she’s not directly involved in a moment. Wearing black to mourn the state of her life, her sardonic sense of humour masks a broken heart: her unrequited love of the driven, tormented playwright Kostya (Mo Zeighami). Kostya is with the nervous emerging actor Nina (Even Mackenzie), who stars in her new contemporary theatre piece. Singer/songwriter Medvedenko (Mike Ricci, who also supplies original music for the production) is Kostya’s loyal, hard-working stage manager; and taken with Masha.

Kostya’s wise-cracking stand-up comic brother Arkadina (Subhash Santosh) brings his girlfriend, renowned playwright Trigorin (Tymika Tafari), to an invitation-only presentation of Kostya’s new work; setting off debates of artistry vs. celebrity, and changing the group dynamic. He’s unwittingly set in motion a significant ripple within the group—and things will never be the same.

Beautiful, moving work from the ensemble with a piece that cuts close to home for all artists. Each character longs for love and professional artistic fulfillment, but finds it difficult to achieve satisfaction. Does acknowledgement and accolades make one artist’s work more important than another’s? How does an artist navigate authenticity vs. marketability? And, most importantly, how does an artist accept him/herself?

The Bird Killer continues in the Tarragon Mainspace, with two more performances: tonight (July 13) at 9:15 pm and July 15 at 3:30 pm.

Want to check if the show you want to see is sold out? The Toronto Fringe folks have set up a page for sold-out shows, updated daily.

 

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Toronto Fringe: Art, friendship & astroturf in the quirky, edgy, hilarious The Grass is Greenest at the Houston Astrodome

Adrian Rebucas, Lauren MacKinlay, Anne van Leeuwen, Richard Young & Carson Pinch. Photo by Megan Terris.

 

High Park Productions takes us to The Freedom Factory gallery (22 Dovercourt Road, south of Queen St. East) for a fly-on-the-wall view of the aftermath of an explosive art show opening. The Toronto Fringe production of Michael Ross Albert’s The Grass is Greenest at the Houston Astrodome, directed by Robert Motum, is a quirky, edgy, hilarious look at the indie art world and a group of artist friends as they struggle with finding fulfillment in the personal lives and careers.

Photographer Amy (Lauren MacKinlay) manages an art gallery that’s soon shutting down, so she invites her art school friends to hang their work in one final show—one that quickly closes when radical feminist painter pal Caroline (Anne van Leeuwen) goes all rock star in a hotel room on the place. Cleaning up the debris of art work, wine glasses and broken dreams, Amy is assisted by gallery intern/sculptor Pablo (Carson Pinch) and conceptual artist friend Marshall (Adrian Rebucas) while Caroline fumes and smokes outside before rejoining her friends to explain herself and face the music. And just when you thought things couldn’t get more complicated, Caroline’s fiancé John (Richard Young) arrives and the gang discovers that he already knows Marshall.

Remarkable work from the ensemble, who keeps it real and present amidst all the insanity, razor sharp hilarity and satire. Heartfelt, insightful discussions about the art world, the nature of art and creativity, and the artist’s place within it all—and the existential crisis every artist must confront regarding their work, the precarity of their financial status, and their struggle for personal meaning and fulfillment.

The production features dramatic, evocative works by local female artists Shannon Gernon, Christine Miller, Krista Sobocan and Zabrina Szymanski.

The Grass is Greenest at the Houston Astrodome continues every night at 8 p.m. at The Freedom Factory until July 15. It’s sold out for the remainder of the run, but you can always drop by and take your chances on scooping up a spot from a no-show.

Want to check if the show you want to see is sold out? The Toronto Fringe folks have set up a page for sold-out shows, updated daily.

 

 

The impact of stories drawn from love & memory in TPM’s genuine, funny, haunting The Drawer Boy

Andrew Moodie, Craig Lauzon & Graham Conway. Set and costume design by Joanna Yu. Lighting design by Michelle Ramsay. Photo by Michael Cooper.
Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) opened its remount of Michael Healey’s The Drawer Boy, directed by Factory Theatre AD Nina Lee Aquino, assisted by Cole Alvis, to a sold out house last night. Originally produced by TPM in 1999, Healey’s beloved hit returns to the TPM stage as the theatre celebrates its 50th anniversary.

Set in the early 70s in Southern Ontario, The Drawer Boy hearkens back to another famous TPM production: The Farm Show, created by Paul Thompson and a collective of artists who went down to live and work with area farmers as they created a play about the place and its people. Miles (Graham Conway) is one of these young Toronto actors, and he nervously arrives on the doorstep of Morgan (Andrew Moodie) and Angus’s (Craig Lauzon) farm house, looking for a place to stay, work and learn about farming so he can contribute to the writing and performance of the play.

An odd yet complementary couple of middle-aged bachelors, Morgan and Angus have been friends since childhood, serving together in WWII, finding wives in England and returning to their hometown to set up a farm together. The truly remarkable thing about their relationship is the organic dynamic of Morgan acting as Angus’s memory. Now living with an Acquired Brain Injury after surviving a shell explosion in London, Angus now lives entirely in the present, his memory a sieve; but he’s a wizard with numbers and takes care of the farm’s accounting. Morgan uses stories to remind Angus of their shared past: he is the Farmer and Angus is the Drawer Boy, and they met and fell in love with two tall English girls.

As hard as Miles struggles with farm work, including some hilarious mishaps with equipment and an eye-opening experience spending time with livestock (resulting in a gut-busting impression of a frightened cow), he struggles even harder to write stories for the play. Until he overhears Morgan telling Angus their life story—and he’s struck theatrical gold. When the two farmers attend an invited rehearsal, though, the reactions are markedly different: Angus is delighted and Morgan is infuriated.

Terrified of not having something good to contribute to the play and fearing he’ll be cut from the collective, Miles’ drive and ambition to get a good story puts him in the position of becoming the unwitting catalyst for, and witness to, emerging memories and revised storytelling for Morgan and Angus. Their shared story is not as fairy tale as Morgan originally painted. And the impact of the true story is both revelatory and devastating; highlighting how the choices we make as we create our own life stories touch the lives of others, particularly the ones we love the most, in positive and negative ways.

Lovely, nuanced work from these three actors in this moving, haunting and revealing tale of love, memory and the impact of the stories people tell. Lauzon brings a delightfully child-like sense of wonder to the star counting math wizard Angus; and yet there’s also a troubled, lost quality about Angus as he paces around the house, searching for something he can’t remember. Moodie is both lovable and intimidating as the gruff Morgan; a matter-of-fact man’s man who suffers no fools, there’s a broken-hearted, gentle soul beneath Morgan’s gruff exterior. Extremely patient and caring with Angus, a man of few words becomes a magical storytelling memory maker for his friend, who he clearly loves dearly. And while city boy actor Miles could easily become a clueless caricature, Conway gives him a sharp, desperate sense of ambition and a hilariously satirical edge. And though we may be skeptical about how genuine Miles is in his desire to connect with this world and these people, there’s no doubt that he comes to feel the full impact of the devastating truths he’s unleashed.

With big shouts to the design team, for their beautiful, evocative work: Joanna Yu, whose set combines realism and abstraction, with expressive charcoal drawing flats hanging above and around the vintage farmhouse kitchen and porch; and costume design perfectly suiting the working farm men and the clueless young city boy, who arrives to work in cut-offs, polo shirt and runners. And to Michelle Ramsay’s magical lighting design; and Michelle Bensimon’s timely and haunting sound design and composition.

The Drawer Boy continues in the TPM Mainspace until March 25; get advance tickets online or by calling the box office at: 416-504-7529.

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.

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

earl-pastko-ben-sanders-and-eva-barrie-in-agency-photo-by-greg-wong
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.