Giving a voice to the brave, resourceful women of The Odyssey in the engaging, theatrical The Penelopiad

The ensemble in The Penelopiad—photo courtesy of George Brown College

The George Brown Theatre School class of 2017 closes its 2016-17 season with Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad (directed by Sue Minor) and David Ives’ new version of Georges Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear (directed by Todd Hammond and Jordan Pettle) in the Michael Young Theatre at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, located in Toronto’s Distillery District. I caught The Penelopiad last night.

The Penelopiad is a retelling of The Odyssey from Penelope’s point of view, told with an all-female cast. Featuring the overlooked, abandoned and condemned women usually relegated to the background while Odysseus and his band of brothers are off for 20 years, fighting in the Trojan War, and having scrapes and adventures with various gods and monsters, it also provides a perspective of the 12 maids, executed for their licentious behaviour with Penelope’s would-be suitors.

Speaking to us from the Underworld after her death, Penelope (Kyrah Harder) starts her tale with the foot race for her hand, won by the short-legged Odysseus (Gabriella Albino), who thwarts his opponents by getting them drunk before the event. Brought into his parents’ household, she finds herself ruled by his disapproving mother Queen Anticlera (Emily Cully) and fastidious nursemaid Eurycleia (Lucy Meanwell). With the running of the house—and even the raising of her child Telemachus (Kayla Farris)—taken over by others, she resorts to weaving to pass the time.

Penelope’s role changes when Odysseus’s time away grows longer, his mother dies and his father King Laertes (Morgan St. Onge) wanders off, losing his mind; and finds herself forced to take over the running of the kingdom and Odysseus’s business affairs as she patiently awaits his return. When 10 years turns to 20, various suitors appear on her doorstep, circling like vultures and making themselves at home without invitation. Taking the 12 youngest maids into her confidence, she hatches a plan to keep the aggressive young men at bay. She tells the men she will choose a husband once she’s finished her father-in-law’s burial shroud. Each day, she and her 12 maids weave; each night, they undo their day’s work. The maids distract the suitors with attention and flirting; and when the suitors take out their frustrations by raping the maids, Penelope entreats them to hold fast—buying time until Odysseus returns.

Not apprised of Penelope’s plan, Telemachus and Eurycleia are mortified at the goings-on in the palace. And when Odysseus returns, he takes his revenge on the suitors; also unaware of what Penelope and the maids have been doing out of loyalty to him and to keep his kingdom safe, he punishes the maids. It is only through Eurycleia’s entreaty that he doesn’t execute all the maids—but just the 12 closest to Penelope.

While Penelope and her 12 maids prove themselves as cunning and steadfast as any man, in the end they are subject to the will and whims of men, who ultimately hold the balance of power.

A masterful piece of storytelling from a feminist perspective, the ensemble captures the edgy humour and despairing tragedy of this journey. Harder does a lovely job with the wry wit, desperate longing and firm resolve of Penelope. Haunted by her failure to protect them, she is shunned by the maids even after death. Lovely chemistry with Albino’s charming, wily and adventurous Odysseus; it is a complex relationship, for while Odysseus treats her with tender respect, he can’t help but succumb to the wanderlust that draws him away from her—even after death.

Stand-outs include Caroline Bell’s vain and flirty Helen (yes, that Helen and Penelope’s cousin) and Justine Christensen’s watery, ethereal Naiad (Penelope’s mother). Emily Cully brings in icy imperiousness to Queen Anticlera (Odysseus’s mother) and Tymika McKenzie-Clunis gives a hilarious turn as her pet goat. Lucy Meanwell also brings some comedy as Odysseus’s doting, gossiping and well-meaning but bossy nursemaid.

With shouts to the design team for bringing this otherworldly environment to life: Jackie Chau (set), Erin Gerofsky (costumes) and Nick Blais (lighting); and to the ensemble for arranging the music to Atwood’s words, in song and soundscape.

Giving a voice to the brave, resourceful women of The Odyssey in the engaging, theatrical The Penelopiad.

The Penelopiad continues at the Young Centre in the Michael Young Theatre until April 22; click here for ticket and pass info or book by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.  A Flea in Her Ear also runs until April 22; online tix available. It’s a great chance to see emerging acting talent before they head out into their careers.

You can also keep up with George Brown Theatre’s class of 2017 on Twitter and Facebook.

And check out the trailer for The Penelopiad here:

Betrayal & ruin to forgiveness & reunion, with witty, rollicking good times in As You Like It

Photo by Daniela Mason: George Brown Theatre School class of 2017

The George Brown Theatre School class of 2017 takes us back to a time of rum-running gangsters in their production of As You Like It (directed by Geoffrey Pounsett), currently running in rep with A Midsummer Night’s Dream (directed by alum Aaron Willis) in the Tank House Theatre at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, located in Toronto’s Distillery District. I dropped by the Young Centre for As You Like It yesterday afternoon.

We learn via a remarkably staged prologue, set as a silent film reel delightfully set up by the Fool Touchstone (Thomas Nyhuus), how Duke Senior (Chase Jeffels) was betrayed by his brother Frederick (Jake Runeckles) and banished, his organization taken over by the traitorous Frederick, who becomes the new Duke. Duke Frederick allows his niece Rosalind (Justine Christensen) to stay as a companion for his daughter Celia (Geneviéve DeGraves), who is very fond of her bff cousin.

In a parallel tale of sibling betrayal, Orlando (Seamus Dillon-Easton) has endured a life of abuse and neglect at the hand of his older sister Olivia (Lucy Meanwell), who has betrayed their father Sir Rowland’s charge to look after her younger brother after his death. When Orlando goes to test his mettle in a wrestling match with Charles (Jeffels), a favourite of the new Duke, he crosses paths with Rosalind and the two are mutually smitten. Winning the match, Orlando also wins a new enemy in the Duke, and returns home to learn from the faithful family servant Adam (Patrick Horan) that his sister is plotting to kill him—prompting him to flee, with Adam accompanying him.

Displeased at Rosalind’s popularity with a sympathetic public, and wary that this will reflect badly on his daughter, the Duke banishes Rosalind. In an ultimate act of friendship and loyalty, Celia elects to go with her; and the two concoct disguises so they may travel in safety, with Rosalind dressing as a man called Ganymede and Celia as his sister Aliena. Enlisting the Touchstone as their travelling companion, they too flee their home.

Meanwhile, Orlando and Adam have made their way to the forest of Arden, where they come upon Duke Senior and a group of loyal followers, who are living a merry rustic life in the woods. Merry, except for sad sack Jaques (Parmida Vand), who perceives all on the darker, melancholy side. Now living in the forest and pining for Rosalind, Orlando takes to praising her dear name in poetry and posting it on the trees.

Rosalind, Celia and Touchstone find themselves a cottage in the forest; and Rosalind discovers Orlando’s poetry on the trees. To test his love, she (as Ganymede) tells Orlando she can cure his love sickness if he comes to woo him as if he were Rosalind. Meanwhile lovesick neighbouring shepherd Silvius (Evan MacKenzie) is pursuing the uninterested Phebe (Gabriella Albino), who becomes love struck when she meets Ganymede/Rosalind. Even Touchstone finds a sweetheart: the lovely, simple shepherdess Audrey (Jocelyn Feltham).

Orlando’s sister Olivia arrives on the scene after getting a taste of her own medicine from the Duke, forcing her to flee to the forest. She comes to Ganymede/Rosalind and Aliena/Celia with news of Orlando, who has been seriously wounded by a lioness while saving her. Contrite and seeking redemption for her wrong-doing, she has joined Duke Senior, who was a good friend to her father. And, not to leave Celia out of the romance, she and Olivia are obviously and immediately taken with each other. Realizing she truly loves Orlando—and left with two love knots to untangle—Rosalind plans a wedding in the woods, promising to sort everything out, including the plight of lovesick shepherd Silvius and the callous Phebe.

And all is revealed at the wedding, with much merriment, music and dancing—and Rosalind reunited with her father, who is restored to his office in yet another fortuitous twist of Shakespearean fate.

Excellent work from the ensemble, who get ample opportunity to showcase their considerable music and vocal chops with a number of delightful songs and musical numbers—led by music directors/composers/classmates Lucas Penner and Jake Runeckles.

Stand-out performances include Christensen, who is luminous as the brave, witty and resourceful Rosalind; great chemistry with Dillon-Easton’s Orlando, who goes from courageous risk-taker in endeavor to bashful mute in the face of love. Both become adorably moonstruck silly in love.

DeGraves gives Celia a feisty and fiery spark; deeply loyal to the point of defying her cruel father, Celia leaves her lush city life behind to find herself, hilariously, a fish out of water in the country. Meanwell does a nice job with Olivia’s salvation; going from snake-like cruelty to kind repentance, and finding herself shot with Cupid’s arrow when she meets Celia (lovely chemistry there as well).

Nyhuus is a treat as the saucy Touchstone; cocky and always up for a debate, like Celia he’s not thrilled to be away from the comforts of home, but valiantly makes the best of it as he diverts himself with lusty pursuits of his own. And Vand gives us an engaging and entertaining Jaques; a melancholy loner who takes cheer in Touchstone’s shenanigans, her pessimism rings with the air of a realist resigned to the true nature of the world, which can often be a cruel joke.

With big shouts to the design team for their work on creating this magical, industrial meets pastoral world: Ken MacKenzie (set), Shannon Lea Doyle (costumes) and Michelle Ramsay (lighting); and to Simon Fon (fight choreography) and Robert McCollum (dance choreography).

Betrayal and ruin to forgiveness and reunion, with witty, rollicking good times in As You Like It.

As You Like It continues at the Young Centre in the Tank House Theatre until Feb 18; A Midsummer Night’s Dream also runs until Feb 18; click here for ticket and pass info or book by calling the box office at 416-866-8666. It’s a great chance to see emerging acting talent before they head out into their careers.

You can also keep up with George Brown Theatre’s class of 2017 on Twitter and Facebook.

A trip through time with family, country & loss of innocence in the charming, poignant Cavalcade

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Lillian Scriven & Michael Ricci as Jane & Robert Marryot in Cavalcade – photos by Andrew Oxenham

George Brown Theatre opened its 2016-17 season last night at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (located in Toronto’s Distillery District) with Nöel Coward’s Cavalcade, directed by A.D. James Simon, with musical direction by J. Rigzin Tute and choreography by Robert McCollum.

Cavalcade follows the lives of two intertwined families, the Marryots and their servants the Bridges, as they live through significant historical events, including the Boer War, the death of Queen Victoria, the sinking of the Titanic and WWI. From New Year’s Eve 1899 to the same night in 1929 and into New Year’s day 1930, the story is told through scenes of daily life and musical numbers.

The Cavalcade ensemble is comprised of George Brown Theatre School’s third year graduating class of 2017 (in alphabetical order): Gabriella Albino, Caroline Bell, Michael Boyce, Justine Christensen, Emily Cully, Genevieve DeGraves, Seamus Dillon-Easton, Kayla Farris, Jocelyn Feltham, Kyrah Harder, Patrick Horan, Chase Jeffels, Evan MacKenzie, Cora Matheson, Tymika McKenzie-Clunis, Lucy Meanwell, Thomas Nyhuus, Lucas Penner, Michael Ricci, Jake Runeckles, Lillian Scriven, Morgan St. Onge and Parmida Vand.

As Jane Marryot, Scriven anchors the show with a lovely combination of game stiff upper lip and moving emotional response to events that impact her family and country. And we see the kids grow up and move through various life milestones: the Marryots’ sons Edward (the dutiful elder son, played with a twinkle in the eye by Nyhuus) and Joseph (the younger, impetuous son, played with Puckish charm by MacKenzie), and the Bridges’ daughter Fanny (DeGraves, who brings a lovely arc from the wide-eyed adorable child to the slinky nightclub performer).

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Jake Runeckles, Lucas Penner & Michael Boyce performing by the seaside

There are some great moments of comic relief, notably at a night at the theatre in a play within the play called Mirabelle, featuring some fine musical antics from Matheson, Penner, Albino and Jeffels (featuring stand-out vocals from Matheson and Albino); and some seaside entertainment from Boyce, Penner (who also plays a mean ukulele) and Runeckles (who also supplies piano accompaniment throughout and does a delightful tap dance break). Musical moments are capped off by a lovely rendition of Coward’s “Twentieth Century Blues” by DeGraves in a wistful and world-weary welcome to 1930, leading into a chaotic epilogue that fast-forwards through the remainder of an astoundingly volatile, wondrous and quixotic century.

As we travel through time in Britain’s history, from the Victorian to the Edwardian age – and a fast-forward Epilogue finale through the remainder 20th century – we see how the major events of the age test her people’s resilience and fortitude. Perhaps more importantly, there’s a loss of innocence; the sometimes violent changes that occur as the world grows into more of a global village, and the ever quickening pace of life changes people irrevocably. And one can’t help but look back with fondness on – what looks like from the present point of view – a simpler, gentler time.

With shouts to set and costume designer Brandon Kleiman, especially for the stunning bejeweled purple frocks are stunning; lighting designer Siobhan Sleath for some lovely atmospheric effects; and stage manager Debbie Read for holding it all together.

A trip through time with family, country and loss of innocence in the charming, poignant Cavalcade.

Cavalcade runs at the Young Centre in the Tank House Theatre space until Nov 19; get your advance tix online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666. It’s a great chance to see some exciting emerging talent before they head out into their careers.

You can also keep up with George Brown Theatre’s class of 2017 on Twitter.

Some theatre shouts – ongoing & upcoming shows

Hey all – lots of theatre happening in Toronto right now. Here is a selection of some school, community and indie productions on right now or coming soon:

George Brown Theatre School’s production of Saturday Sunday Monday (by Eduardo De Filipo with English adaptation by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, directed by James Simon) continues this week at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, running until November 17. Check here for details: http://www.georgebrown.ca/theatre/productions/#satsunmon

Amicus Productions’ Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (adapted from the Robert Louis Stevenson novella by Robert Hatcher, directed by Harvey Levcoe) runs November 15 – 24 at their temporary home at the Papermill Theatre. For more info (you also can scroll to the bottom of this page for a map): http://www.amicusproductions.ca/current_season.php#jekyll

Alumnae Theatre Company’s production of The Drowning Girls (by Beth Graham, Charlie Tomlinson and Daniela Vlaskalic, directed by Taryn Jorgenson) runs November 16 – December 1 in the Alumnae Theatre studio space, and features a talkback with the director, cast and creative team following the Nov 25 matinée. You can find more info here: http://www.alumnaetheatre.com/1213drown.html

Dawna J. Wightman’s one-woman show Life As A Pomegranate (by Wightman and directed by Ginette Mohr) has been revised since its early run back in the spring – and will get a one night only performance at 7 p.m. on November 23 at the Flying Beaver Pubaret (488 Parliament St., Toronto – near Carlton).

And now I’ll leave you with a photo of The Drowning Girls set, designed for Alumnae Theatre by Ed Rosing.

Fire & ice in George Brown Theatre’s Orpheus Descending

Was back at the Young Centre last night, this time to see the George Brown Theatre graduating class’s  production of Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending, directed by Todd Hammond.

From the outset, Jackie Chau’s set and Michelle Ramsay’s lighting conjure up a cold, dark, desperate world – the wooden columns of the family-owned general store are covered with iron implements of the slave trade, most notably shackles. The only glimmer of hope is the light from the lanterns hung throughout.

The opening scene places the audience in a small, tight-knit Southern community – so close it’s suffocating – where personal business is easy and acceptable fodder for gossip among the ladies, and male-dominated vigil ante justice goes not only unpunished but is supported by local law enforcement. Wild child Carol, daughter of the prominent Cutrere family (played with a lovely combination of recklessness and vulnerability by Hannah Anderson), is an outsider in her own county – and banned from town for her raucous, drunken behaviour. And she acts as a grim social tour guide of sorts for the audience.

Another outsider is Lady Torrence (played with beautiful fragility, strength and passion by Tennille Read), the daughter of an Italian immigrant who was killed during an act of vigil ante justice. And, unbeknownst to her, her cruel and arrogant husband Jabe (Jeffrey Dingle) – with whom she’s settled in a loveless marriage – had a hand in her father’s death.

Lady’s life is undergoing a transformation. Jabe had been hospitalized for surgery and is confined to his bedroom during his recovery when he returns home – and the prognosis looks grim. Meanwhile, she has been setting up a confectionary in the store, covering it in lights and glass and things that shine, taking her inspiration from the wine garden she helped her father run before it was torched as punishment for selling alcohol to black people. The arrival in town of the handsome and edgy musician Val Xavier (Edward Charette, who brings a nice, sexy stray dog quality to Val, a man struggling against a wild youth to grow up and do right) turns Lady’s emerging life of purpose into one of passion when he decides to stay on and takes a job as a clerk in the store.

And, as this is Tennessee Williams, of course this will all end in tears. But, before the tragic ending of their relationship – in a place filled with icy judgement and hate – Lady and Val burn bright for a short time, in happiness and love. And one is left hoping against hope that Carol will get out of the county, but not really believing it will happen.

This is a very strong graduating class. Other stand-outs include Hilary Carroll, who was darkly comic as townswoman Dolly Hansen, and Nicole Wilson, as the dreamy Vee Talbott, who manages to find temporary sanctuary from life with her cruel ‘ole boy Sheriff husband through her visions and paintings.

George Brown Theatre’s production of Orpheus Descending runs in rep with Happy End (lyrics by Bertolt Brecht, music by Kurt Weill) until April  21 at the Young Centre (Distillery District, Toronto). Check out the George Brown theatre website for details: http://www.georgebrown.ca/theatre/productions/#ORPHEUSDESCENDING

For specific show dates/times and reservations, see the Young Centre site: http://www.youngcentre.ca/

Of willows & not so little women

Hey all – apologies for the tardiness of this post. I’ve hardly been home this weekend and was having some technical difficulties with the laptop this morning (it’s been crashing – a lot). Anyway, theatre adventures this weekend…

Friday was opening night of Joan Burrow’s play Willow Quartet at the Papermill Theatre at Todmorden Mills. This indie, co-op production was directed by Jane Carnwath, and stars Patricia Casey, Andy Fraser, John Healy and Chris Owens.

Kim (Fraser) has moved into the family home, a farm house in rural Ontario, to get her life together in peace and solitude, while mom Marjorie (Casey) has moved into a condo in town. When Kim decides to take in Jim (Healy), a visiting classical musician there for the local music festival, things get complicated, especially when Kim’s estranged husband Ben (Owens), with whom she is separated, comes around the house so much.

Mainly a family drama, Willow Quartet has plenty of laughs, mainly courtesy of Marjorie, a straight-shooting, crotchety country gal with a big heart and the strength to match – always protective of Kim, even though she’s got a bit of a meddling nature (trying to push Kim and Ben back together). Fraser and Owens have a nice chemistry as spouses estranged by family tragedy, each dealing in their own way and struggling to get their lives back. Healy has great energy as the big city outsider, coming from a different world geographically and the somewhat alien lifestyle of a professional musician, with the ego to match. His character acts as a catalyst for this quiet rural family grouping, especially for Kim.

This is a lovely play, and features some beautiful classical music (designed by Rick Jones), and a fabulous impressionistic set designed by Ed Rosing (built by Mike Vitorovich) and lit by Paul Hardy. Rounding out the production team are fabuloso SM Margot “Mom” Devlin, Alice Torrance (costumes – and who also does a mean dry brushing) and Dorothy Wilson (props).

Access to the theatre is still somewhat restricted – but those who are TTCing or cycling can get down Pottery Road from Broadview, while drivers will need to access it via Bayview.

Go see this play – it runs until December 3, Tuesday through Saturday nights, with matinees on Sundays.

Yesterday afternoon, I was at the Young Centre for the George Brown Theatre School’s graduating class production of Little Women, adapted from the Louisa May Alcott novel by Emma Reeves and directed by A.D. James Simon.

The first thing I noticed when I walked into the Tankhouse Theatre (where the school performs it shows) – and remarked on to SM Debbie Read, who I know from way back – was the real floor boards used for the set. Deb pointed out that they’d also used real palettes for the frame-like flats upstage; all appeared to be reclaimed wood. The palettes had black ink cursive writing across them, fitting for a story where the main character is a writer. Nice work by set designer (also costumes) Patrick Du Wors and lighting designer Julia Vandergraaf.

The lights came up on the full cast singing a capella a Civil War era spiritual, and more songs emerge throughout the play. Music of the period composed/directed by J. Rigzin Tute, with dance choreography by Robert McCollum.

As I’ve said before, this is a class to watch – and features a group of stand-out actors, particularly performances from Lesley Robertson (Jo), André Morin (Laurie) and Edward Charette (Prof. Bhaer), as well as Hillary Carroll (a deliciously imperious Aunt March) and Tennille Read (a lovely Marmee). Nice work too from the March sisters Hannah Anderson (Meg), Hilary Scott (Beth) and Anne Cassar Taschereau (Amy). I missed seeing Tennille after the show, and will have to e-mail her my congrats on joining the likes of Susan Sarandon in the league of “hot Marmees.”

Little Women closed last night, but this class has a few more shows to come. Check the school’s website for upcoming productions.

Tonight, I’m off to The Central for Wonder Women, featuring singer/performers Kat Leonard and Arlene Paculan.

This weekend, it’s willows, women & song

Hey all – So I stopped by the CBC Atrium for The Moose Show on the way home from work last night and dropped by photographer Pamela Williams’ booth for a chat. I also visited Liz Kain, who – in addition to creating some amazing jewelery – is the cousin of a former co-worker. I ended up ordering a pair of cufflinks from her Shakespeare collection, with To Thine Own Self Be True on them. Had a wander around, checking out the variety of work on display (and all for sale); it was dark by then, so no light coming in from the glass roof of the atrium, but I imagine it will be gorgeous today. Still two days left for The Moose Show: today from 10 a.m. – 8 p.m. and tomorrow from 10 a.m. till 5 p.m.

Another busy, busy artsy fartsy weekend ahead, starting tonight with the opening of Willow Quartet, an indie co-op production of a new play by Joan Burrows at the Papermill Theatre at Todmorden Mills – directed by Jane Carnwath, and featuring actors Patricia Casey, Andy Fraser, John Healy and Chris Owens. The set was completed on Wednesday night, with Ed, Mike and I squeezing some time in onstage between the cue-to-cue and tech run for final touches and revisions – including a debate over masking. This meant an early night for me, which was excellent – what with me having the f/t office gig and all. I’m really looking forward to seeing it.

Saturday afternoon, I’m off to see Lady Windermere’s Fan castmate (and birthday sharing gal) Tennille Read in George Brown Theatre School’s third-year class production of Little Women (adapted from the Louisa May Alcott novel by Emma Reeves and directed by the school A.D. James Simon). Scroll down to yesterday’s post where I link the NOW Magazine review. And Sunday night, it’s Wonder Women at The Central – featuring two of my favourite wonder women performers Kat Leonard and Arlene Paculan. So much to look forward to.

In the meantime, check out Kat’s promo video for her show A Depper Kind of Love, coming up at the Love and Obsession Theatre Festival at Red Sandcastle Theatre next week:

Oh – and before I go, check out Alumnae Theatre’s latest blog about its current production, Sylvia (by Tina McCulloch): http://alumnaetheatre.wordpress.com/2011/11/17/another-sylvia-interview-douglas-and-kays-backstage-stories/