FireWorks Festival: Navigating the media circus in the face of profound loss in the moving, razor-sharp, thought-provoking Grief Circus

Bronson Lake & Alison Dickson. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Paige Foskett. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Bruce Peters.


Alumnae Theatre opened its second week of the FireWorks Festival last night, with Crystal Wood’s Grief Circus, directed by Paige Foskett. As moving as it is razor-sharp, this timely multimedia piece holds up a mirror to society’s morbid fascination, involvement and sharing in the death of strangers. A family has lost a beloved daughter and sister, an event that becomes fresh meat for the news and social media feeding frenzy. As they navigate the media circus that follows, mother and sister take very different paths to work through their grief.

Leah (Alison Dickson) speaks to us directly, our host and narrator as we witness scenes—sometimes in flashback—around the events of her older sister Jesse’s (Claire MacMaster) disappearance. Jesse’s body was later found in a ravine, and both Leah and her mother Carol (Bernadette Medhurst) find themselves in the spotlight of an often intrusive, uncaring news media—even confronted by a photographer (Jack Everett) on the steps of their small-town church when they attend Jesse’s funeral. In the aftermath, while Leah finds herself slogging through a callous, click bait world of modern news and social media, bombarded with ignorance and cruelty as she struggles to work through grief and loss, she is appalled to find her mother joining in—writing a book about the experience of losing her daughter, and working with PR folks to book interviews.

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Alison Dickson & Claire MacMaster. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Paige Foskett. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Bruce Peters.

Alternating between past and present, we see a 15-year-old Leah interacting with Jesse, who is her best friend, advisor, confidante and go-to source of info on the state of their parents’ shaky marriage; then a few years later being invited to a party with Jesse and her friends in Toronto, where Jesse disappears after leaving on her own. We see Leah go head to head with Carol over Carol’s making an industry of Jesse’s death; and the battle for Leah’s participation in a television interview, taking place the same day as her first day at university. And Leah has a meet cute with Charlie (Bronson Lake), an awkward but sweet university student; they go on a sort of date, but his motives are called into question when an altered recording of a chat he had with their server (Everett) turns up on the news, showing Leah in the worst possible light as the troubled sister of a famous dead girl.

Lovely work from the cast in this timely, moving and razor-sharp exploration of how news and social media can intrude upon and dishonour the departed, and have a profound impact on their loved ones. Dickson gives a stand-out performance as the whip-smart, introverted, wry-witted Leah; precocious, irreverent and wise beyond her years, Leah can be her own worst enemy as she keeps herself informed about world events—events that spark deep anxiety over the possibility of catastrophe. Conflicted about engaging with the Internet following Jesse’s death, what she finds there only serves to make her journey through grief more difficult.

MacMaster gives an energetic, luminous performance as the bubbly extrovert Jesse; the best big sister Leah could have, she’s super supportive and encouraging—balancing a respect for Leah’s boundaries with gentle pushes outside her comfort zone. Medhurst does a nice job with the conflicted Carol; a mother who’s lost her daughter, she deals with her grief the only way she knows how—honour Jesse’s memory so she won’t be forgotten. Lake gives an adorably awkward performance as the bashful Charlie; somewhat of an introvert himself, Charlie is interested in Leah, but unfortunately not very media-savvy. And Everett offers a great range of news media folk, from the intrusive jerk photographer at the funeral, to serious CTV reporter, to sleazy “journalist”.

Timely, moving and sharply funny, Grief Circus incorporates video and projected social media messaging (video design by director Foskett) to illustrate the scope of the family’s loss of a wonderful, energetic young woman—and the inappropriate, at times heartless, thoughtless and intrusive, response of the public. Strangers turning up at the funeral, or making comments in person or online; and, worst of all, the anonymous social media posters who cast negative, clueless aspersions about Jesse’s character—especially the trolls who say that Jesse had it coming.

Grief Circus continues in the Alumnae Studio Theatre until November 17; get tickets online, by calling 416-364-4170 (ext. 1) or in-person at the box office one hour before curtain time (cash only). There will be a post-show talkback with the director, playwright and cast following the Saturday, November 16 matinée performance.

FireWorks continues its three-week run until November 24, presenting a new show each week. The festival closes with Genevieve Adam’s If the Shoe Fits, directed by Heather Keith (Nov 20-24).


FireWorks Festival: Real-life fame, fortune & fall in the entertaining, heart-felt Belle Darling Klondike Queen

Lindsay Sutherland Boal. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Adriana DeAngelis. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Nicholas Porteous.

Alumnae Theatre Company (ATC) opens its annual FireWorks Festival of new works with Natalie Frijia’s Belle Darling Klondike Queen, directed by Lori Delorme, with music direction by Anita Beaty—running upstairs in the Studio. Part cabaret, part vaudeville, all heart—this highly entertaining and engaging piece of musical storytelling takes us on vaudeville star Klondike Kate’s (born Kathleen Rockwell) real-life journey of fame, fortune and fall, all set against the backdrop of fading days of the Klondike Gold Rush.

Put on your boots, leave your pick and sing along at the Portland Alaska Yukon Society’s 1931 Sourdough Reunion, featuring headliner—none other than the famous star of vaudeville stage—Klondike Kate (Lindsay Sutherland Boal)! Alumnae Theatre’s Studio Theatre has been transformed into a vaudeville music hall for this real-life tale of the highs and lows of Kate’s storied career in Canada’s North, and dreams of becoming a nation-wide vaudeville impressaria across the U.S.

Sarah Kaufmann, Madeleine Keesmaat-Walsh, Roxhanne Norman & Lindsay Sutherland Boal. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Adriana DeAngelis. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Nicholas Porteous.

Accompanied by a fine ensemble of multi-talented, multi-tasking actors (Sarah Kaufmann, Roxhanne Norman and Madeleine Keesmaat-Walsh), with piano player Calvin Laveck tickling the ivories, Kate takes us on a whirlwind musical and storytelling tour of her life—from wayward Victorian Catholic schoolgirl (Kathleen), to vaudeville chorus girl (Kitty), to headliner Belle Darling Klondike Queen (Kate), and a near miss as Pantages theatre partner and impressaria.

Kate has no use for being a “lady” in the traditional Victorian sense of the word, and sets off on an adventure of her own making—breaking gender barriers and the rules as she goes. Taking us back to the “good ‘ol days” with song, story and satire, the God’s honest truth is that these meanderings of nostalgia can’t erase the personal and financial risk, danger and heartbreak of those who tried their luck—and put their strength and resolve to the test—searching for gold in those freezing cold Northern mountains. All for fame and fortune.

Sutherland Boal gives a powerhouse performance as the ambitious, fearless Klondike Kate—a role that amply showcases her considerable vocal chops as she belts out rousing music hall tunes and caresses melancholy ballads. Sassy, classy, gutsy and irreverent, Kate turns away from what’s expected of her as a “good Victorian lady” to carve out her own path and live on her own terms. And beneath the seasoned showmanship and razzmatazz of Kate’s vaudeville persona, Sutherland Boal digs deep to reveal the broken-hearted woman who reached for it all only to find her ultimate dream of business partnership taken away. Disappointed, but not discouraged, she soldiers on—the show must go on, after all.

Sarah Kaufmann. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Adriana DeAngelis. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Nicholas Porteous.

She is well-supported by a stand-out ensemble; changing character on a dime in this fast-paced, alternately slapstick and poignant trip through music hall shenanigans both on and off the stage. Kaufmann is adorably Puck-like in her comic turns as the crafty entrepreneur Sophie, and a lusty young sourdough (a Yukon resident) on the make. Norman performs with a playful glint in her eye—and has an outstanding set of pipes herself—in her saucy turn as Kate’s pal and vaudeville partner Gertie; and the charming and irresistible, but false, Alexander Pantages. And Keesmaat-Walsh brings hilarity and swagger as Kate’s gruff boss Arizona Charlie and an awkward strong woman act, among others.

It’s a real-life adventure of fame, fortune and fall—told with song, story and heart. But you don’t have to believe me; check out the trailer (scroll down on the show page).

Belle Darling Klondike Queen continues in the Alumnae Studio Theatre until November 10; get advance tickets online or by calling 416-364-4170 (ext. 1), or pick up in-person at the box office one hour before curtain time (cash only). There will be a post-show talkback with the director, playwright and cast following the Saturday, November 9 matinée performance.

FireWorks continues its three-week run until November 24, presenting a new show each week: Crystal Wood’s Grief Circus, directed by Paige Foskett (Nov 13-17); and Genevieve Adam’s If the Shoe Fits, directed by Heather Keith (Nov 20-24).



Otherworldly spaces, unwitting celebrities, murder mysteries and tomatoes in NIF Week 3 program

nif 2015Alumnae Theatre Company opened the Week 3 program of its annual New Ideas Festival (NIF) last night. This is the final week of the fest, running until March 29 up in the studio space. Here’s what’s on the menu this week:

Rowing, Onward (by Eugenie Carabatsos, directed by Anne MacMillan). A man and a woman in a row boat, out at sea. A seemingly Sisyphean task of endlessly rowing together. How did they get here? Where have they been? And where are they going? The only thing we know for sure is they’re very tired and one of them wants to stop rowing.
A lovely, intimate short piece set in a confined space where he only sees her back and she only sees the empty horizon. Beautiful, tender and intense moments within the frustration and desperation. Lovely work from Aleksandra Maslennikova, who gives an ethereal and bright performance as the Woman, and Matthew Gouveia, the lyrical and poetic Man. Both the Man and the Woman are strong, exhausted and lost – but they know they have each other. And together, they try to find hope in the despair.

Grief Circus (by Crystal Wood, directed by Kelsey Laine Jacobson). While still in high school, Leah (Christina Leonard) becomes an unwitting – and unwilling – celebrity following the tragic death of her older sister Jessie (Jennifer-Beth Hanchar), while her mother (Stacey Iseman) dives in with a book, and guest appearances on news and talk shows. Life, death and grief in the age of the Internet, social media and media circus reporting, where private moments become public spectacle, and strangers feel compelled and entitled to comment. The process of grieving is made all the more challenging by the constant media chatter and intrusion, from inappropriate contact from well-meaning, sympathetic strangers to cruel commentary from social media trolls.

Fantastic job from the cast. Leonard’s Leah is a bright, nerdy girl in love with math and science, and acts as our guide and narrator for this story – the voice of reason throughout. Iseman’s Carol is a controlling Type A mom, with more than meets the eye going on beneath the surface as she deals with grief in her own way. Hanchar is boisterous, fun and full of sisterly wisdom as Jessie, a mindful and supportive older sister to Leah. Taylor Hammond gives a nice grounded comic performance as the awkward, clumsy Charlie, who’s somewhat dim-witted, but trying his best to be there for Leah; and nice work from Lex Darian as the intrusive, scoop-hungry Reporter.

A Death and the Marias (by Rose Napoli, directed by Clara McBride). Two women named Maria, a murder mystery and a whole lotta tomatoes in this delightful, short two-hander. In a small Italian town, a young groom is murdered on the steps of the church on his wedding day and the bride has gone missing. Sitting on the stoop of their home (they’re sisters-in-law) near the church, the two Marias cut tomatoes in preparation for making sauce as they speak with an unseen homicide detective. These two ladies see everything from their spot on the stairs – and some of it is even relevant to the investigation.

Marvelous use of half mask for this dark comic murder mystery and look at small town Italian life. The two Marias are delicious gossips and storytellers: Connie Guccione’s Maria Teresa is outspoken and suffers no fools, the alpha of the pair, while Margaret Sellers’ Maria Sara is a sweet, child-like soul and Maria Teresa’s sidekick. Also: gorgeous use of projection on the studio crescent window, transforming it into the stained glass window of the church.

Friends with Benefits (by Neil Naft, directed by Donald Molnar). First, get your minds out of the gutter – while there are frequent visits between a man and a woman, there are no booty calls in this play.

A charming tale of a young case worker (Carina Cojeen as Ariel), just back on the job after a troubling incident, who is assigned an unusual social benefits client: an elderly man (Luciano Iogno as John) who claims to have six dependents at home. And things really get weird when she visits his rural home to check out the situation for herself. All the while, Ariel must prove herself at the office while under the watchful eye of her boss Beverly (Diana Franz). A fantastic, fun story of a strange new world and friends that come into Ariel’s life, just when she seems to need it.

The cast does a nice job balancing the realism and fantasy of the piece. Cojeen’s Ariel is a kind and compassionate young woman with the edge of someone dealing with a troubled past, but she can’t find the heart to leave an old man with no support. Iogno give us an ornery and solitary, but likeable, old guy in John. Diana Franz, as Beverly, finds a nice balance as Ariel’s boss – brisk and business-like, and not entirely unfeeling, but finds herself at the end of her patience with Ariel’s handling of this case file. Nice job from Neila Lem as the no-nonsense, affable, multitasking Shopkeeper.

Otherworldly spaces, unwitting celebrities, murder mysteries and tomatoes – all in Alumnae Theatre’s NIF 2015 Week 3 program.

The Week 3 program also includes a one-time only reading of The Creases in My Sari (by Sindhuri Nandhakumar, directed by Joanne Williams) at noon on March 28.

The NIF Week 3 program continues in the Alumnae Studio until March 29, including matinées on March 28 and 29 (please note the 2:30 curtain time), and a talkback following the March 28 matinée.

Check out the details on the Week 3 lineup here; you can purchase tickets in advance here – a good idea, as this is a popular festival. In the meantime, you can get a sneak peek as you enjoy the Week 3 trailer: