Neighbour vs. neighbour in the timely, poignant The Land Grabber

The Toronto Irish Players present the North American premiere of James Phelan and Edward F. Barrett’s The Land Grabber, directed by Kristin Chan and opening last night on the Alumnae Theatre mainstage. A farm in 1881 County Kerry becomes a microcosm of the social and political unrest in Ireland as The Land War between tenant farmers protesting landlords’ arbitrary rent increases and evictions erupts. Living in the shadow of The Great Famine and the more recent Little Famine, neighbour is pitted against neighbour when one farmer, bent on expanding local food production, purchases an evicted neighbour’s farm; all legal, but morally abhorrent—and resulting in far-reaching and tragic consequences.

The Land Grabber is a revised version of Barrett’s (Phelan’s maternal grandfather) The Grabber, which was produced at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in November 1918, following revisions suggested by W.B. Yeats. A teenaged Phelan found a hand-written draft of the play and, years later, set about reviving the play in 2013 with the assistance of dramaturge/co-producer Maureen Lukie.

Successful farmer Johnny Foley (Thomas O’Neill) has his eye on an adjacent property and aims to marry off his daughter Mary (Meghan de Chastelain) in order to secure it. Mary has other plans and refuses, supported by her mother Ellen (Kelly-Marie Murtha). A visit from Pat Walsh (Ted Powers), a struggling neighbour at risk of eviction—and an old flame of Ellen’s—prompts assistance from Johnny’s son Billy (Blake Canning), who sets aside his own farm chores to till Pat’s land while Pat heads to the local fair to sell livestock in an 11th hour attempt to save his farm.

Despite his best efforts and successful sale, Pat is too late—and even his wealthy widow sister Kitty (Donna O’Regan) is unable to help—and the Bailiff (Dermot Walsh) arrives to execute the eviction. When Pat refuses to leave his home and the battering ram begins its heart-stopping assault on his front door,* his neighbours come out to protest—all except Johnny—and Pat and his medical student son Bryan (Paul Micucci) are injured as their home comes crashing down around their ears. Unbeknownst to even his own family, Johnny has already made a deal to pay off what Pat owes in rent and take over the Walsh farm. Refusing to listen to the protests of his family or consider alternative political solutions from Pat, who belongs to the Irish National Land League, Johnny goes ahead with his plan to grab Pat’s land.

The Foley family is subsequently shunned and oppressed by their neighbours; and Johnny is oblivious to the pain and suffering his actions have brought on his wife and children. Mary, who had left home to take a governess position, returns to be with her family and has her own decision to make; despondent and at her wit’s end, Ellen becomes a virtual recluse, choosing to worship at home to avoid the stone throwing and spitting; and the spirited, fair-minded Billy stands up for what he feels is right, refusing to side with his father. Meanwhile, Pat has gone into politics to further the cause and is doing well. Unable to sell locally, Johnny is force to travel to other towns. Tragedy ensues, and events threaten Mary and Bryan’s plans to marry when local police (Emmet Leahy and Benjamin Phelan) consider Bryan a suspect in a recent attack on the family. Eventually, Johnny is compelled to reconsider his acquisition of the Walsh farm—but all too late.

O’Neill is a compelling presence as Johnny; arrogant, stubborn and heavy-handed, there’s a world of pain and shame beneath that harsh exterior. Deeply scarred by the Famine and obsessed with making sure no one starves to death again, Johnny is deaf to alternate solutions and blind to the suffering of his own family—who, ironically, he’s most concerned about protecting. Murtha gives a gentle and heartbreaking performance as the loyal, religiously devout Ellen; but even Ellen can only take so much as their world is destroyed by her husband’s short-sighted, selfish decisions. Powers is playfully charming and politically astute as the determined, forward-thinking Pat; committed to a political solution to his fellow tenants’ predicament, he turns lemons to lemonade as he translates his knowledge and experience of farming issues to the political sphere. O’Regan is a feisty treat as the lusty widow Kitty; with a head for business and an appreciation strapping young men, Kitty injects both keen pragmatism and irreverent humour to the proceedings.

It’s a timely production for GTA audiences, given the current climate of high rents, rescinded rent controls and low vacancy rates, combined with frozen wages and a job market that increasingly favours precarious part-time/contract work over more secure permanent full-time positions. Landlords execute suspect renovictions, claiming they or family members are moving in, or turf long-term tenants in favour of opening Airbnb spaces; and tenants fight back with protests, rent strikes and deputations to local government. Desperate times can push people to desperate, sometimes selfish, measures—and also to new, innovative solutions—and hard times bring out the best and the worst in us.

With shouts to the fine design team for their work on this historical drama: Sean Treacy, co-producer Geraldine Browne and Anne Lyons (set); Karlos Griffith (lighting); Dan Schaumann (sound); and Bernadette Hunt (costumes).

The Land Grabber continues on the Alumnae Theatre mainstage until March 2; advance tickets available online.

*The production poster at the top of this post features an archival photo of this kind of  eviction action.

Interview: Blues singer/songwriter & actor Carolyn Fe

Carolyn Fe, Sugat Ko cover. Photo by litratista.com

 

Carolyn Fe is a multi-talented, award-winning actress, blues singer/songwriter and host of the online syndicated radio show Unsung and On the Side. I had the pleasure of getting to know her while she was in Toronto, performing in the Nightwood Theatre/Sulong Theatre co-production of the world premiere of Audrey Dwyer’s Calpurnia, presented at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre back in January/February. Fe won the 2018 Toronto Theatre Critics Award for Best Supporting Actress for her compelling, poignant and funny portrayal of the family’s housekeeper Precy.

Between 2009 and 2014, she released three award-winning self-produced blues CDs: 100%, Original Sin and Bad Taboo. After taking a hiatus from her music career, she’s back with a deeply personal recording of original songs in Sugat Ko (My Wound in Tagalog)—to be launched on August 1, 2018 on CD Baby. Sugat Ko features the music talents of the Collective: Ivan Garzon (guitar), Brandon Goodwin (drums, percussion, vocals), Jean-Francois Hamel (guitar) and Oisin Little (bass). Guest musicians include Frank Gallant (bass), Sam Robinson (bass) and Gabriel Tremblay (drums).

Full of passion, anger, compassion and candid observations, Sugat Ko is an authentic, moving, evocative collection of original songs—delivered with rich, smooth vocals that shift from mysterious to powerful to tender. I asked Carolyn Fe about the record—and the road that led her to create it.

Hi Carolyn. Thanks for taking some time out of your busy schedule to talk about Sugat Ko. This album is a major milestone for you: It marks your return to music after a four-year hiatus following the sudden loss of your friend and manager Barry Mell just before the release of Bad Taboo. You spoke about how things fell apart during that time, and how there was a significant shift within the band—and things were adrift for a while. Tell us about what brought you back. What was your inspiration to carry on and keep making music?

In all my endeavours, my approach is “do or die”. Making art; whether it be music, theatre, acting, writing, etc. equates to me breathing and feeling alive. There were times when I really wanted to throw in the towel, but I knew I had to keep going. The lyrics I had written meant a lot to me. I was hurting. I needed to keep writing; I needed to keep making music. I was feeling quite lost and alone. All those feelings of loss, pain and struggle kept me writing. Even though I was depressed, I was feeling alive (if you know what I mean). Words kept pouring out of me.

I met a lot of great musicians, but the connection/synergy wasn’t there until I found the ones who are with me right now: Jean-Francois Hamel (guitar), Ivan Garzon (guitar), Brandon Goodwin (drums & percussion), Oisin Little (bass, my muse who has been with me for 3 albums’ worth – Original Sin, Bad Taboo and now, Sugat Ko). When the five of us finally got together, my gut instincts told me that I can breathe with these gentlemen. They created a safe place for me to allow me to say and sing what I needed to say and sing. I also have Angie Arsenault who stuck by me through the tough times, she is a producer (prog rock and metal) – but first and foremost, she’s a friend who endured my whining through the tough times. She played all the instruments on “Prayer”.

This record is also a deeply personal reflection of your life and Philippine roots—a music offering that is profoundly soul-searching and revealing at the same time. And the songs on this record cover a broad emotional range, from pain, to passion, to playful and even prayerful. “Howzat” sounds like a wry Devil’s Advocate response to “Summertime”—a big contrast to the melancholy “Prayer”, the final track. What was the process of writing and recording like for you on this project?

For the longest time, since the creation of the debut EP 100% in 2008-2009, I was looking for a particular sound and it wasn’t a mainstream 12-bar blues sound. But I was also looking at my entrance to the music world from a business point of view. I needed to be careful in “instructing” the audience about what I was going to build (and also maybe I was chicken, insecure and afraid to assert myself, caring too much what “they” may think). So what I did was to “come in” with a standard blues-rock sound to get the auditors’ attention. You can hear the gradual evolution of where I wanted to be in a few songs as the new albums came out. The words/lyrics were true (you’ll note that there are religious connotations in most of my lyrics), but I was still reserved. It took life’s changes to finally find my footing and Sugat Ko is the result. Deep, deep lyrics from my heart, soul and essence of my being – all that, with no holds barred.

“Howzat” was the cacophony that was going on in my head during the four years that I had to keep a good face and smile at the world. I was dying on the inside; it was as if everything I touched went wrong. So yeah, this song talks about murdering and burying that mess, “she runs out into the garden with her Jimmy Choo’s sinking into the grass, cement, that’s all she can think of…cement, what a ride…oh baby hush now, don’t you cry, hush, hush baby, just give it a sigh”. Once buried, I moved on.

“Prayer” was me at my most desperate moments. It’s all about choice. We have choices and although on the surface it sounds like a call for help, it’s actually the complete opposite of asking for help. Prayer is a cry to die. It is also a song that is dedicated to a friend who passed away from cancer. She was in pain and there were moments when she wanted to end it. When I wrote this song, I wasn’t “intimate” enough with my new musicians, at least not yet. My friend, Angie Arsenault, and I were talking a lot of the difficult times. She had padded shoulders that I could lean on when I needed. Then it occurred to me to ask her to collaborate on the song as she knew exactly where my mindset was. She played all the instruments on “Prayer”.

Writing a song in an intimate process for me. There are times when I will already have the lyrics and will sit with only one of my musicians, who I call my Stage Husbands (because of the intimate process of writing). Other times, I would write the lyrics on the spot while they play along and understand the vibe of the tune. But for me, it is always a one on one process to create a song.

Sugat Ko draws on gospel and rock in a beautiful, moving fusion with the blues that complement the lyrics and take the listener on an emotional rollercoaster ride. Did you map out these arrangements ahead of time, on a song-by-song basis—or was it more of an organic process as you and the band worked together in the studio?

Actually, no. I treated each song as their own entity and let my gut instinct own the process, as well as organize it. Once the basic skeleton of the song is done after the one-on-one writing sessions with a stage hubby, then we would all get together and make the arrangement of the song. That’s the part where they all get technical while I listen to my gut feelings to make sure the vibe and soundscape is right.

You’ve been working on a 5th album, Cover My Bass, a collection of cover songs. What can you tell us about that record?

A while back, I saw Dalannah Gail Bowen and her bassist, Owen Owen Owen (nope, that’s not a repetitive keystroke error, that is his name) perform. They’re from British Columbia. I was so inspired!!! Here’s a woman pushing towards her 70s with this younger man on bass. It was an odd pair, but just her voice and his bass was music to my ears. Whenever we hear of duos, it’s mostly voice/guitar or voice/piano. I have never heard of voice and bass. I was hooked and inspired. It took me a long time to find a bass player who could jive with me. Frank Gallant was introduced to me by my drummer, Brandon Goodwin. Frank and I hit it off. He understood what I wanted to do.

I am not fond of doing cover songs. There are so many artists out there doing it, so I will leave it to them. BUT this 5th album (an EP actually) is already complete. TADA! I am just waiting for Sugat Ko to mature and establish itself before I take out Cover My Bass, which is a collection of old, old songs unfamiliar songs and we do it as a duet: voice and bass.

Anything else you want to shout out?

I want to talk about how special my stage husbands are. Aside from Oisin Little (bass), we’ve been together for about two and a half years now. I am so grateful for having them with me. They are instrumental in bringing my confidence back. I never considered myself a musician. Yeah, I write the lyrics and I sing the lyrics. When other players would just say, “Let her sing, we’ll do the music part”, these gentlemen, my stage hubbies, brought me to a place where I never knew I belonged. They stopped and asked what my lyrics were about, they played and played until they understood the soundscapes that I was looking for; and once we found it, they pushed it further. They created a safe space for me to explore. This is why Sugat Ko is so important for me because every song on that album is me in the raw. They created the space so I can allow me to be myself. Also, I want to give a shout out to my stage hubbies’ life partners who quietly stood by their side, at times rescheduling vacations and special occasions, so that we can create.

Now, for the fun part of the interview. I’d like to finish up with James Lipton’s Pivot questionnaire:

What’s your favourite word?

Yes

What’s your least favourite word?

Can’t

What turns you on?

Heart-full people that I resonate with. Pushing my envelope. Thinking, creating and doing things – not out of the box but – without a box. Challenges that make me feel alive. Doing. Pastries and sea food.

What turns you off?

Routine. Folks who don’t get out of their comfort zone and then whine about their regrets (HEY! It’s not too late, you can still do it). Folks who say, “It’s always been done that way”. Racism and discrimination really burns my butt.

What sound or noise do you love?

The inhale/exhale of satisfaction from a job well done.

What sound or noise do you hate?

It’s almost like a cartoon; the sound of screeching brakes in my head when fear overcomes me.

What is your favourite curse word?

I have too many, but the F-bomb usually starts it off, followed by other choice words (e.g., F’ing Toe Crud, F’ing butt cheese, etc.).

What profession other than your own would you like to pursue?

I’ve had and have many professions. In no particular order: Ballerina, Contemporary Dancer, Choreographer, Technical Recruiter & Human Resources Generalist, Marketing Specialist, Hair Stylist (which I still do and love – I went to school for it), Singer/Songwriter, Actor, Radio Host, Business owner, Corporate Consultant, Caregiver, etc.

What profession would you not like to do?

I tried, but I am not a good housekeeper.

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Ha! The question doesn’t say “…finally arrive at the Pearly Gates”. So I think, this is what God would ask me: “Are you done yet or do you wanna go back again?”

Thanks, Carolyn!

Thank you – and the hugs I am saving in my back pocket for you are gathering compounded interest again.

 

Toronto theatre audiences fell in love with Carolyn Fe and her performance in Calpurnia—and the feeling is mutual. Fe and her husband are looking to move from Montreal to Toronto in the near future, where we’ll have even more chances to see her perform live.

You can keep up with Carolyn Fe on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Keep your eyes and ears out for Sugat Ko on CD Baby on August 1.