SummerWorks: A bold, revolutionary experiment in housing & education implodes in the spirited, insightful Rochdale

Rochdale ensemble. Costumes by Tiana Kralj. 

 

GovCon and Theatre@York take us to the turbulent, rebellious times of social change and sky-high dreams in 1969 Toronto as a group of counterculture university students undertake a bold and ambitious new housing and education cooperative model in Rochdale. Written by David Yee; directed by Nina Lee Aquino, assisted by Jessie Whyte; and choreographed by Brandon Pereira, Rochdale premiered as part of Theatre@York’s 2018/19 season. We come upon an experimental campus in crisis; still under construction, and facing the serious challenges of funding, self-government, housing infrastructure, crashers and bad press. Rochdale had its second SummerWorks performance in The Theatre Centre’s Franco Boni Theatre last night.

Rumours of Rochdale GM Whitman’s (Leanne Hoffman) death have been greatly exaggerated; and when she returns after a two-month absence, she finds her office in shambles, the place in chaos and her boyfriend Dennis (Dean Bessey) replacing her as GM—plus, her best friend Cryer (Adrienne Ross Ramsingh) didn’t go to her funeral! Dennis and fellow Governing Council (Gov Con) colleagues Suzy (Margarita Valderrama) and Kitten (Julia DeMola) are at a loss as to how to deal with plumbing and electric issues, mounting bills, AWOL contractors, crashers and a dodgy elevator that needs to be sweet talked to work. And reluctant student security and safety officer Gerry (Tomasz Pereira Nunes) doesn’t seem particularly suited to or interested in his job.

Student resident Athena’s (Claudia Hamilton) has a theft to report; she eschews locking her room because they’re supposed to be a cooperative community. Shabby (Carina Salajan) is now the resident nurse after they lost their previous medic. Resident stoner Skye (Sabrina Marangoni) is trying to be helpful, but can’t remember what she needs to tell Whitman. And an Asian student dubbed Mao (Nelvin Law) doesn’t speak English—or does he? Rounding out the situation are slick “suit-minded” UofT student liaison Emmett (Ori Black), who becomes friendly with free love hippie girl Flower (Sophia Gaspar); drug dealer Fitch (Brandon Pereira, multitasking with several roles); and newcomer American Friar (Dustin Hickey).

Amidst preparations for a Vietnam War protest and a rooftop viewing of the moon walk, rebellion brews within. Rochdale’s system of self-government is based on the very model they’ve been howling against—and the Gov Con folks are now viewed as “the man”—placing the administrative/organizational body in jeopardy as discussions of war, classism, capitalism and civil rights turn to a debate on governance models. Viewed from the outside as hippie troublemakers, Rochdale’s public funding is in a precarious position as it finds itself continually defending itself against news stories of drug dealing, motorcycle gangs and overdoses on campus. While striving to live outside of the mainstream, they must still rely on mainstream institutions (government and university) for support—a challenging position, to be sure—and all the bad press isn’t helping their cause. Overwhelmed by the demands of administration, and bogged down by disorganization, this revolutionary experiment eventually implodes.

Joyful and spirited, Rochdale thrums with the hope, energy and struggle of a time of great social and technological change; and this story of experimentation, struggle and heartbreaking frustration is told with humour, insight and authenticity. Great work all around from this ensemble of 2019 York University Theatre grads on this look at Toronto’s counterculture in the late 60s, 50 years later. Stand-outs include Hoffman’s brilliant, poetic and beleaguered Whitman; Hamilton’s fierce Black Panther warrior Athena; Law’s enigmatic, passionate Mao; Marangoni’s loveable stoner Skye; and Ross Ramsingh’s intense, introspective Cryer. And the multitasking actor/choreographer Pereira does an impressive juggling act, going from comic (the silent, hungover Naked Man and the accidental Hare Krishna Harry ), to menacing as the drug dealer Fitch, to savvy revolutionary (Boris) and beacon of hope (Astronaut).

With big shouts to the design team for their evocative work on creating this time, space and vibe: Mona Farahmand (set), Ella Wieckowski (lighting), Tiana Kralj (costume) and Johnathon North (sound).

Rochdale has three more performances in the Franco Boni Theatre at the Theatre Centre, closing on August 18; check the show page for exact dates/times. Tickets available online or in person at the box office; it was a packed house last night, so advance booking strongly recommended. For more info on the production and its process, visit the Rochdale 2019 website.

Also, as part of SummerWorks Exchange Day 2, Rochdale will be hosting  MOVING PUBLICS—An In Transit Conversation on August 12; the bus will depart from The Theatre Centre at 3:00 p.m. and participants are asked to do some preparatory reading and RSVP in advance when booking their Exchange Day Pass.