Two women’s memoirs of wartime resilience & survival in powerful, poetic Double Bill: Licking Knives & Man to Man

Headstrong Collective opened its Double Bill of one-person plays – Licking Knives and Man to Man – at Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Backspace this week. Using minimalist sets and eye-catching, at times startling, images projected on the upstage wall, these two well-matched plays are portraits of women forced into life-changing, life and death circumstances during WWII where each must live like a chameleon in order to survive.

“Ukrainian people are convinced that everything will turn out shit because it always has. And they are always right.” – Licking Knives

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Melanie Hrymak in Licking Knives – photo by Nathan Kelly

Licking Knives – written and performed by Melanie Hrymak. Amidst the metropolitan hustle and bustle of post-war Paris (the tone set with projected images of Paris and the sounds of the city), a well-dressed, elegant woman silently enters, finds a table on a café patio, and removes her hat, gloves and coat. And tells us her story. Gradually, her accent changes as she takes us into the past. Once upon a time, she was a Ukrainian farm girl, one of six children who worked hard to help the family plant its annual wheat crop – wheat that was now being commandeered by the army. A small misfit in the family, she dreamed of going elsewhere, but never could have expected what would happen next. Torn from her home to work in a Nazi labour camp, she goes from housemaid to tunnel worker, the tunnel ultimately saving her when the Allies take the camp. Her old life gone, she travels to Paris with her newfound freedom, where her life becomes fluid and changeable. Ukrainian, Polish, German, French. Becoming someone else. Changing herself to forget.

Hrymak’s performance is frank, dark and wryly funny. In this woman’s shoes, she pulls no punches about the details of the experience and what she must do to survive; the tone is hard and vulnerable at the same time, refined and coarse, carefree and pensive. In the end, this woman has most effectively erased the girl she once was – but it’s clear that that Ukrainian farm girl still lives underneath.

“I, my own widow, my late lamented husband, had to be man enough to wear the fucking trousers.” – Man to Man

Man to Man
Lisa Karen Cox in Man to Man – photo by Nathan Kelly

Man to Man – written by Manfred Karge, translated by Anthony Vivis, and directed by Kelli Fox, assisted by Leslie McBay, and performed by Lisa Karen Cox. Set in Germany during the Nazi’s rise to power, when her husband’s poor health and subsequent death threaten her very survival, Ella Gericke becomes her dead husband Max and takes over his job as a crane operator. But her new identity eventually becomes problematic as the Nazis want soldiers to grow their army – and Ella/Max must come up with a new plan to stay alive. The language is both romantic and profane as the storytelling shifts back and forth between fanciful fairytale and harsh reality.

Cox gives a strong, grounded performance; and she does a remarkable job of shifting between characters, playing multiple roles – male and female, and female to male – coquettish, demure, bawdy, aggressive. As Ella morphing into Max, Cox is ballsy and go-to. She relishes her successful transformation in learning and executing Max’s job, then dreads interactions with co-workers, who want to drink, gamble and womanize after hours – afraid of being found out, but enjoying this new experience of the world. Switching back and forth between masculine and feminine versions of herself, Ella intends on becoming a woman again, but the timing never seems right and she always finds herself returning to her Max persona. In becoming her own prince come to save her, she will never be the same person again.

Along with the shape-shifting survival qualities of the women in these two plays, like Edith Piaf in her famous rendition of “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien,” these women regret nothing.

With shouts to the design team: Karyn McCallum (set and projection for both plays, and also costume for Man to Man), Rebecca Picherack (lighting), Tessa Springate (sound for Licking Knives), and Matthew Lawrence and Tom Perry (sound for Man to Man).

Two women’s memoirs of wartime resilience and survival in powerful, poetic Headstrong Collective Double Bill of Licking Knives and Man to Man.

Headstong Collective’s Double Bill of Licking Knives and Man to Man continues at the TPM Backspace until Dec 20. Check here for dates/times and advance tickets; you can also reserve by phone at 416-504-7529 or get tickets in person at Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson Ave).

 

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Fear & loathing in real estate with a damn fine all-female cast in Jet Girls Productions’ Glengarry Glen Ross

GlengarryPosterOnline-1 - smallAnd the Mametpalooza continues over at Red Sandcastle Theatre. (I saw Headstrong Collective’s marvelous production of Boston Marriage at Campbell House Museum last Saturday.) This time, it’s Jet Girls Productions’ ballsy all-female production of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, directed by Anita La Selva.

With this world premiere of the gender switched Glengarry Glen Ross, Jet Girls has a very ambitious first production on their hands – and they weren’t permitted to change a word of the script. The result is powerful, thought-provoking, darkly funny and more than a bit jarring.

Joining director La Selva on this journey is a fine ensemble of local female actors (in order of appearance): Elizabeth Saunders (Shelly Levene), Julie Brar (John Williamson and co-founder of Jet Girls), Françoise Balthazar (David Moss), Laurel Paetz (George Aaronow), Marianne Sawchuk (Richard Roma and co-founder of Jet Girls), Rosemary Doyle (James Lingk and A.D. of Red Sandcastle Theatre) and Robinne Fanfair (Detective Baylen).

With none of the text altered – including character names – and the men replaced with women, the raw and often brutal language of the play comes across as all the more harsh. Violent verbal exchanges highlighted with name-calling and profanity hit harder coming from the mouths of women, but at the same time there is an unsettling naturalism about it. These are women struggling for survival in a merciless, dog eat dog business driven by the mantra “Always Be Closing.” You don’t close, you don’t eat. Slogging through lists of dead leads in hard, changing economic times, the futility and desperation is palpable. Make no mistake, this is no mere cat fight – competition is fierce and it’s the law of the jungle here.

As Shelly “The Machine” Levene, Saunders gives us a compelling and poignant portrait of a salesperson past her prime, an old-school practitioner struggling along the rat race, ravenously desperate to break a losing streak, and avoid falling into despair. Brar does a lovely job with the aloof, pompous young pup Williamson, revealing hints of ruthlessness and entitlement beneath the cool professional exterior. Balthazar gives a riveting performance as Moss; by turns a rampaging bear and snake-like manipulator, there is something of the ticking time bomb in her. Paetz gives nice layers to Aaronow, Moss’s sidekick; mousey in her righteous indignation over the poor state of their leads, and an easy mark for Moss’s machinations – but this mouse wants to roar when she’s backed into a corner. Sawchuk mesmerizes as the slick operator Roma. All sex and charisma, smooth and sharp and the same time, she is a master of language, flirtation and flattery – anything to get what she wants. As Roma’s mark Lingk, Doyle brings a lovely combination of frumpy, gullible naiveté and a devil may care yearning for adventure to this sexually repressed, hen-pecked woman – but is not beyond standing her ground, albeit on shaky legs, when her place in the world becomes threatened. Very nice work from Fanfair as the no-nonsense, unflappable Detective Baylen; while professional in demeanour, she will brook no shenanigans from this group of real estate hustlers during her investigation.

With shouts to costume designer Jan Venus for the sharp, evocative 80s wardrobe.

Fear and loathing in real estate with a damn fine all-lady cast in Jet Girls Productions’ Glengarry Glen Ross. Get yourself out to Red Sandcastle Theatre to see this.

Glengarry Glen Ross runs at Red Sandcastle until April 26. For advance tix, call 416-845-9411 or email redsandcastletheatre@gmail.com

Razor sharp, mercurial wit as two women spar around their love in Boston Marriage

Boston Marriage
Deborah Drakeford, Catherine McNally & that infamous necklace in Boston Marriage – photo by Bonnie Anderson

There’s a wee Mametpalooza happening in Toronto right now, with two exciting productions of David Mamet plays, featuring some fine local female actors: Headstrong Collective’s Boston Marriage at Campbell House Museum and an all-female cast in Glengarry Glen Ross at Red Sandcastle Theatre. I saw Headstrong’s Boston Marriage, directed by Kelli Fox, last night.

Intimately staged in the parlour on the main floor of Campbell House Museum, the audience is seated along two walls, giving us a fly on the wall view of the proceedings.
This is an unusual play for Mamet: for its all-female cast and period setting. This is Mamet meets the Victorians – and the result is an interesting, if not anachronistic, piece of theatre featuring brilliant, almost Cowardesque, dialogue. At times the language of the drawing room, then lyrical or profane – it is fast-paced, unapologetic, erotic and even harsh on occasion.

Two particular friends reunite after being apart for some time. Anna (Catherine McNally) receives Claire (Deborah Drakeford) into her home, a home that is subsidized by Anna’s “protector,” a married man who’s taken her as his mistress. Claire has a favour to ask: she needs a place in which to have a private liaison with a younger love interest. The discussion that follows is less about the tenancy agreement and more about their relationship.

And then there’s that necklace. Sometimes, a gorgeous necklace can be way more trouble than it’s worth. Anna’s protector has gifted her a lovely emerald necklace, and this decision sets off a series of misadventure that pulls the women’s focus from their current desires and into damage control.

Throughout the exchanges of acerbic wit and lightning fast rapport, there is a poignant underpinning of desperation and loneliness as we watch Anna and Claire get reacquainted. Opposites in many ways, but so alike as they both struggle, as unmarried women, to survive – all the while fearing that their best years are behind them. Like Dorothy at the beginning of The Wizard of Oz, grasping for a true happiness that they believe lies beyond their own backyard. And while Anna’s young maid Catherine (Charlotte Dennis) is of the servant class, they can’t help but envy her youth – now in the first blossom of love and lust – and the fact that she has her whole life ahead of her even as a good portion of theirs is in the past.

Brought into the production by actors McNally and Drakeford, Fox is a thoroughly good match for this play and this cast. You can read Fox’s thoughts about Mamet and Boston Marriage in Jon Kaplan’s preview interview for NOW Magazine.

McNally and Drakeford give powerhouse performances, nicely supported by Dennis. McNally’s Anna has a delicious dramatic flair, yet is conventional and pragmatic in her way, deftly aware of the economics of her situation, and deeply hurt by Claire’s revelation of a new, and very young, love. As Claire, Drakeford has a lovely bohemian edge; fiercely independent and sensual, she has the air of an adventuress about her – as well as the hopeless romantic. You can picture Anna and Claire meeting at an art college, dreams of their future together opening up before them as their love grows. But then, paths diverge only to reconnect years later – and with very different lives. Even after their long separation, their conversation is the quixotic shorthand of good friends, slowed down only somewhat by moments of grasping for words, as we gals of a certain age are wont to do. Dennis is a delight as the saucy Scottish maid Catherine; fearless and outspoken in her naiveté, but not as clueless as she sometimes appears. And she gets an earful – and likely an education – with her employer’s goings-on.

It’s razor sharp, mercurial wit tinged with poignancy as two women spar with time and each other as they talk around their love in this marvelous production of Boston Marriage.

Boston Marriage continues at Campbell House until April 26. Seating is limited, so advance booking is strongly recommended. Get yourselves out to Campbell House to see this. You can get tickets online here.

In the meantime, you can check out the interviews with Fox, McNally and Drakeford on Headstrong Collective’s YouTube channel.

Top 10 of 2014

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Friends & fellow artists of Nik Beat perform a track at the launch for his Famous For Falling CD @ Amsterdam Bicycle Club

Seeing as I already took a bit of a peek out of my December hiatus with the Sleepy Beauty post last weekend – and as this is the last day of 2014 – thought I’d take another peek out to post my top 10 of 2014. Here it is, from a variety of disciplines, in alphabetical order:

Nik Beat: Famous For Falling CD/chapbook launch @ Amsterdam Bicycle Club
The De Chardin Project @ Theatre Passe Muraille
Elizabeth Rex (East Side Players) @ Papermill Theatre
I Hate Todd: The Moves Pt. 1 CD launch @ The Horseshoe Tavern
Lisa MacIntosh: ASK photography exhibit @ 3030 Dundas West
Memento Mori (Tracey Erin Smith/SoulO Theatre) @ Toronto Fringe
Mercury Fur (Seven Siblings Theatre Company) @ Unit 102 Theatre
Romeo and (Her) Juliet (Headstrong Collective/Urban Bard) @ Bloor Street United Church
Jessica Speziale: Shine CD launch @ The Duke Live
Trace (Theatre Gargantua/Vertical City) @ SummerWorks

Have a big fun and safe New Year’s Eve, all. See ya’s next year! xo

Preview: Moving modern LGBT take on classic star-crossed lovers in Romeo and (her) Juliet

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Leslie McBay (Romeo) & Krystina Bojanowski (Juliet)

Headstrong Collective and Urban Bard took us to the Church of Shakespeare at Bloor Street United Church last night – literally and figuratively – in their preview performance of Romeo and (her) Juliet, directed by Urban Bard A.D. Scott Emerson Moyle, and produced by Headstrong Collective co-founders/producers/actors Melanie Hrymak and Leslie McBay.

Outside the sanctuary, on opposite sides of the doors, are tables with photographs of Tybalt (Hrymak) and Mercutio (Max Tepper), with accompanying guest books and condolence cards. Inside, front and centre, there is a poster-sized photograph of Romeo (McBay) and Juliet (Krystina Bojanowski), an image captured at their wedding. The play is set during a memorial service, and in Friar Laurence’s (Lisa Karen Cox) memory of events from the previous week.

This is a moving, modern-day, queer interpretation of Romeo and Juliet; the lovers are both women, as are Benvolio (Clare Blackwood) and Friar Laurence (Cox), while Nurse is Capulet’s male assistant (Shawn Ahmed, who also plays Sgt. Prince, a community liaison officer). Mrs. Capulet (Siobhan Richardson, also doing double duty as fight director) is Capulet’s (Geoffrey Whynot) second wife, with the up and coming Paris (Adrian Shepherd) their prime choice for a son-in-law. The one-line character descriptions in the program read like Facebook status points and the cast reflects the diverse culture of Toronto – and the enmity between the Capulets and Montagues is as much about the one percent vs. the 99 percent as it is about family feud.

McBay and Bojanowski are lovely as the ill-fated teen lovers; McBay’s Romeo is a sensitive romantic, with a melancholy edge and soft butch swagger, and Bojanowski’s Juliet is bright and sweet, unspoiled by her privileged life and looking forward to a sense of independence while away at university. Blackwood and Tepper give strong – and often comic – performances as Romeo’s BFFs: the streetwise and protective Benvolio (Blackwood) and party boy Fool Mercutio (Tepper). Hrymak’s Tybalt is nicely nuanced – haughty and proud, but not without conscience in her drive to defend her family’s reputation. Whynot carries Capulet’s alpha male power well, his angry outbursts hinting at the potential for physical violence; Richardson’s Mrs. Capulet, step-mother to Juliet, is a compelling contradiction of chilly Rosedale matron whose emotions run deep and intense. Cox does a beautiful job as Laurence, the supportive community cleric, as well as mentor and friend to Romeo – caught in the middle of a family war and desperately trying to resolve it. Doing double acting duty, Ahmed is the picture of efficiency and warmth as Nurse, and equally supportive, but at the end of his patience, as Sgt. Prince; and Adrian Shepherd gives us a perfectly coiffed and well-mannered Paris, with a hint of bad boy beneath the golden boy exterior, and a nice turn as the wary street-dwelling drug dealer who begrudgingly sells Romeo the deadly poison.

The site-specific venue works incredibly well for this production of Shakespeare’s timeless classic tale of star-crossed love – and the 90-minute abridged version of the script hits all the important plot points and sweet spots the audience needs to become immersed in the story. In the end, are bereft and grieving – including the audience.

With shouts to composer Stephen Joffe for the moving atmospheric soundtrack; and stage manager Christina Abes for keeping things running smoothly and at a good pace in the complex, multi-level playing space.

Headstrong Collective/Urban Bard production of Romeo and (her) Juliet is a powerful contemporary urban interpretation, beautifully staged and truthfully acted. Go see this.

Romeo and (her) Juliet opens tomorrow night (Fri, Sept 5) and runs until Sept 20 at Bloor Street United Church (300 Bloor Street West at Huron); entrance is on the Bloor St. side, around the middle of the building. You can purchase tickets at the door 30 minutes before the show or online here. Please note the 7:30 p.m. curtain time; the show runs 90 minutes with no intermission.