Blood & fire as women navigate a beautiful, untamed new world in the bold, darkly funny Deceitful Above All Things

Genevieve Adam & John Fitzgerald Jay: photo by John Gundy

The show must go on. Storefront Theatre’s partnership with the Favour the Brave Collective to present Genevieve Adam’s SummerWorks 2015 hit Deceitful Above All Things shifted venues to the Factory Theatre Studio after Storefront’s space closed earlier this year.

As you sit in the Studio’s adjacent lounge, you can hear birds and a strange, otherworldly music. Like the chiming of celestial orbs. Entering the theatre, the ceiling is covered with tree branches, reaching downwards—and the floor is the colour of blood spreading over snow. Two benches on stage and the audience is mirrored on either side of the playing space. Combined with the sounds, the setting is eerie and strangely calming at the same time.

Inspired by the little known story of Les Filles du Roi (King’s Daughters), and directed by Tanya Rintoul, Deceitful Above All Things takes us on the journey of two young French women as they cross an ocean to transplant their lives to New France (eventually Quebec) in 1667.

Meeting on the voyage, coquettish aristocrat Anne (Genevieve Adam) and the pious Marguerite (Imogen Grace) become close friends when Marguerite comes to Anne’s aid on board. Once arrived, Marguerite joins her at a settlement near Trois Rivières to serve in Anne’s new home, which she shares with her husband, tobacco farmer Amable (Brian Bisson). There Marguerite finds romance when a handsome half First Nations, half French coureur de bois, Toussaint (Garret C. Smith) saves her from a bear.

This attachment is much to the dismay of Mme. Etienne (Madeleine Donohue), settlement den mother and matchmaker; she organizes and watches over the newly arrived women and arranges domestic partnerships—all for the glory of France and to populate the colony. Also relatively new to the settlement is Father François (John Fitzgerald Jay), a Jesuit priest who lives at the nearby Mission. And befriending Marguerite is Catherine (Joelle Peters), a young First Nations woman who was orphaned as a child and raised by the “black robes” at the Mission.

The storytelling weaves past and present, where we learn how the playful, intimate relationship between Anne and Father François turned passionate in France; the two reunited when he pays a visit to Amable’s home. Both Anne and Marguerite are pregnant, and Toussaint has travelled north, following the desire of his soul even more so than the work. Marguerite has adapted well to this wild new world, with the help of Toussaint and Catherine. Less of a pioneer at heart, Anne toys with two lovers like a careless child who goes where her desire takes her—and may find her true passion too late. Ever present is the threat of attack from an Iroquois war party, as men band together to take back the land that was taken from them by force by other men. This is a harsh, at times unforgiving, and also fertile and beautiful new world—and its inhabitants must adapt in order to survive.

Compelling performances from the cast with these conflicted, passionate characters. As Anne, Adam is fiery, seductive and irreverent; Anne’s aristocratic cockiness is subdued somewhat in the wilds of a burgeoning Quebec colony, but her passion still burns hot. Polar opposite, yet complementary to Anne, is Grace’s quiet, introspective Marguerite; deeply loyal and kind, there’s a fierce heart underneath—that is her source of strength and resourcefulness.

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Garret C. Smith & Imogen Grace: photo by John Gundy

Jay brings a great sense of conflict to the learned, forward-thinking Father François; a devout and spiritual man, his passions get away from him with Anne—making for a tortured soul that longs for absolution and redemption. Smith’s lovely layered performance as Toussaint gives us a man both spiritually and culturally conflicted; called “half-breed,” he doesn’t really belong anywhere and goes where his bear spirit calls him. But now, with Marguerite and the baby, he may have finally found a home.

Peters brings a nice sense of calm watchfulness to the enigmatic Catherine, at times unsettlingly so; a woman of few words, like Toussaint, spiteful rumours about her family follow her—and she must act as her spirit dictates. Donohue gives a sharply honed performance as the tight, proper Mme. Etienne; and Bisson gives Amable a strong and simple, but affable, dignity.

Deceitful Above All Things tells us a story of the early days of what would eventually become the province of Quebec, Canada—with some seldom seen perspectives of women and First Nations people. It’s a timely story, with Canada’s 150th birthday being celebrated this year.

The production also features beautiful work from the design team to create this hauntingly beautiful, dangerously harsh world: Nancy Anne Perrin (set), Logan Cracknell (lighting), Adriana Bogaard (costume) and Deanna Choi (sound).

Blood and fire as women navigate a beautiful, untamed new world in the bold, darkly funny Deceitful Above All Things.

Deceitful Above All Things continues in the Factory Theatre Studio until Feb 26. Find ticket info and purchase advance tix here.

Past & present collide as the walls come down in the compelling, intimate Agency

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Earl Pastko, Ben Sanders & Eva Barrie in Agency – photo by Greg Wong

Yell Rebel opened its production of Eva Barrie’s Agency, directed by Megan Watson, in The Theatre Centre Incubator space last Thursday; I caught the show last night.

Searching for answers about the fate of her father Peter (Ben Sanders), Hannah (Eva Barrie) arrives at a Berlin travel agency looking for Thomas (Earl Pastko). Armed with conflicting reports and evidence, and only vague memories, Hannah is determined to find the truth. Convinced that her father may still be alive, the man Hannah seeks answers from was her father’s friend and co-worker – and also a Stasi informant. A story woven across time, through the fall of the Berlin Wall and the historical reunification of Berlin, Agency shows us a world of greys – where nothing is as simple as it appears to be, and where good intentions can come to haunt and hurt.

Shifting across time and space, Agency plays out in intimate two-handers: mainly between Hannah and Thomas in the present, and Thomas and Peter in the past; in some cases, overlapping on the playing space as Thomas recalls a conversation with Peter as he speaks with Hannah.

Lovely, strong work from the cast here. Pastko’s Thomas acts as the bridge between past and present; unflinchingly calm and introverted, there is a kind sweetness beneath that gruff, old-school exterior. An adept spy, he’s struggled to find a way to use his covert talents for good. Barrie’s Hannah is all youthful, haunted energy; fragile and uncertain for all her bravado and research, she longs for the truth and gets more than she bargained for. And Sanders gives us an optimistic, charming and extroverted Peter; acting on instinct and hoping for the best, Peter’s sense of hopefulness and love is put to the test.

In his or her own way each is seeking reconciliation and redemption through these revelations. And, like the birds that repeatedly fly into the agency office windows, they’re butting up against the invisible walls that keep them apart.

Past and present collide as the walls come down in the compelling, intimate Agency.

Agency continues in The Theatre Centre Incubator until Nov 20; get your tix in advance online. Please note the early start times: 7 p.m. for evening performances and 1 p.m. for matinées.

Keep up with Yell Rebel 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.

SummerWorks: A personal & scholarly look at naked women throughout history in bold, brave & moving Naked Ladies

 

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Thea Fitz-James in Naked Ladies

When Thea Fitz-James does a theatre piece about naked women throughout history, she goes all in, performing naked in her multimedia solo show Naked Ladies, directed by Zoë Erwin-Longstaff and running at the Drake Underground during SummerWorks.

Using projection (moving and still images) and scholarly research, as well as personal anecdotes, Fitz-James takes us on a physical, emotional, political and thought-provoking journey. Secret and secret(e)ing, Naked Ladies is personal and political, artistic and academic, as it delves into the revealing and concealing nature of female nudity throughout the ages. The piece looks at the difference between ‘nude’ and ‘naked,’ a distinction illustrated with a fine example from art history, when ‘nude’ referred to works of reclining goddesses – until Manet’s ‘naked’ woman in Olympia.

Fitz-James gives a direct, candid and engaging performance; the presentation is equal parts humourous, poignant storytelling and accessible lecture in this cheeky (pun intended) and smart examination of the reasons behind female nudity. Celebration or exploitation? And what about the nakedness of a fully or partially clothed woman? It’s a revealing and thoughtful look – one that’s worth seeing. There is some audience participation; all very gentle and consensual.

A personal and scholarly look at naked women throughout history in the bold, brave and moving Naked Ladies.

Naked Ladies continues at the Drake Underground until Aug 12.

Toronto Fringe: An enjoyable history what-if in charming, entertaining Exposure

Craig Walker, Laurel Paetz & Christopher Blackwell in Exposure - photo by Greg Wanless
Craig Walker, Laurel Paetz & Christopher Blackwell in Exposure – photo by Greg Wanless

I also saw another enjoyable history-inspired piece yesterday at Toronto Fringe: Undershaft & Lazarus Productions’ world premiere of John Lazarus’s Exposure, directed by Kathryn MacKay – running at the Robert Gill Theatre.

Inspired by Louis Daguerre’s ground-breaking photograph of a man getting a shoe shine on the Boulevard du Temple, Paris, Exposure fills in the blanks as it theorizes who that man and shoe shine woman could have been.

Mme. Brillante (Laurel Paetz), former actress and now a purveyor of shoe shines and fortunes, and Daguerre (Craig Walker) are unexpectedly reunited on the Blvd. du Temple outside his theatre as he’s rushing off to present his new invention at the Académie Française in the hopes of getting a development grant. His invention: a camera that captures images on a glass plate; however, his street scene exposures are currently unable to capture people and other moving subjects. Some time later, Mme. Brillante encounters Anonyme (Christopher Blackwell), a young man disappointed in a failed attempt at an acting career now bent on drowning himself. In an effort to prevent his suicide, she persuades him to stop for a shoe shine.

Lovely work from the cast in this historical what-if play. Paetz is intrepid and upbeat as Mme. Brillante, whose years of name changing and acting serve her well as she puts on a cheerful disposition when she needs to; she has a quick, sardonic wit and a kind heart. Walker gives Daguerre a nice combination of brilliance and anxiousness – a man of clockwork habits who is ambitious and driven, at times uncertain of his own talent, but not above accepting assistance. A hard-working artist and scientist, he has not entirely abandoned his humanity for his work. As Anonyme, Blackwell has an affable but entitled air about him; a young aristocrat, he has the flair of nobility in his dress and carriage, but not the snobbery. His treatment of Mme. Brillante, a street vendor, indicates that he judges people by their actions and not by their station in life.

Shouts to set designer Bill Penner and director MacKay for the costume design.

Exposure is a charming and entertaining history-inspired piece on love, art and science, featuring a fine trio of actors.

Exposure has two more performances at the Robert Gill Theatre: July 9 at 9:15 p.m. and July 10 at 4:30 p.m.

Toronto Fringe: Moving account of a shameful piece of history in Man’s Dominion

mans_dominion-web-250x250My first show at Toronto Fringe yesterday was a recent addition to my schedule, as I arrived early at the Tarragon Theatre [link] Extraspace to get a ticket at the door for LA-based Pachyderm Productions’ Man’s Dominion, written by David Castro and directed by Dennis Neal.

I’d first learned about Man’s Dominion while standing in line at the Tarragon for another show on Sunday night, as Castro was chatting up the show and handing out flyers – and this was no drive-by flyering – he took time and really engaged with people. Coincidentally, actor Tim Powell was one of the Fringe guests on Radio Regent’s Stage Left the next day, where I was co-hosting with host MC Thompson – giving me a chance to meet him and hear about the show.

Man’s Dominion is a one-man piece of history storytelling that features the voices of 10 eyewitnesses of the 1916 lynching of a circus elephant in Erwin, Tennessee. Yes, you read that right. The people of Erwin lynched an elephant. Her name was Mary, and she was condemned to death for killing her trainer, Red Eldridge, who was on his second day on the job. The crowd, already shouting for blood, had their righteous indignation fuelled by Rev. George McKee, who quoted from Genesis 1:26, citing man’s God-given dominion over the animals.

Actor Tim Powell gives a powerful and thought-provoking performance, opening as Ringmaster and Sparks Circus owner Charlie Sparks, and finishing as Mary. Eldridge gets a say too, and it’s believed that it was his application of the bull hook that set Mary off. Deftly shifting from character to character, with diverse dialects, and social and cultural backgrounds, Powell shows us multiple points of view (which Castro has incorporated in such a way that we get a balanced overall account of what happened, leaving us to decide for ourselves whether the townsfolk did right). Hobo Joe (a clown) provides some much needed laughs, but with the dark edge and rough delivery of a hard-drinking, hard-working circus life. Rev. McKee is quiet and introspective on the outside, concealing a heart of fire and brimstone, and a mind full of harsh vengeance.

The most heartbreaking moments come when an Irish roustabout is ordered to put a chain (the noose) around Mary’s neck, and an elderly black baggage handler endures jeers of “This is what you get!” as Mary is unloaded at the train station, where an industrial crane will be her gallows. It is this man who points out the full quote from Genesis 1:26, highlighting how selective the religiously self-righteous can be with how they enact the words of scripture. And then Mary herself, who with dignity and honesty gives us her last words.

Man’s Dominion is a moving account of a shameful piece of history, with just the right amount of comic relief to make the senselessness bearable, and featuring a stellar solo performance from Powell.

Man’s Dominion continues at the Tarragon Extra Space, with just two more performances: July 10 at 8:00 p.m. and July 11 at 12:00 p.m. See this show while you can; these guys aren’t local and who can say if/when they’ll be back in T.O.

Raoul Bhaneja & Divine Brown take us to the Church of the Blues in Life, Death and the Blues

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A young boy with a dream – and the harmonica is his ticket.

Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM), in association with Hope and Hell Theatre Co., opened Raoul Bhaneja’s Life, Death and the Blues in the TPM mainspace last night – and wowed a packed house.

Directed by Eda Holmes and associate director Kate Lynch, Life, Death and the Blues is a journey of music, culture, history and personal discovery. Bhaneja, Divine Brown, and The Big Time band members Jake Chisholm (guitar), Tom Bona (drums), Chris Banks (upright bass) take us on a trip through time and space, across Blues – and personal – history, traversing cities, countries and continents as Bhaneja continues his Blues education.

While Bhaneja challenges the audience’s preconceived notions of who and what a Blues man is, Brown is the perfect Devil’s advocate for Bhaneja’s assumptions on the cultural significance and place of the Blues today. Throughout this theatrical/music hybrid journey, Bhaneja gets schooled on the true meaning and placement of the Blues. More than a technique or a style or an expression – Blues is about roots and about rooting yourself in the music.

Life, Death and the Blues features stellar performances for this ride. Bhaneja is highly engaging, a slightly cocky but extremely likeable and funny guide on this trip, not to mention a talented showman, bringing it with strong vocals and musicianship (dobro and harmonica). Divine Brown is a fabulous foil, standing for no nonsense from Bhaneja, and taking us to heaven with her incredible vocal range and power. And those Big Time boys were cookin’. In addition to the live performances, we were also treated to the sights and sounds of some Blues greats, including Paul Oscher, Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker and Bad News Brown. I dare you to not be bopping your head and tapping your feet – and even shouting out “Damn!” – during this show (I know I did).

Every performance of Life, Death and the Blues will feature a special finale: an interview and jam session with a living Blues legend, including Chris Whiteley, Jay Douglas, Paul James, Rita Chiarelli and others. Last night’s opening featured the cool sounds of Chris Whiteley & Diana Braithwaite.

TPM also launched a Youth Blues Challenge in conjunction with this production, and sought out some talented young blues artists (25 or under) to perform during intermission up in the cabaret space near the bar. Last night’s young guest was Dov Beck-Levine, who wowed the audience with a solo performance on guitar and vocals.

Life, Death and the Blues is a remarkable theatre/music hybrid, featuring an outstanding cast of actor/musicians – taking us to the Church of the Blues.

Life, Death and the Blues runs on the TPM mainspace till October 19. Do yourself a solid and get yourself over there to see this. You can purchase advance tickets online.

In the meantime, check out the promo vid: