Rich tapestry of image, sound & dance tells a powerful story without words in remarkable Century Song

Neema Bickersteth in Century Song—photos by John Lauener

 

Nightwood Theatre partners with Volcano, Richard Jordan Productions UK and Moveable Beast Collective to present Century Song, opening last night in the Guloien Theatre at Crow’s Theatre’s home at Streetcar Crowsnest.

Created by soprano/performer Neema Bickersteth, choreographer Kate Alton and director Ross Manson, the multimedia, multidisciplinary Century Song tells the stories of women throughout the past hundred years, incorporating the music of composers Sergei Rachmaninoff, Olivier Messiaen, John Cage, Georges Aperghis and Toronto’s Reza Jacobs; and including accompaniment by Gregory Oh (piano) and Ben Grossman (percussion, computer). The show also includes stunning projected images—black and white, and colour portraits, visual art pieces, and evocative landscapes, cityscapes and environments—projection design by Torge Møller and Momme Hinrichs from Germany’s fettFilm; and featuring the works of numerous photographers and artists.

This is a show unlike any I’ve ever seen—and I’ve seen a lot of theatre—so how can I describe to you this beautifully moving, powerful and innovative piece of storytelling that is really best experienced on an emotional and visceral level, as opposed to a cerebral level (though it does leave you with plenty to think about).

Opening in 1915 with Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise, we see a woman corseted and engaged in repetitive action, evoking housework and an agricultural setting. Moving into the 1920s/1930s, she is now clad in a sleek golden gown, placed in a magical forest—the setting, sound and imagery changing as time shifts into the 1930s and 1940s, with increasingly intense and horrific renderings of social and economic upheaval, and the devastation of war.

Century_Song_7With projections covering both the back wall and floor, the zooming in on images provides the illusion of movement. This technical aspect takes on a playful effect as we journey from the 1950s through 1978, where we see multiple Bickersteths as a variety of characters in various living room settings. And it’s particularly cool when she returns to the stage, joining her projected, life-size selves.

The landscape gets intense again, as we’re whisked up a skyscraper and onto the roof where we see a vast, endless cityscape before us. It’s dark and stormy. Now dressed in a business skirt suit, she is caught up in a frenzy of chaos and speed—overwhelmed by the pace and bleakness of it all.

Century_Song_6Returning to a quiet moment, Bickersteth closes with Vocalise for Neema by Reza Jacobs, a piece commissioned specifically for Century Song; with a haunting, yet soothing, lullaby quality that shifts into bluesy and playful tones, it promises to bring some to tears as we return to the safe confines of the theatre space in the present time.

Bickersteth is a wonder up there, bringing a powerhouse performance that combines operatic vocals and dance. Taut and precise, flexible and present, her work is masterfully fluid and evocative as she travels through time and space—presenting the lives of these women, with all their joys, fears, challenges, successes and expectations as they play out their roles.

With shouts to the design team: Camilla Koo (set), Rebecca Picherack (lighting) and Charlotte Dean (costumes).

A rich tapestry of image, sound and dance tells a powerful story without words in remarkable Century Song.

Century Song continues at Streetcar Crowsnest until April 29; advance tickets available online. Get out to see it—this is theatre like you’ve never seen.

Department of Corrections: The original post contained a typo in director Ross Manson’s surname; that has since been corrected.

Getting to the truth, & touching on the why, about violence against women in the thought-provoking, chilling SMYTH / WILLIAMS

Deborah Drakeford, Lynette Gillis & Kim Nelson in SMYTH / WILLIAMS—photo by Yuri Dojc

War and violence against women not only have similar social, cultural, and religious supports, they are mutually reinforcing. These supports allow societies to tolerate conditions in which a third of women and girls can be treated violently, without mass outcry and rebellion. When we challenge the attitudes and norms that enable violence against women, we are also helping to confront the conditions that support war.—Reverend Susan Thistlethwaite (included in the program notes for SMYTH / WILLIAMS)

Trigger warning: This post reviews a verbatim theatre production based on the transcripts of a police interview with a convicted serial killer rapist.

One Little Goat Theatre Company opened its all-female staging of the Ontario Provincial Police (O.P.P.) transcript of Detective Jim Smyth’s interview of stalker and serial killer Russell Williams in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Backspace last night. SMYTH / WILLIAMS was devised and directed by Adam Seelig.

Staged in a dramatically rendered police interview room (set by Jackie Chau and lighting by Laird Macdonald), including two microphone stands, two chairs and two copies of the transcript, the set also includes a drum kit, situated up centre, behind a pile of cedar chips on a floor that depicts a map. The transcript is a notable prop, not only for its occasional and specific use by the two actors (Deborah Drakeford and Kim Nelson), but for the extent to which it’s been redacted—in some parts heavily so—and those portions of the conversation between Smyth and Williams are filled in on stage by drum solos (Lynette Gillis).

The over seven-hour interview, which took place on February 7, 2010, has been pared down to about 90 minutes in this staged verbatim performance, with Drakeford and Nelson switching back and forth between characters, both playing Smyth and Williams at various points in the interview. The trajectory of the conversation begins with Williams being questioned as a person of interest in multiple crimes in the Ottawa and Belleville areas, to his arrest as evidence becomes available and search warrants executed on his homes, to his confession.

The cast is to be commended for their specific, respectful and focused performances of this difficult, disturbing material. Drakeford and Nelson establish a compelling dynamic between Smyth and Williams. Smyth is presented as the classic “good cop,” conducting the interview in a respectful, methodic but gentle way. Williams is the strong, silent type; a military man of few words who serves his country and appears to cooperate in the interest of serving his community in this investigation. The result is a pairing of strong feminine and masculine energies, with the interview shifting from more easy-going conversation to urgent strategizing as new information surfaces during the course of the investigation.

I was a bit baffled at first as to how the drum solos were going to work in the context of filling in redacted sections of the transcript (this info provided by Drakeford and Nelson at the beginning of the play; they also hold up their copies, showing the large blacked-out portions of the text in these instances). Drums are a primal, beat-driving percussion instrument; and Gillis is a skilled musician, drawing out the larger redactions with kick-ass precision. It’s an interesting and innovative piece of staging for what cannot be said—and one can only imagine that the redacted sections contain the more horrific details of Williams’ crimes. As the confession unfolds, there is an increasing Riot Grrrl vibe to Gillis’s performance—the drums beating out in anger and protest.

The production has not been without controversy. Terra Dafoe, a friend and neighbour of Jessica Lloyd, one of the women Williams abducted, raped and murdered, is at the forefront of a group that’s spearheaded a protest against the presentation of SMYTH / WILLIAMS, which they argue is a non-consensual and re-traumatizing production that sensationalizes violence against women. Dafoe was present at the opening last night, handing out a one-pager that states their case and includes a link to their Lead Now petition. Here’s a sampling of interviews from both the production (via News 1130) and the protest (via CBC).

Full disclosure: I was wary of seeing this production. Although I’m a big fan of TV crime procedurals, SMYTH / WILLIAMS is not a TV crime procedural. It’s real life. This is not fictitious, made-up dialogue—this conversation really happened, between a real detective and a real rapist/murderer. The women Williams stalked, harassed, raped and killed were real people. And, like those protesting the production, I was concerned about the details that would be revealed, as well as the traumatic effect of the subject matter. I decided to see it because I was curious as to whether such a production would have anything of value to say about violence against women. And, naively, I was hoping to find a ‘why.’ Why did he do it?

What I saw was a production that does not serve up salacious details—in fact, the disturbing details are kept to a minimum and what is included is presented in such a way as to show Williams’ apparent detachment from his actions, as well as the atrocity of those actions, when the actors peer out from their male characters and speak as women. Ironically, the turning point for Williams comes as he learns that search warrants are being executed on his homes—and he becomes deeply concerned about the negative impacts on his wife and the Canadian Armed Forces. Whether his concern came from a place of love and honour, or from a place of losing his grip on domination and control, it appears to be what ultimately spurred his confession. And an even bigger question mark is why he did what he did. Even if Williams knew, he wasn’t saying.

While I agree that seven years may be too soon for a theatrical examination of this case, I also have to wonder how one puts an arbitrary time limit on loss, grief and that deeply troubling ‘why.’ Theatre is a medium that helps us to explore all aspects of humanity and human experience—from the gods to the monsters—and I believe SMYTH / WILLIAMS and its opening night audience treated this real life piece of the more horrific side of humanity with respect and dignity.

The quote included at the beginning of this post, taken from the program notes, connects the dots between war and violence against women. While not a fulsome answer to the ‘why,’ it does give us a glimpse into the workings of a social infrastructure that supports ongoing violence against women and girls; and one from which a man like Williams emerged. I believe that widespread outcry and rebellion are growing, and that such push-back is amplified by the grief and rage incited by crimes like these, as well as the election of misogynists to high office.

There was no applause after the cast left the stage. No curtain call. A moment of silence for several moments followed before the audience gradually began hushed conversation and exited the space. This was not a reflection on the performances. Like the production, the audience wanted to treat the memories of the women that Williams harmed and murdered with respect and dignity—and in this way, the production and the petition are in agreement.

Getting to the truth, and touching on the why, about violence against women in the thought-provoking, chilling SMYTH / WILLIAMS.

This is not a production for everyone. If you decide to see SMYTH / WILLIAMS, there are some important questions you need to ask yourself. Why are you going to see it? Do you think the production contributes to the conversation about violence against women in a meaningful way? And if you happen to cross paths with Dafoe or another protestor, treat them with respect, hear what they have to say and read the hand-out. Free speech goes both ways—and both the protest and the production have important things to say.

SMYTH / WILLIAMS continues in the TPM Backspace until Mar 12; book in advance online or call 416-504-7529.

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

earl-pastko-ben-sanders-and-eva-barrie-in-agency-photo-by-greg-wong
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.