Landon & Matt’s most excellent interdimensional adventure in the playful, imaginative Life in a Box

Top to bottom: Matthew Finlan & Landon Doak. Photo by Fiona Sauder.

 

Bad Hats Theatre takes us on a most excellent interdimensional adventure with its live episodic TV musical Life in a Box; music and lyrics by Landon Doak, book by Matthew Finlan and directed by Fiona Sauder. When two fun-loving BFF/roommates survive a solar flare that turns the Earth into a burnt marshmallow, they travel back in time in an attempt to avert disaster in this hilarious, imaginative and playful trip of friendship, quantum physics and legal weed enjoyment. Better late than never for me as I joined this party with a friend at the Grand Canyon Theatre last night.

Played out as three episodes of a TV show called Life in a Box—the playing area and staging set within a cut-out, drawn-on TV screen window on a canvas screen—characters Landon (Landon Doak) and Matt (Matthew Finlan) are actors, best friends and roommates who share a basement apartment, good times and some good weed in Toronto. Their rambunctious fun is interrupted when Earth is hit by a solar flare, turning most of it into a burnt wasteland—prompting the boys to come up with a plan to save the world. Thanks to Matt’s book smarts, they’re able to construct a rudimentary time machine and travel back in time to warn their past selves and alert the authorities of the impending apocalypse.

They take a trip through time and land in 2013, but things don’t go as planned—especially on the trip back to the future—and both must rely on their wits and instinct to make it back to 2019. To keep hope alive, they must remember Matt’s motto: “There’s always a way.”

Featuring great tunes—inspired by music theatre stylings, rock and rap—delivered by some impressive vocals from Doak (who also plays acoustic guitar and ukulele) and Finlan (with sound design, arrangements and production by Lyon Smith, assisted by Victor Pokinko), Life in a Box is a big fun, musical comedy TV show adventure that incorporates physical theatre and even commercials shouting out production sponsors, delivered live (like in Prairie Home Companion).

Doak and Finlan give outstanding, high-octane performances as the two dudes on a mission; friendship, loyalty and a dedication to having fun make for an entertaining and endearing bromance adventure. Complementary opposites, Doak brings a child-like sense of wonder and playfulness to Landon; while not academically smart, Landon is resourceful and always has an emergency joint on hand. Finlan’s actor/dancer Matt carries off sharp wit and invention with slapdash ease; a positive, hopeful force for the pair, Matt’s extensive reading and ability to improvise the science take them on a journey neither could have imagined in their wildest dreams or most excellent highs.

With shouts to set designer Remington North and lighting designer Steve Vargo for their work on this awesome, trippy environment, featuring a behind the screen apparatus that allows for climbing and all kinds of play structure-enabled action. And to Rebecca Ballarin, who directed the original two-episode production at Toronto Fringe 2018.

Life in a Box is in its final week, closing on September 28 at the Grand Canyon Theatre (2 Osler St., Toronto); advance tickets available online. While you’re waiting for the show to start (or during intermission), get yourself a beverage and a snack box at the bar (snack boxes include a yummy selection of treats, plus a raffle ticket for an awesome prize!). Note: Due to mature themes, this is an adult musical.

 

Hope & regret in the Village Players’ bittersweet, nostalgic The Glass Menagerie

Jacob Klick, Deena Baltman & Claire MacMaster. Set design by Alexis Chubb. Costume design by Livia Pravato-Fuchs, assisted by Marcella Pravato. Lighting design by Jamie Sample. Photo by John Ordean.

 

The Village Players open their 2019-20 season with Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, directed by Victoria Shepherd and running at the Village Playhouse. A deeply autobiographical play, in memory of a beloved sister, it’s the story of a family’s struggles of identity and survival in a world mired in the Depression with another World War around the corner—bittersweet, nostalgic, and full of hope and regret.

Tom Wingfield (Jacob Klick) is both narrator and participant in this tale as he invites us into the world of the small St. Louis apartment where he lives with his mother Amanda (Deena Baltman) and sister Laura (Claire MacMaster). The Wingfield patriarch has been absent some 16 years—a “telephone man who fell in love with long distance”—his ever watchful, smiling face aglow in a frame on the living room wall. It is 1937, and America has been struggling through the Great Depression, with WWII a couple of years away.

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Deena Baltman & Claire MacMaster. Set design by Alexis Chubb. Costume design by Livia Pravato-Fuchs, assisted by Marcella Pravato. Lighting design by Jamie Sample. Photo by John Ordean.

Profoundly restless and bored with his job in a shoe factory warehouse, Tom finds escape and second-hand adventure in the movies and in books; and squirrels himself away at work during lunch breaks, writing poetry. At home, he snatches brief moments of solitude and reflection as he smokes on the fire escape; and hatches a plan to join the Merchant Marine and get away for some real adventures. Meanwhile, a desperate but hopeful Amanda—ever navigating the challenges of keeping the body and soul of the family together—longs for a successful and happy future for her children, even as she criticizes and directs their actions. Retreating into moments of nostalgic reverie as she recalls her days popularity and hosting numerous beaux in the rural south, she is clearly troubled; a fish out of water—and out of time—in their urban Delta home. And the painfully shy Laura—who would likely be diagnosed with social anxiety today—prefers her rich world of imagination and light. Self-conscious about her limp and anxious about how others see her, she finds sanctuary from an outside world that is too overwhelming to bear as she escapes into her glass collection.

Concerned that her daughter’s fragile, anxious soul is unable to manage a career as a secretary, Amanda shifts focus onto finding Laura a suitable husband, and enlists Tom’s aid to find a beau for Laura. He invites co-worker Jim (John Shubat), a former high school golden boy known to both Tom and Laura, over for dinner. Laura had a crush on Jim in high school, and the hopes and dreams of this gentleman caller are met with a frank and unexpected reality check.

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John Shubat & Claire MacMaster. Set design by Alexis Chubb. Costume design by Livia Pravato-Fuchs, assisted by Marcella Pravato. Lighting design by Jamie Sample. Photo by John Ordean.

Nice work from the cast in this snapshot of familial hope, regret, loss and disappointment; moments of humour and tenderness bring take the edge off the brutal frankness and disillusionment of this world. Klick’s Tom is a study of restless detachment; dutifully bound to ensuring the family’s security as the man of the house, Tom is boiling inside—busting to get out and away, and to a life of his own. Baltman brings a desperate edge of optimism to Amanda, a woman whose life vacillates between memories of better times and the harsh realities of present-day existence. Longing for the gentler, civilized days of her bygone youth—a world that no longer exists—Amanda’s gay, energetic girlishness belies an exhausted, lost middle-aged woman grasping for purchase and hope in world she neither understands nor wants.

MacMaster adds a hint of irreverent spunk to the otherwise fragile, introverted Laura. Losing herself in a world of light and magical creatures, Laura finds a sense of safety and belonging from the world outside their apartment. And Shubat’s Jim is the picture of affable charisma and confidence, tempered by the world weariness of a young man who peaked in high school. Jim has high hopes for the future; aiming for a career on the ground floor of television, he represents hope for the Wingfield family; and a high-energy, forward-thinking future where popularity and showmanship are bound to succeed.

In the end, all of these characters are misfits in his/her own way; lost and searching for a way to be in a changing modern world. And, to varying degrees, each is struggling to keep the pain of disappointment from turning into the paralysis of discouragement. The world seems to be made for the popular and confident, with higher value placed on the traditional markers of status and success than on more imaginative and unique qualities—where unicorns are encouraged to be just like the other horses.

With shouts to the design team for their work on bringing this world of fading memory to glowing life. Alexis Chubb’s homey domestic set, revealed by the opening of sheer curtains, nicely complimented by Jamie Sample’s lighting design; John Stuart Campbell’s sound and music design, incorporating popular music of the time and haunting, crystalline original compositions (featuring Vivien Shepherd on vocals) as it conjures the music hall across the alley and complements the emotional tone; and Livia Pravato-Fuchs’ (assisted by Marcella Pravato) period costumes, transporting us to both 1937 and Amanda’s youth.

The Glass Menagerie continues at the Village Playhouse until September 28. Advance tickets available online or by calling 416-767-7702.

Toronto Fringe: Joy, sadness & an unexpected friendship in the playful, imaginative, touching Beneath the Bed

In bed: Erin Humphry. Clockwise, from bottom left: Lindsay Wu, Elizabeth Staples, John Wamsley & Keaton Kwok. Photo by Bryn Kennedy.

 

Theatre Born Between takes us to a world of childhood and the creatures that live under our beds in the playful, touching Beneath the Bed, a tale of loss and trauma—and an unexpected friendship. Written by Gabriel Golin and directed by Bryn Kennedy, with music composition by Lucas Penner, music, puppetry, dress-up and everyday objects imaginatively employed combine to tell a story of joy, sadness and back again. It’s story time for all ages, running at the Scadding Court Community Centre, Room 4.

When a Child (Erin Humphry) loses her Mom (Elizabeth Staples), her room becomes her refuge as she searches for her mother in the stars out her window, her mother’s haunting lullaby never forgotten. One night, a Monster (Graham Conway) appears from under her bed. Annoyed that the Child’s tears and sadness make her unfit to eat, he attempts to make her happy; and while his efforts may initially be for selfish reasons, a bond grows between them—and he becomes her protector from the real monster in the house.

Years later, the Monster appears in a new bedroom to find a new Child (Lindsay Wu); his friend has grown up and become a mother herself. This new Child has an outgoing personality and a vivid imagination, and loves playing games of make-believe—becoming a pirate on the high seas or an astronaut exploring the stars and battling space aliens. And although the Monster doesn’t understand her games, he plays along—even though his friend, now a mother, doesn’t want him speaking to her child. Feeling that her mom is keeping her too close, the Child runs away. Despite his fear of leaving the bedroom, and the great danger posed by daylight, the Monster ventures out to find her.

Lovely work from the cast in this beautiful, moving and delightful journey. Humphry’s Child has wisdom beyond her years; pensive and observant, she finds strength and resilience despite her grief and isolation. But the trauma of her childhood makes her a fearful adult, and nurturing turns to smothering as she desperately tries to protect her child from the world. Conway is a treat as the Monster; all gruff and growl at first, he’s a softie underneath—his initial malice melting as he turns from predator to protector. Wu is adorably fierce as the second Child; forced to live largely in her imagination, she struggles for independence and growth.

Rounding out the cast are the spritely Whispers—Keaton Kwok and John Wamsley (also Staples and Wu)—who create the sights, sounds and physical environment as the story unfolds. Everyday objects become monsters, sunsets, constellations, the headlights of a car; and, from the booth, stage manager Caitlin Brenneman creates sound effects with a toy xylophone and everyday things.

A good reminder—for children of all ages—that endings aren’t always entirely happy, but we can hope that things will be better tomorrow and feel gratitude for those moments of joy and the friends who help us get there.

Beneath the Bed continues in the Scadding Court Community Centre, Room 4 with one more performance today (July 14) at 2:00; tickets available at the door only today. Seating is limited, so you may want to arrive early.

A big fun, magical ride for kids of all ages with the imaginative, wonder-filled Peter Pan

Clockwise, from the top: Matt Pilipiak, Victor Pokinko, Fiona Sauder, Lena Maripuu & Landon Doak. Production design by Amy Marie Wallace. Lighting design by Ken MacKenzie. Photo by Nicholas Porteous.

 

Bad Hats Theatre returns to the Young Centre, adding a sprinkle of magic fairy dust to the holidays with its Dora award-winning stage adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Adapted by Fiona Sauder and Reanne Spitzer, directed by Severn Thompson, with choreography by Reanne Spitzer, music by Landon Doak, and arrangements by Nathan Carroll and the company, this low-tech, highly imaginative version of the beloved children’s classic promises magic, fun and wonder for kids of all ages.

From its genesis as Co-Artistic Director Fiona Sauder’s dream project, first produced by Bad Hats at the Old Flame, a brewery in Port Perry, to a five-brewery tour in Toronto the following winter, Peter Pan first landed at the Young Centre in 2017, when Soulpepper invited the company to perform in its holiday time Family Festival. The production went on to win Dora awards for Outstanding Ensemble, Direction and Production.

Part story time, part dress-up, part musical—all magic and imagination—Peter Pan draws us in with joy, make believe and a child-like sense of play that starts before the show gets underway, with the ensemble emerging for some live music and fun with the kids sitting on the mats along the front of the horseshoe seating arrangement. Best. Pre-show. Ever.

Our grown-up narrator (Matt Pilipiak, with fun in his heart and a twinkle in his eye, going on to play the shy, soft-spoken Mr. Smee) sets the stage; and we watch as Peter (Fiona Sauder, with boyish swashbuckling bravado and impish mischief) enters the Darling home through the nursery window in search of his AWOL shadow. A lover of stories, he’s been listening at the window as Wendy (played with a lovely combination of grown-up earnestness, and childhood fun and romance by Lena Maripuu) tells stories and plays games of dress-up adventure with her younger brothers John (little gentleman, full of fun Victor Pokinko) and Michael (Richard Lam, brimming with adorable wide-eyed wonder, in the role till Dec 16; followed by Landon Doak in the role).

A sprinkle of fairy dust and a happy thought send the Darling children into flight with Peter and his fairy BFF Tinkerbell (the spritely, feisty, don’t you dare cross her Reanne Spitzer, who also plays Mrs. Darling and a Pirate) to their address at second star to the right and straight on till morning: Neverland. Joining the Lost Boys (great high-energy, comic fun turns from Jocelyn Adema, Andrew Cameron, Matthew Finlan and Tal Shulman, who all double as the rough and tumble, fun-loving Pirates), Peter and the Darling boys adopt Wendy as their new storytelling mother. Meanwhile, Captain Hook (played with hilariously evil camp by Graham Conway, who does double duty as Mr. Darling) is out to avenge his lost hand, and plots to find Peter Pan’s secret hideaway, and kidnap his friends to lure him into a trap. All the while, Hook is pursued by the crocodile that ate his hand, its whereabouts given away by the tick tock of the clock it also managed to swallow.

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Fiona Sauder & Graham Conway. Production design by Amy Marie Wallace. Lighting design by Ken MacKenzie. Photo by Nicholas Porteous.

Sword fights, a jealous fairy turned hero and a stalking, hungry croc ensue—and good prevails over evil, with determination, pluck and ingenuity. And it’s a bittersweet moment when the Darling children return home to the nursery, in part because it also signals the end of this magical journey for us. The kids in the audience are a huge part of the fun of this show; and one or two even get a chance to get in on the fun. I dare you to not stomp your feet along with the music—and believe in magic and fairies.

Peter Pan continues at the Young Centre into the New Year, until January 5. Get advance tickets online or call the box office: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188. Booking in advance is strongly recommended to avoid disappointment. Bringing a kid isn’t mandatory, but it will ramp up your fun if you’re joined by a young friend. Go see this!

Check out the trailer, featuring highlights from this multi-talented, energetic ensemble:

 

Keep an eye out for Bad Hats Theatre, who are cooking up a new children’s tale for an upcoming musical brewery tour; check out their website for details, and give them a follow on their social media channels.

 

Otherworldly, eerily beautiful & intensely visceral – Shotgun Juliet’s Stealth

StealthCourtyard3You enter the space via the alley off of Sullivan. Dark. Quiet. No signage. And enter through a worn wooden gate into the backyard of 8-11 Gallery. A spooky young woman sitting on a cut bit of tree trunk beckons you to her – she is the gatekeeper hostess and box office, her dead-pan voice offering cryptic responses to queries about the show. She is, however, forthcoming about the location of the bar and washroom indoors: through the back door and up the short flight of stairs to the right. We may sit anywhere we like in the yard, but must not go downstairs.

Sitting on one of the slightly damp wooden slat benches in the early evening darkness, you notice the smell of wet bark, leaves, soil. The overcast sky, visible beyond the nearly bare branches, reveals one bright star – a planet, perhaps. You’re glad it’s not raining now and especially grateful for the unseasonably mild late October night. The backyard fills with others. And soon it begins.

Our hostess alerts us that they’re coming. We can hear them before we see them. Four women dressed in black enter the yard through the gate, moving in music-less – but not soundless – rhythmic time. A ritual. A dance. A communion of community. As they exit into the gallery and down the stairs, suddenly, all is not well with one of the women. Our hostess beckons us to follow her downstairs, where we witness the rest of the action wordlessly play out, the smell of damp woods outdoors exchanged for the smell of damp stone indoors.

This is Shotgun Juliet’s production of Stealth, a physical theatre/dance piece directed/conceived by Matthew Eger; and choreographed/performed by Patricia Allison, Miranda Forbes, Darwin Lyon and Amanda Pye. The production company aptly describes the piece as “four women who have vowed to be silent and hidden together – until one decides she wants out,” framing the story in such a way that piques interest without giving too much away. Much like our mysterious hostess. Out of respect for the production and future audiences, I will also not divulge much here.

I can tell you that these women are closely bound together – physically and emotionally – and the reaction when one of the women leaves is immediate and powerful. The use of light, dark and shadow is extremely effective, as is the haunting soundtrack that plays indoors, industrial music infused with the faint static sounds of radio communication – a white noise of sorts, but also strikingly alien in tone. This production is big on atmosphere: mystery, anticipation, and the experience of heightened senses and imagination.

I can also tell you that the cast does a marvelous job of using their bodies, gestures and expressions to tell this story. Specific relationships are highlighted and challenged, and loyalties are questioned. Vocalizations are all the more intense as they erupt from a largely silent scenario and used sparingly.

And, then, it’s over. As you exit back along the alley – back to the real world – the wet crunch of the pavement beneath your feet seems more distinct.

Stealth is an otherworldly, eerily beautiful and intensely visceral physical theatre/dance hybrid.

Stealth continues its run at 8-11 Gallery (233 Spadina Ave., a bit north of Queen/Spadina – enter through the alley off of Sullivan) until November 1. Dress warmly. Don’t be afraid of the dark. The box office mistress will keep you safe.