Speaking truth to power in raw, real, fierce & funny Sound of the Beast

Tamyka Bullen (onscreen) & Donna-Michelle St. Bernard in Sound of the Beast—photo by Michael Cooper

 

Hear ye, hear ye

let it be known,

No one on my block walks alone.

 

Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) closes its 2016-17 season with Donna-Michelle St. Bernard’s (aka Belladonna the Blest) Sound of the Beast, co-directed by Andy McKim and Jivesh Parasram, with ASL components by Tamyka Bullen, and featuring composition and sound design by David Mesiha. Sound of the Beast opened in the TPM Backspace last night.

Inspired by the story of Tunisian rapper Weld El 15, whose artistic freedom of speech was muzzled by police and government, and part of St. Bernard’s 54ology (her commitment to create a performance piece from each country in Africa), Sound of the Beast combines rap and spoken word with lived experiences for an up-close, profoundly personal and resonant performance. Complementing St. Bernard’s storytelling is a projected performance of Tamyka Bullen’s poetry, performed in ASL with English surtitles (projection design by Cameron Davis). And a series of radio voice-overs (Glyn Bowerman), updating us on news of an “incident” in a “priority neighbourhood,” provide a bleak commentary on the clueless, one-sided and white-washed view of mainstream media.

Autobiographical, observational and replete with first-hand lives lived in an environment of racism, mistrust and injustice, words and stories that we may only have read or seen on the news come to life. Urgent. Shocking. In front of us. What is the most shocking is that stories of oppression and injustice are not shocking, but part of our everyday lives.

Sound of the Beast
Donna-Michelle St. Bernard in Sound of the Beast—photo by Michael Cooper

A compelling and engaging storyteller, St. Bernard shifts easily from pointed remarks and calling out prejudice, to casual and conversational moments. She puts forth hypothetical scenarios and asks us how we would respond; making us active participants as we silently think about the choices in front of us. And during two poignant and charged scenes, she speaks to her imaginary young son; guiding him on how to behave, speak and even set his facial expressions in order to stay safe out there when confronted by the authorities. At times speaking to us as friends, she takes us in and along on her journey—her research on Weld El, her personal experiences—genuine, infuriating, heartbreaking, hilarious. Shifting from a stand-up storytelling vibe, to in our faces or in emcee performance mode, St. Bernard moves through the space with ease and fluidity, with professionalism and personality. Singing and speaking with strength, emotion and moving beats, her job is to tell it—and she brings it big time.

Speaking as a Deaf woman born into a “hearing Indian-Guyanese Hindu-Christian family”—and living in a “hearing, straight Eurocentric Christian patriarchal country,” Bullen’s poetry is beautiful, moving and revealing. Highlighting the intersectionality of experiences of oppression and prejudice among the Black and Deaf communities, she points to how heavy unemployment and underemployment leave marginalized people struggling to get by in a system that “operates for so long based on ignorance and hate.” Writing of poverty, PTSD, the immigrant experience and her relationship with the earth, Bullen reminds us of the ever present need for mindfulness, awareness and compassion—and how we are all we are all born of the same Mother Earth.

Coiled on the floor and ready, the microphone is St. Bernard’s weapon and bridge; and the black hoodie she dons at the opening of her performance and sheds at the close is her storytelling cloak. If you are not black or marginalized, you can only glean so much from what you see and hear in the news about these lived experiences. Of being constantly under surveillance because of the colour of your skin and the neighbourhood you live in. Of being questioned by law enforcement for no reason. Of being misunderstood and not knowing what you’re supposed to say. Of unarmed youth being shot by police. Sound of the Beast brings it in closer. Come and hear for yourself.

Speaking truth to power in raw, real, fierce and funny Sound of the Beast.

Sound of the Beast continues in the TPM Backspace until May 7; book tickets online or call 416-504-7529. Advance booking strongly recommended—it’s a powerful show and an intimate space.

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Family, class, denial & the monster within in the disturbing, revealing Orphans

Tim Dowler-Coltman, Diana Bentley & David Patrick Flemming in Orphans—photo by Shaun Benson

Coal Mine Theatre closes its 2016-17 season with Dennis Kelly’s Orphans, directed by Leora Morris—opening last night in their home at 1454 Danforth Ave.

Helen (Diana Bentley) and Danny’s (David Patrick Flemming) quiet date night dinner at home is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Helen’s brother Liam (Tim Dowler-Coltman). He’s let himself in with his key to their house and is covered in blood that turns out to not be his, but that of an injured young man he tried to help the next block over. An obvious victim of violence, the kid subsequently fled and a visibly shaken Liam made his way to his sister’s.

As the three agonize over what to do, Helen is concerned that involving the police will get Liam in trouble, given his criminal record, unsavoury choice in mates and a knack for bad luck. Helen and Danny’s ‘nice’ middle class neighbourhood has been beset by gangs of lads; one of which recently accosted Danny. With their polite, liberal values, they don’t like to point fingers at the adjacent estate (i.e., social housing), and influx of Middle Eastern and South Asian immigrants, but harbour mistrust and fear of those outside their own people. No one feels safe out there after dark, not even Liam. Orphaned when she and Liam were kids, and having navigated a life in care as they struggled to stay together, Helen is now a mother to a young son (Cody Black), who is at his grandmother’s for the evening, and in the early stages of pregnancy. Disillusioned and fearful of the world she’d be bringing this new life into, she’s seriously considering whether she wants to stay pregnant, given their situation.

What follows is a chilling evolution from Good Samaritan to cover-up—and Danny must decide how far he’s willing to go to help his brother-in-law. Do they engage in passive sins of omission and turning a blind eye, or active sins of lies and participation?

Outstanding work from the cast in this chilling story of underlying racism, classism and violence. Dowler-Coltman’s performance as Liam is both poignant and disturbing; a big, sweet lug of a guy, Liam has a wide-eyed, child-like simplicity with a menacing underbelly. Bentley’s Helen is a heartbreaking, complex portrait of protective sister, and disheartened wife and mother; at her wit’s end over what to do about her pregnancy, and now her brother, there is ferocity and bite under all that heartbreak. Flemming’s performance of Danny’s journey is perhaps the most revealing; coming from a more privileged and sheltered class, Danny walks through the world with blinders on. The illusion of safety in his home broken, and his insular life disrupted forever, his eyes are opened over the course of this night—and he finds some darkness of his own.

With shouts to Black, who makes a brief appearance as Helen and Danny’s adorable, cuddly and sleepy son Shane.

What desperate acts will circumstance, fear and mistrust push everyday people to? Orphans reminds us that the monster we need to fear may be even closer than our own front door.

Family, class, denial and the monster within in the disturbing, revealing Orphans.

Orphans continues to April 30; drop by the Coal Mine Theatre website for ticket info or purchase tickets directly online. Advance booking strongly recommended—it’s a gripping show and an intimate venue with general seating. Please note the 7:30pm curtain time for evening performances.

Keep up with Coal Mine Theatre on Twitter and Facebook—and keep an eye out for their fourth season in 2017-18.

Family, blood & sins of the father in the compelling, darkly funny Tough Jews

Maaor Ziv, Blue Bigwood-Mallin, Luis Fernandes, Theresa Tova, Anne van Leeuwen, G. Kyle Shields & Stephen Joffe in Tough Jews—photo by John Gundy

Leave the gun. Take the kugel.

Storefront Theatre is back, this time partnering with The Spadina Avenue Gang to mount the world premiere of Michael Ross Albert’s Tough Jews, directed by Storefront founder/co-artistic director Benjamin Blais and running at Kensington Hall in Toronto’s Kensington Market.

Tough Jews was Albert’s graduate project about a family of Toronto Jewish gangsters; and, although it’s set in the late 20s and early 30s, the play speaks to issues of anti-Semitic and anti-immigration/refugee sentiments that are relevant today, especially given the influence of the current administration to the south, and the rise in hate crimes targeting Jews and Muslims on both sides of the border.

Set in the basement speakeasy, downstairs from the family’s shop and home in Kensington Market, Act one opens in 1929 on Yom Kippur, 10 days before the stock market crash. Overseen by the widowed family matriarch Ida (Theresa Tova), brothers Joe (Luis Fernandes) and Ben (Blue Bigwood-Mallin) take care of the family business running booze downstairs, while Teddy (G. Kyle Shields) runs the legit business upstairs. Kid sister Rose (Maaor Ziv) and Ben’s American fiancée Marge (Anne van Leeuwen) watch from the sidelines. Downstairs business with Detroit’s Purple Gang goes south when hothead cousin Ziggie (Stephen Joffe) interrupts negotiations. This prompts Ben to come up with an idea to get Rose’s dope-dealing boyfriend Harry (who we never see), to get in on the action; despite the family’s disapproval of Harry, Ben hopes to placate the Purple Gang with new, hard-to-get product.

Act two jumps ahead four years to 1933, a couple of months after Hitler becomes Chancellor of Germany and shortly after the Christie Pits riot. Joe and Marge have been living in Florida, but his business was hit hard by the Depression, and he’s returned home to Toronto. Ben has also just come home, just released from jail; and Rose has a three-year-old and some serious domestic issues at her house. Teddy has taken over the speakeasy in the interim, but is now using it as a hide-out after his involvement in the Christie Pits riot.

Family secrets emerge throughout; and serious, changing situations prompt some equally drastic decision-making and choices. How far will a marginalized, oppressed and desperate people go in order to survive?

Stellar work from the entire cast in this immersive theatrical experience where the audience has a fly-on-the-wall view of the proceedings. Tova is hard as nails, hilarious and heartbreaking as Ida, who recalls in sharp, painful detail the oppression of her homeland and the hardship of an ocean crossing. The dreams of a better life destroyed by hate and oppression in a new country, Ida takes charge with pragmatism, grit and wry wit; and with a laser focus on turning the family’s fortunes around. Fernandes gives oldest brother Joe a nice balance of calculating professional and protective man of the house. Dog tired and struggling to keep the family business afloat, Joe must also manage the less than friendly relationship between Marge and his family.

Bigwood-Mallin brings a great sense of spark and ambition to Ben; the only one who really wants to be a gangster, Ben is genuinely excited to expand the business, make connections in the U.S. and make more money. Shields does a marvelous job with Teddy’s arc; as the bookish, observant kid brother, Teddy is torn between being a good man and seeing their legitimate family business survive, and the struggle to survive in a harsh, unfair world that leaves his family few options. By Act Two, he’s grown up a lot in those four years; a changed man, he sees what’s going on in Germany—and how prejudice and hate know no boundaries—and it sickens him.

Ziv’s Rose is an irreverent spitfire; an independent-minded and often neglected member of the family, Rose does her best to make a life for herself, but finds new challenges outside the safety of the family nest. Van Leeuwen brings a regal edge to the platinum blond, leggy Marge; a dancer when Joe first met her, she’s now set on becoming a respectable wife and looking forward to enjoying the good things in life. Unable to stomach Joe’s family business, however, she retaliates by putting on airs. Joffe gives Ziggie a menacing, lost boy edge. Taken in by his aunt Ida as a child, Ziggie’s grown up into a dangerous punk with some serious anger and impulse control issues; and his choices make him a liability to the family.

With big shouts to the design team Adam Belanger (set), Melissa Joakim (lighting), Lindsay Dagger Junkin (costumes), Angela McQueen (makeup) and Miquelon Rodriguez (sound) for their work on the evocative, immersive environment; and to fight director Simon Fon, and co-stage managers Justine Cargo and Andrea Miller. Throughout the production, corpses will be played by Kyle Bailey, Daniel Briere, Gabriel Hamilton and David Lapsley. The bartender makes a mean Manhattan, with the good Jack Daniels.

Family, blood and sins of the father in the compelling, darkly funny Tough Jews.

Tough Jews continues at Kensington Hall till April 16 (enter through the back alley—follow the sandwich board sign); full schedule and advance tix available online]. Book in advance for this one, folks; it’s a popular company and there’s a lot of well-deserved buzz about this show—not to mention the intimate venue. Warning: Show contains gun shots and smoking (herbal cigarettes).

In the meantime, check out Brittany Kay’s In the Greenroom blog interview with playwright Michael Ross Albert and actor G. Kyle Shields, with director Benjamin Blais dropping by.

Toronto Fringe: Biting social & immigration satire in sharp, startling, physical Silk Bath

_mg_8896_1280x853 silk bath

The Silk Bath Collective gives us a scathing, darkly funny and deeply moving send-up of western society and its biases toward Asian immigrants in Silk Bath. Co-written by director Aaron Jan, producer Gloria Mok and performer Bessie Cheng, the show is currently running in the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace during Toronto Fringe.

Set as a bizarre reality TV show where contestants are held in cells, new immigrants compete for social acceptance in their new country through a series of physical and verbal tests, where they gain points for giving the correct Western response and dominating in martial arts bouts. The dialogue is delivered in English, Cantonese and Mandarin, with projected surtitles.

When we first enter the theatre, we see three contestants already onstage, each seated on a mat with a metal bucket. Clementine (Dorcas Chiu), who careful tends her clementine tree; Mutt (En Lai Mah) looks after his sore knee; and the Old Lady (Amanda Zhou) sits up centre, lost in her thoughts as she wrings out a tea towel. A new arrival appears as the action commences: New Girl (Bessie Cheng) wide-eyed and eager to learn. We soon learn that each has an agenda of his/her own in addition to winning the prize.

Lovely work from the cast in this physical and emotional piece. Chiu gives Clementine a strong but wary nurturing quality, combined with a sense of natural leadership; seeking to make alliances, her way is to band together to find a way out. As Mutt, Mah gives us a man of masks; although Mah harbours a bitter and cynical attitude, he knows how to play the game and give the answers he knows the judges want to hear and he’s not above sabotage to gain points. Zhou brings a solitary dignity to Old Lady; a veteran contestant determined to win by ongoing analysis and stamina, she longs to be reunited with her love after a long separation. Cheng’s New Girl is a bright and feisty underdog; learning the ropes of this new and strange place, she is driven to succeed, and keeps a positive and hopeful attitude despite her confusion and nervousness. All want out of this place – and we find out how far each is willing to go in order to gain freedom.

With shouts to the design team: Aram Heydarian (set/costumes), Kevin Feliciano (projection/sound) and Logan Cracknell (lighting) for their inventive and evocative work to create this world.

Biting social and immigration satire in sharp, startling, physical Silk Bath.

Silk Bath continues at the Tarragon Mainspace, with only two more performances: today (Fri, July 8) at 4:15 p.m. and Sat, July 9 at 8:00 p.m.; highly recommended. For ticket info and advance tickets, check out the Fringe website.

p.s.: Because he’s crazy (his word, not mine), playwright/director Aaron Jan has another show in Fringe this year: Rowing, playing at the Kensington Conference Centre. I saw it in October 2015 and highly recommend it.

 

Charmingly funny, moving & thought-provoking insight on identity & culture in Mahmoud

Mahmoud_Poster_FINAL
Tara Grammy in Mahmoud – photo by Nir Bareket

Why Not Theatre’s 2015 edition of the RISER Project continued its programming last night at the Theatre Centre with previews of its two final shows – I saw Mahmoud.

Produced in partnership with Pandemic Theatre, written by Tara Grammy and Tom Arthur Davis, directed by Davis and starring Grammy, Mahmoud is a one-person whirlwind of storytelling – the highs, lows and in-betweens of three seemingly disparate characters that eventually cross paths.

Iranian electrical engineer turned Toronto taxi driver Mahmoud is a congenial host in his cab, keenly interested in people and always up for a conversation, especially when it comes to talking about his homeland. His love for home is palpable – he adores Persian culture and poetry, and misses the food. But it’s been 25 years since he’s been there, and the Iran he longs for no longer exists – and past events, the ones that brought him to Canada, continue to haunt him. Emanuelos is a fabulously flaming gay Spanish perfume salesman with a hot Iranian boyfriend, Behnam, who’s currently back home in Iran on a family matter. It’s a complicated relationship, as Behnam’s family is very traditional – and more conservative than Emanuelos wants to admit. And we see self-described Iranian-Canadian Tara go from an awkward, earnest tween aspiring actress to a driven young woman working to establish a career in the industry.

Identity, and cultural perceptions of women, sexuality and relationships play strongly in Mahmoud – each character is conflicted and layered in such a way that you can never tell the whole story from just looking on the surface. Assumptions and stereotypes are highlighted. Emanuelos’ feelings for Behnam, his own personal Prince of Persia, feed off the sexy and erotic draw of the exotic other. Tara wants to distinguish herself as an actor – and not as a doctor or some other white-collar profession that her parents would like her to be – but also just wants to blend in with her more western-looking peers. Her perceptions of outward beauty – blonde and hairless – are turned upside down when an agent wants to capitalize on her “exotic” natural look. And Mahmoud’s conservative views towards women and relationships may seem at odds with an educated man who has the heart of a poet, but his values ground him and help him to make sense of an otherwise senseless world.

Grammy is a delightful and engaging storyteller, shifting in and out of each character with style and clarity – and, above all, with truth and respect. No one is perfect – and that’s definitely the case with her three characters, which each have a delightful quirkiness of his or her own. And in each character’s individuality, she shows us the commonality – all want to be loved, work, belong and connect.

Mahmoud is a charmingly funny, moving and thought-provoking look at identity and culture.

Mahmoud continues its run at the Theatre Centre Incubator space until May 24. Check out the RISER Project and it’s exciting 2015 program. You can get advance tix online here.