SummerWorks: A beautiful, bittersweet memory play featuring outstanding, powerful performances in Seams

Seams-400x312Dress forms, a clothing rack, a large basin with wash board and soap, a pile of fabric, a work table. And off stage left, a chair. Old Frosya enters, the ghosts of her former co-workers standing on the catwalk on the upper level of the stage.

And so the stage is set for the Seam Collective’s production of Polly Phokeev’s Seams, directed by Mikaela Davies – running at the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Mainspace as part of SummerWorks. Inspired by an old photo of Phokeev’s grandmother and her seamstress/seamster co-workers, Seams is set in the wardrobe room of a theatre in Moscow, 1939.

Old Frosya (Clare Coulter) is the sole survivor of a group of costume-makers – and her memories turn to their moments together in 1939, in the first months of WWII. In a world where the state owns everything, corruption runs wild, and being broke, cold and hungry is commonplace, it’s everyone for themselves. People are desperate enough to report neighbours, friends and co-workers for any hint of suspicious activity – selling out one family for another to heavy-handed authorities – in order to survive or, in some cases, to get perks like a nicer apartment. Suspicion and mistrust, and guarded thoughts, become a way of life. The love/hate for Russia and the people in their lives is palpable. Everyone has a secret. And this is everyday life.

Part memoir, part confessional, Frosya’s narrative starts with relatively happy times – a workplace family gossiping about the actors and selectively sharing their lives. It’s a microcosm of the larger world outside the wardrobe room; and as conditions deteriorate in Russia – in an already difficult socio-political environment – so too do they begin to crumble in their world.

Seams features moving, nuanced performances from the entire cast. Coulter is haunting as the gruffly matter of fact, wry-witted Old Frosya. As Frosya’s younger self, Caitlin Robson brings a bright warmth and generosity to the brisk and efficient costume room den mother. Ewa Wolniczek brings a strong, stubborn sense of drive and idealism to the passionate young activist Marina.

There’s great chemistry between Krystina Bojanowski (the positive, open-hearted and hopeful Ira) and Jesse La Vercombe (the quiet, pleasant and troubled Anton) – who share some adorably awkward moments as both fumble around their attraction for each other. And there’s an equally lovely dynamic between Sochi Fried’s dark, introspective and mysterious Radya and Elizabeth Stuart-Morris’s irreverent, daring and carefree Shura – their moments together full of aching longing and electric eroticism. Of course, circumstances being what they are, when they are, the good times cannot last – and with the ransacking of the wardrobe in a theatre already on the brink of closure, so too are relationships torn apart as their time together draws to a close.

With shouts to design team Shannon Lea Doyle (design), Steve Vargo (lighting), Jackie McClelland (installation) and Nicholas Potter (sound) for their evocative construction of this world.

Seams is a beautiful, bittersweet memory play – equal parts charming and heartbreaking – featuring outstanding, powerful performances.

Seams has two more performances at the TPM Mainspace: Fri, Aug 14 at 9:30 p.m. and Sun, Aug 16 at 4:15 p.m.The buzz is strong with this show, so book in advance or get to the venue box office early.

In the meantime, check out Bailey Green’s chat with Phokeev, Davies and Stuart-Morris (who does double duty as producer) for In the Greenroom.

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Chaotically insightful and darkly funny ride in Alumnae Theatre’s Escape From Happiness

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Lesley Robertson (Mary Ann), Andrea Brown (Elizabeth) and Renée Haché (Gail) – photo by Scott Gorman

“Please don’t do anything you can’t live with later.”
“I can live with a lot.”

Alumnae Theatre Company opened its 2014-15 all-Canadian season with George F. Walker’s Escape From Happiness on Friday night and I dropped by the theatre for the Sunday matinée.

Directed by Andrea Wasserman, Escape From Happiness is one of three plays in Walker’s East End Trilogy, a dark comedy of family dysfunction, set against the backdrop of crime vs. law and order. When a series of troubling events threaten the safety of her family, Nora (Heli Kivilaht) rallies her two oldest daughters, Elizabeth (Andrea Brown) and Mary Ann (Lesley Robertson), to the family home in order to discover who beat up youngest sister Gail’s (Renée Haché) husband Junior (Maxwell King). Tom, the family patriarch (David Cairns), gravely ill and mostly keeping to his room, goes unacknowledged by Nora as the husband and father of the house (she insists he’s only someone who looks like him), and cared for by Gail and Junior. A history of alcoholism, explosive anger and violence has created a huge rift in the family, and Gail is the only one willing to forgive. Add to the mix low-level criminals Rolly (Robert Skanes) and Stevie (Colin MacDonald), and diametrically opposed detectives Mike (Ryan Seeley) and Dian (Joanne Sarazen), then turn up the volume to 11 and break off the knob as these people struggle to cope with some very bizarre circumstances.

Wasserman has an excellent ensemble for this wacky and edgy journey. Kivilaht’s Nora is a lovely combination of spacey and wise, kind and sharp-edged in her eccentric observations of the world and the people around her. Brown is both hilarious and intense as the eldest daughter Elizabeth; a lawyer and family protector, and bad-ass beneath the suit – and more like her father than she’s likely willing to admit. Robertson’s Mary Ann is adorably kooky, a gentle and nurturing soul struggling to find her way in the face of some harsh realities; like Nora, an unexpected and unusual voice of truth. Haché is outspoken and suffering no fools as youngest daughter Gail, possessing of a forgiving heart and in many ways the sanest of the bunch. King brings a very likeable and child-like quality to Junior; a sweet and loyal guy, but not too bright. Cairns gives a nicely layered performance as ex-cop Tom, the deposed man of the house; well-meaning in his actions, but lacking the foresight and luck – and sense of boundaries – to carry them off.

Sarazen and Seeley do a marvelous job of playing off each other as new school vs. old school cops. Sarazen’s Dian is sharp-witted but cheerful new order cop, driven and socially aware, and obsessed with innovation, while Seeley’s Mike is an old-time veteran of the force – pragmatic, gruff, racist and prefers to go with his gut. Skanes and MacDonald are a riot as father/son crime team Rolly and Stevie – nicely mirroring the dynamic between Tom and Junior, with the fumbling older man acting as mentor to the dim-witted younger man.

Shouts to Brandon Kleiman’s set design, a neat, but worn and somewhat grimy family kitchen – including some great details via props assembled by Jackie McClelland; and to Sara Brzozowski’s costumes, which both identify and round out the characters really nicely. And to the original music by Boy Ballz, bringing some awesome hip hop and urban beats – the perfect soundtrack for this play.

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Robert Skanes (Rolly) & Heli Kivilaht (Nora) – photo by Scott Gorman

Alumnae Theatre’s production of Escape From Happiness is a chaotically insightful and darkly funny ride, featuring a kick-ass cast. Get yourselves over there to see this.

Escape From Happiness runs on the Alumnae Theatre main stage until October 11. Purchase tickets an hour before curtain time (cash only), or in advance online, by telephone at (416) 364-4170 (press 1) or by email at reservations@alumnaetheatre.com