The kids aren’t alright in the Howland Company’s raw, intense, disturbing Punk Rock

Tim Dowler-Coltman. Set and costume design by Nancy Anne Perrin. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Photo by Neil Silcox.

 

The Howland Company gets raw and apocalyptic with the Toronto premiere of Simon Stephens’ Punk Rock, directed by Gregory Prest assisted by Brittany Kay; opening last night in the Scotiabank Community Studio at Streetcar Crowsnest.

Set in present-day Stockport, part of the Greater Manchester, UK area, we become flies on the wall of the abandoned upper library of a tuition-paying grammar school, which a group of seniors has taken over as their hang-out. Lilly (Ruth Goodwin), the new kid trying to find her way, meets the good-natured William (Cameron Laurie), who’s more than happy to offer hilariously helpful tips to navigating the school. William also introduces Lilly (and us) to the rest of the gang: the sociable Tanya (Kristen Zaza), officially tasked by the school with showing Lilly around; the domineering Bennett (James Graham) and type-A Cissy (Hallie Seline), who are a couple; the jock Nicholas (Tim Dowler-Coltman); and the super intelligent, quiet Chadwick (Andrew Pimento).

William, who has an extremely poignant and unusual autobiography to share, is clearly crushing on Lilly, but she has eyes for someone else. Bennett is the class bully, with Chadwick as his prime whipping boy and some secret desires of his own; we see a brief moment of tenderness with his kid sister Lucy (Marleigh Merritt, who shares the role with Sophia Jin). Cissy has a photographic memory and barely studies for exams, but manages to get straight As—and is terrified of getting a lower grade. Nicholas is a gifted athlete, but doesn’t lord it over his schoolmates; he has a gentle, affable nature—and eyes for Lilly. Tanya is dealing with body image issues, expressing herself by adding colour to her look, and is just trying to fit in. The timid Chadwick is a science wiz, especially in physics—and he wears a jacket over his blazer to hide his school tie, which is different from the standard tie and sets him apart as a scholarship kid. Lilly, the daughter of a university professor who’s moved a lot, hides a self-destructive edge beneath a brave face exterior. The only adult we meet along this journey is the calm, steady Dr. Richard Harvey (Sam Kalilieh).

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Hallie Seline & James Graham. Set and costume design by Nancy Anne Perrin. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Photo by Neil Silcox.

The upper library hang-out becomes a microcosm of the school, which in turn becomes a microcosm of the world at large. All of these kids are bracing themselves, preparing in varying degrees and states of distress, for their upcoming mock exams, a litmus test for their finals later in the year. Facing a crucial transition point in their lives, these 17-year-olds are continuously bombarded with social, family, academic, socio-political and environmental expectations and pressures. And as the heat gets turned up, the space between them becomes a pressure cooker—and everyone’s going to explode.

In the program, the director’s remarks include a note on dialect from the playwright, expressing a desire for North American productions to use their own dialects; this means the actors speak with their natural accents—and it brings an immediacy and intimacy to the performance of this timely, disturbing play. This could be any school, anywhere.

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Cameron Laurie & Ruth Goodwin. Set and costume design by Nancy Anne Perrin. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Photo by Neil Silcox.

Outstanding work from the entire cast. As William, Laurie’s charming class clown persona gradually spirals from engaging and enthusiastic to deeply disappointed and troubled. And he has some lovely two-handers with Goodwin, who gives Lilly a secret dark edge of her own, masking Lilly’s own sense of fear and vulnerability.  As class power couple Bennett and Cissy, Graham and Seline appear to be polar opposites. Bennett’s sharp intellect is overlaid with a wild, sadistic streak, while Cissy is a tightly wound overachiever whose smug self-assurance belies an underlying fear of failure. And Pimento’s Chadwick is the mouse that roared, his scientific mind spitting rapid fire facts about the impending global apocalypse.

Shouts to the design team: Nancy Anne Perrin (set and costumes), Jareth Li (lighting) and Andy Trithardt (sound). The use of animal masks during scene changes, coupled with the jolting punk rock soundtrack and dramatic lighting blasts, highlight the raw, primal underbelly of these uniformed, and largely privileged, teens.

The kids aren’t alright. Ferocious urges, dark thoughts and painful secrets in the raw, intense, disturbing Punk Rock.

Punk Rock continues in the Streetcar Crowsnest Studio till April 14; advance tickets available online. In the meantime, check out the trailer:

 

 

 

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Toronto Fringe: Navigating a 140-word day world in provocative, intimate, sharply funny Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons

The Howland Company and Slow Blue Lions present Sam Steiner’s Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, directed by Harveen Sandhu; running at the Theatre Centre for Toronto Fringe.

Lawyer Bernadette (Ruth Goodwin) and composer Oliver (James Graham)—young, in love, living together—must navigate their burgeoning relationship through a new 140-words/day law.

What will they say? How will they say it? Do words reveal or do they get in the way?

Weaving in and out of time and space, and featuring a meet cute and sharp, compelling performances, there’s lovely chemistry here. Goodwin’s Bernadette is delightfully neurotic and fastidious workaholic; Graham’s Oliver is laid back, creative and socially aware. Opposites attract, repel and complement.

Lovers navigate a 140-word day world in the provocative, intimate and sharply funny Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons.

Runs to July 16; strongly recommend getting tickets in advance.

Fond & fierce dreams in poignant 73H Productions’/Howland Company’s modern-day reflection on The Glass Menagerie

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Hannah Spear in The Glass Menagerie – photos by Yannick Anton

73H Productions, with the support of The Howland Company, opened its production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, directed by Philip McKee, in the Theatre Centre Incubator space last night.

Set in St. Louis, Amanda Wingfield (Tracey Hoyt) lives in a cramped apartment with her two young adult children Tom (James Graham) and Laura (Hannah Spear). Mr. Wingfield, famous and infamous for his charm and grin, is long gone – not dead, but absent; a fifth character in this story, present only in a grinning photograph. This is a memory play, narrated by Tom and featuring milestone moments in the family’s history. Painfully shy and incapacitated with fear, Laura has dropped out of school; preferring to live in a world of old music and glass animals. Concerned for her daughter’s future, Amanda, a displaced member of privileged, old southern society, hatches a plan to have Tom invite one of his warehouse co-workers (Jim, the Gentleman Caller, played by Samer Salem) over for dinner in the hopes of sparking a romance and eventual marriage for Laura. Meanwhile, Tom is working on a scheme of his own, with plans to break free from a life of ennui and movie house escape, and into a journey of real adventure.

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James Graham with Hannah Spear (l) & Tracey Hoyt (r)

Lovely work from the cast in this intimate portrait of desperate dreaming family life. Graham brings a melancholy tinged with a wistful, and at times dark, sense of whimsy to his performance as Tom. A philosophical introvert, Tom’s a ticking time bomb of frustration; burdened with being the family breadwinner, he’s torn between taking care of his mother and sister, and making a life he can call his own. Hoyt’s Amanda is a complex combination of old southern gentility and ruthless realism. The life and world Amanda’s come to live in are both foreign and a step down for her socially speaking; disillusioned and desperate for a secure future, Amanda is a well-meaning nag with permanent worry lines on her forehead. And we see how rooted she is in the past as she slips into girlish coquetry when Jim arrives.

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Tracey Hoyt & Samer Salem

Spear brings a lovely sense of fragility and solitude to Laura; a painfully shy and delicate soul who dares to dream. A creative and good-humoured introvert with low self-esteem, Laura is both genuine and awkward – and her failings are largely in her mind. Salem gives Jim a high-energy, charismatic and athletic spark. As Laura’s polar opposite, Jim’s high self-esteem – perhaps a bit too high – is tempered by a charm and sincerity; a man who appears to have peaked in high school, he is “disappointed but not discouraged,” and spends his time after work on self-improvement courses.

All are disappointed but not discouraged – to some degree, at least – but, as Amanda points out, despite one’s best efforts “Things have a way of turning out so badly.”

Keeping the script intact, but setting the scene in modern-day America – as well as offering a new take on the menagerie – this production of the Williams classic finds the past aptly mirrored in the present; bringing this story of ennui, economic struggle and dreams of a better life into current focus. When Laura plays her father’s old records, it’s on a CD player; and, beyond a mere collection of acquired knickknacks, the menagerie is her own creation. Like the mirror ball at the Paradise Dance Hall across the alley, the animals are covered in pieces of mirrored glass – and those who look upon Laura’s creations are reflected in them.

Staged in the round in the more intimate Incubator space at the Theatre Centre, the audience really gets a fly-on-the-wall perspective of this family drama. Shouts to set/costume designer Adriana Bogaard, and lighting designer Jareth Li for their work in creating this world.

Fond and fierce dreams in 73H Productions’/The Howland Company’s poignant modern-day reflection on The Glass Menagerie.

The Glass Menagerie continues at the Theatre Centre Incubator until September 11. You can get advance tix online; strongly recommended, as it’s an intimate space and opening was sold out.

In the meantime, check out the trailer, created by Daniel Maslany:

 

 

Magic, heart, comedy & truth in and out of love (again) in 52 Pick-up remount

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Playing one of the four rotating couples in the production, Ruth Goodwin & Alexander Crowther toss the deck into the air in 52 Pick-up

Tell me a story.
Real or made-up?
Both.
Happy or sad?
Both.

These are the opening lines of TJ Dawe and Rita Bozi’s 52 Pick-up – produced by the Howland Company, and directed by Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster and Paolo Santalucia – setting the stage for a random, non-linear piece of two-handed storytelling about the beginning, middle and ending of a relationship. After delighting sold-out houses at last year’s Toronto Fringe, then going on to The Best of Fringe, the production is getting a remount at Fraser Studios.

52 Pick-up has a performance rotation of four couples: two guy/girl, one girl/girl and one guy/guy. I’d previously seen both guy/girl couples: real-life couple Hallie Seline/Cameron Laurie and Ruth Goodwin/Alexander Crowther. The remount features two new actors, replacing co-directors Ch’ng Lancaster and Santalucia, who both acted in the Fringe production: Llyandra Jones and Alexander Plouffe, who stepped in to play half of the same-sex couples (with Kristen Zaza and James Graham, respectively). I saw the girl/girl couple (Zaza and Jones) yesterday afternoon.

For those who haven’t seen 52 Pick-up, it goes something like this. At the top of the show, the relationship has already ended and the couple decide, together, to tell us their story. The order in which the story is told is dictated by the random selection from a deck of cards, tossed into the air, each card containing a word or phrase that defines the scene they’re about to play out for us.

So, between the four rotating couples and the random running order, you’ll never see the same story the same way twice – even with the same couple. The outcome can also result in some happy coincidences, like yesterday when the “Psychic” scene came right after a scene in which psychics were discussed. Each couple makes it clear that they’re telling us a story, winding in and out of scenes and returning to us, the cards on the floor and the box into which the discards go. Speaking directly to us – and like the “How do you know her?” scene – sometimes gently interacting with someone in the audience, the actors charm, engage and move us. It’s like hearing two friends talk about how they met, courted and gradually grew apart before breaking up – and even though the story is told out of order, your mind wants to put it together, like a puzzle, in linear format. And, like most break-ups, there isn’t necessarily a readily definable ‘why’ – and, in many cases, it’s about two people coming to realize that they just don’t fit together.

For those who have seen one of the guy/girl pairings, Zaza takes on the “girl” role and Jones the “guy.” In many respects, it would be more helpful to describe the couple as Person A and Person B. This is not about imposing heteronormative dynamics on the same-sex couples, it’s about showing two personality types come together, and the way the two succeed – or fail – to connect. Seeing a same-sex couple in this show, especially for those unfamiliar with such a relationship, highlights how romantic relationships aren’t so dependent on sex and gender as they are on personal character dynamics, lifestyle issues and wanting the same things from life.

Zaza and Jones have great chemistry, telling us the story of this couple with a playful sense of awkwardness, passion and romantic friction – with great comic timing and emotional connection. This couple is adorably awkward, earnest and committed, from the brief meet cute over the bladder health benefits of cranberry juice to the sniping over how to chop carrots – funny, moving and above all truthful. Jones brings a lovely bashful, soft butch quality to her laid back, home body character, while Zaza is the bubbly, assertive and outgoing femme – and we’re sad to see these two characters part.

52 Pick-up has all the magic, heart, comedy and truth of falling in and out of love. Now, if I can only work out my scheduling to see the guy/guy couple. Go see this – or go see this again. And again.

52 Pick-up continues at Fraser Studios until March 22. Seating is limited, so booking ahead is strongly recommended – you can do so online here (and see the full schedule and what couple is on when).

Toronto Fringe: A complex relationship plays out randomly in Howland Company’s brilliant 52 Pick-up

52_pick-up.web_-250x250The Howland Company’s production of TJ Dawe and Rita Bozi’s 52 Pick-up, directed by Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster and Paolo Santalucia, is a truly unique, moving and entertaining theatrical experience that audiences are loving at this year’s Toronto Fringe.

Part sharply written theatre and part improv, 52 Pick-up tells the story of one relationship, played out over 52 short scenes, all dictated by words or phrases written on a deck of playing cards. The actors throw the cards into the air, then randomly select one and play the scene – repeating until they’ve gone through the entire deck.

The show will never play the same way twice, partly because of how it’s structured and also due to the fact that the pair of actors changes with each show: Ruth Goodwin and Alex Crowther, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster and Kristen Zara, Hallie Seline and Cameron Laurie, and Paolo Santalucia and James Graham.

The performance I saw yesterday featured Seline and Laurie – and they were a joy to watch. The relationship has broken up and we see them play out scenes from their history as a couple. Seline is lovely and sassy as the world traveller girlfriend of the pair, delivering some awesome emotive punctuation at the end of each scene, carrying through the mood as she places the finished card into the box. Laurie is adorkably sweet in a Harry Potter sort of way (he wears glasses in this), a homebody and so perfectly his girlfriend’s opposite/complement. Both actors are engaging and truthful as the couple struggles through the relationship’s ups and downs. Try as they may to be good sports with the other’s foibles, baggage and divergent life goals/desires, the two eventually come to face the reality that the relationship is just not meant to be.

From their awkward first meeting, to sharing personal histories, to the chilly silences and curse-laden fights, we see the world of this relationship play out over the course of 75 minutes – and, as the scenes are drawn randomly, the relationship is not revealed in a chronological arc. And I love how it all begins and ends with “Tell me a story…”

52 Pick-up is a remarkable show – a brilliant concept with an outstanding cast.

The show continues its run at the Tarragon Extra Space until July 13 – check here for exact dates/times. Strongly suggest advance tix for this one, as it’s an extremely popular show that folks will likely try to see more than once.

A Woman of No Importance time travels to 1985 @ Alumnae Theatre

1213-womanmainThe tagline reads: “It’s not your great-aunt’s Oscar Wilde!” Make no mistake, Alumnae Theatre Company’s production of Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance, directed by Paul Hardy, is most definitely not a traditional staging of the play.

Brandon Kleiman’s minimalist and stunning set design (he does double duty as costume designer) provides the audience with a first peek at the world of Lady Hunstanton’s (Andy Fraser) country manor Hunstanton Chase. Upstage hang three window frames, each fractured at the bottom, with hundreds of brown paper butterflies hanging behind them. Downstage centre, two women in period costume stand side by side: one apparently an American, rather Puritan in dress and doing some needle work, and the other an Englishwoman with a closed-up parasol reading a book. Both politely acknowledge the other’s presence on occasion, but it is a tolerant rather than friendly sharing of the space. From either side of the stage enter a maid (Kathleen Pollard) and a butler (Daniel Staseff). Both disapproving of what they see, the two of them hatch a plan to usher the two ladies off stage. The quiet classical music that has been playing in the background morphs to 1980s club volume and intensity (sound design, nicely done, by Angus Barlow). Enter Lady Caroline Pontefract (Gillian English), all green and sparkly and bold make-up, looking very much like Edina from Ab Fab, joined by her husband Sir John Pontefract (Michael Vitorovich). Toto, we’re not in the 1890s anymore.

Hardy’s production transplants Wilde’s take on excess, morality and social repression into 1985. Margaret Thatcher is Prime Minister of England – and, this being England, the class divide is alive and well. And young Gerald Arbuthnot’s (Nicholas Porteous) promotion to secretary to Lord Illingworth (Andrew Batten) becomes a surprising – and unwelcome – family reunion with Gerald’s mother (Áine Magennis), whose life was ruined as a result of Illingworth’s callous betrayal.

Rounding out the cast are Sophia Fabiilli (young American guest Hester Worsley), James Graham (Mr. Kelvil, M.P.), Paula Shultz (Mrs. Allonby), Amy Zuch (Lady Stutfield) and Jason Thompson (Archdeacon Daubeny). City folk not particularly at ease in the country, Lady Hunstanton’s guests amuse themselves with gossip and witty, at times mercurial, conversation, and scandal – and the temptation to scandal – is ever present.

Fraser does a lovely job as Lady Hunstanton, the delightfully warm, if not somewhat forgetful, hostess. And Batten is devishly charming as the amoral, entitled Illingworth. Paula Shultz’s Mrs. Allonby is both sharp and cat-like sexy, and the scenes between her and Illingworth – a dual of words drenched in sex – are marvelous to watch. Magennis gives Mrs. Arbuthnot a strong, quiet dignity – a woman who owns her mistake and determined to carry on as best as she can, a social undesirable living undercover so her son doesn’t have to suffer for her sin.

Whether that perception of “sin” translates well into the 1980s, I’ll leave up to you. There is certainly a continuing class and gender divide regarding what constitutes forgivable and unforgivable behaviour. And the play provides an interesting perspective on American vs. British regard for morals and society. It is interesting that it is young Miss Worsley, “the Puritan,” who ends up being the most flexible and forgiving. And, in the end, Gerald, his mother and Miss Worsley embrace that which is truly important – and love has its day.

A Woman of No Importance runs at Alumnae Theatre on the main stage until February 9, with a talkback after the matinée on Sunday, February 3. Contact Alumnae Theatre for reservations.