The struggle for normalcy in the wake of a horrific past in the haunting, disturbing Strangers, Babies

Jeff Lillico & Niki Landau in Strangers, Babies—photo by Neil Silcox

 

Theatre PANIK presents its immersive production of Linda McLean’s Strangers, Babies, directed by Paul Lampert, assisted by Sadie Epstein-Fine, this past week. A Canadian premiere, the show opened this past week at Artscape Sandbox.

As we enter the space, projected text welcomes us and invites us to wander around and take in the five exhibits; at this point, we see only the five men, each one occupying an exhibit. There are no paper programs (you can access the program online), but there are labels with brief descriptions accompanying each exhibit, as well as binders on the benches (the kind you see at an art gallery, containing descriptions of the art). There are spaces to sit or stand in and around each exhibit; only the final exhibit is an enclosed room that we must peer into from the outside.

When May (Niki Landau) enters, we follow her on a series of vignettes from her life, unfolding over the course of a couple of years. What makes this journey remarkable is the art gallery layout of the space, where each exhibit contains a scene. Starting in May’s condo, where she lives with her husband Dan (Richard Ausar Stewart), we see her fretting over a bird that’s flown into their window and is now lying motionless on the balcony. She wants to save it and Dan thinks it should be euthanized. Clearly a lover of nature and animals, May longs for a garden and they ponder switching to a house.

We then follow May on a visit to her dad Duncan (David Schurmann) at a hospice. Here, we get a glimpse of a troubled childhood and a desire for a normal life. Hints of violence and a longing for connection continue during May’s trip to a hotel room to meet Internet hook-up Roy (Richard Lee); and flash again to the past, with warnings for the future, when she meets with her brother Denis (Jeff Lillico) in a park. In the final scene, May’s social worker Abel (Edmund Stapleton) has come by for a spot check; he’s monitoring the welfare her young son and makes extensive notes in order to report his findings.

7 Strangers Babies - Niki Landau and Ausar Stewart - Credit Neil Silcox
Richard Ausar Stewart & Niki Landau in Strangers, Babies—photo by Neil Silcox

Compelling work from the cast on this uniquely immersive production; each actor adeptly mining the opposing sides of their characters’ personalities. Landau is both heartbreaking and eerie as May, whose delicate, nervous and vulnerable personality and flat aspect both reveal and conceal a troubling inner turmoil. Stewart’s Dan is the perfect emotional foil; precise, fastidious and mildly patronizing, Dan is a loving and patient husband to his kind-hearted wife. Schurmann brings a cantankerous and regretful edge to Duncan’s fragility; confused by pain and age, and befuddled by morphine, Duncan lashes out with biting rage in his impatience—then melts into reminiscence and guilt as the drug takes hold.

Lee gives a complex performance as Roy, who like May, is in a passionless marriage and needs to step out to feel lusty excitement; his nervous awkwardness is a mask of repressed violent urges. Lillico’s Denis is both heart-wrenching and menacing; clearly a tortured soul and sharing in May’s horrific history, Denis is like a caged, scared animal growling out warnings. Stapleton’s Abel is affable, firm-handed and wary as he interviews May; a young social worker with a serious task at hand, he must balance respect for his client with a thorough examination of her situation—especially regarding the safety of her child.

Rage and calm, violence and tenderness. A life on display—each scene (exhibit) is a piece of May’s puzzle, played out across space and time. Ultimately, Strangers, Babies is profoundly human.

With shouts to the design team for their work on creating this fascinating and unique experience: Michael Gianfrancesco (set), Ming Wong (costume), Bonnie Beecher (lighting), Christopher Stanton (sound), Cameron Davis (video) and Kate Alton (movement).

The struggle for normalcy in the wake of a horrific past in the haunting, disturbing Strangers, Babies.

Strangers, Babies continues at the Artscape Sandbox till May 28; get advance tickets here. Advance booking strongly recommended due to the unique staging and popularity of this production.

Check out the trailer:

Shades of red & blue in the tapestry of interwoven lives in the beautiful, theatrical Of Human Bondage

Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann: Gregory Prest & Michelle Monteith in Of Human Bondage

 

It’s all in how a man carries himself.

Soulpepper opened its remount of Vern Thiessen’s stage adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage at the Young Centre on Thursday. Directed by Soulpepper A.D. Albert Schultz, this is Soulpepper’s third journey with this production—and I finally got out to see it last night, with a packed house that gave it a standing ovation.

Orphaned as a child and painfully self-conscious about his club foot, Philip Carey (Gregory Prest) is a somewhat reluctant medical student; once a painter, and with fond memories of his time in Paris, he got tired of being broke and chose to pursue a more lucrative career path. And that path takes a serious detour when he accompanies friend and classmate, the nervous virgin Dunsford (Paolo Santalucia), to a local tea shop. Dunsford hopes to woo pretty waitress Mildred (Michelle Monteith), who catches the eye of Philip and she goes with him instead.

While it’s clear to us that Mildred is game for any man of good prospect, it is sadly not to Philip, who goes from smitten to obsessed with a woman who does not share his feelings. Obsession turns to possession, turns to rage when Philip learns that she’s become engaged to Miller (Brendan Wall), another tea shop regular. Meanwhile, he’s been flunking his classes and in serious danger of washing out of med school, much to the dismay of his crusty but supportive professor Dr. Tyrell (Oliver Dennis).

With the help of artist pals, painter Lawson (Dennis) and poet Cronshaw (Stuart Hughes), Philip meets the lovely writer Norah (Sarah Wilson), who falls for him—but he not with her. He’s doing better at school, though, and befriends a patient, Thorpe Athelney (John Jarvis), who opens his home to Philip. Philip’s direction changes again upon the return of Mildred, pregnant and jilted. Leaving Norah behind to look after Mildred and her baby, he finds himself at risk of losing his place at med school due to outstanding tuition owing. Desperate to make some extra cash, he invests in the stock market, only to lose it all; then loses Mildred, again, to another classmate, the randy Griffiths (Jeff Lillico).

Hitting rock bottom, evicted from his apartment and kicked out of med school, Philip reconnects with Athelney and his family, including his sweet daughter Sally (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster). And throughout the love and loss, shifting careers—including fashion designer for New York darling of the stage Alice (Raquel Duffy)—and friends and lovers whose lives are connected with his own, he gradually comes to know himself. And finds his life.

Masterfully staged on a red square playing area, set pieces are wheeled in and out, props inventively choreographed, and sharp dramatic lighting highlights the environmental and emotional tone (Lorenzo Savoini, set and lighting design). The whole ensemble (also including Richard Lam) gets involved, portraying figures in paintings, and creating the haunting soundtrack, rollicking music hall ditties and evocative sounds of daily life (Mike Ross, composer and sound design)—all live, onstage in the wings, which are visible to the audience. And, like the Persian rug Cronshaw gives Philip, scenes and characters’ lives weave in and out of each other with beautiful, artistic precision.

Lovely, nuanced performances from the cast. Prest is both heartbreaking and heroic as the quiet, introspective Philip; childish at first in love—loving where he is not loved, and loved where he does not love back—he only comes to find real love and true meaning in life when he finds love for himself. Monteith is captivating and wily as Mildred; forced into opportunism by circumstance, as Philip is a slave to his passions, Mildred is a slave to survival. You may want to dislike Mildred for her cruel, calculated use of Philip, but then you realize that all choices are not created equal in a world divided by class and gender privilege.

Dennis and Hughes make a great pair as the cheeky Lawson and bacchanalian Cronshaw, Philip’s jovial artist friends. Dennis gives Lawson a sweet, concerned nurturing quality; and Hughes brings a gentle melancholy to Cronshaw’s party animal.

Wilson shines as the sharp-witted modern woman Norah; a lovely, supportive girlfriend to Philip, you really feel for her when you see her affections aren’t returned in kind. Lancaster is both tender and irreverent as the quiet socialist Sally; you find yourself hoping—maybe she’s the one.

Shades of red and blue in the tapestry of interwoven lives in the beautiful, theatrical Of Human Bondage.

Of Human Bondage continues in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre in Toronto’s Distillery District; book in advance online. Get yourself out to see it before the production heads to NYC, to The Pershing Square Signature Center in July for Soulpepper’s first New York season, along with Kim’s Convenience and Spoon River.

Check out the trailer for Of Human Bondage:

 

 

SummerWorks: Debating feminism & privilege in provocative, sharply funny Don’t Talk to Me Like I’m Your Wife

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Traitorous whore spy? Feminist? Sexually liberated opportunist?

The gloriously notorious Mata Hari gets look through 21st century eyes in Call Me Scotty Production’s premiere of Andrea Scott’s Don’t Talk to Me Like I’m Your Wife, directed by Andrew Lamb and opening last night in the Theatre Centre Mainspace as part of this year’s SummerWorks program.

Shifting back and forth between Mata Hari’s final hours in prison in 1917 and a university course on ‘Women Screwed Over by History’ in 2016, we see the famous erotic performer and accused spy from several points of view, both past and present.

On her last day in prison, Mata Hari’s (Kimwun Perehinec) is introduced to cellmate Hélène (Lisa Karen Cox), a young French-Senegalese woman in for prostitution who has been moved from another cell block. Instructed by Sister Leonide (Paula Wing) to keep Mata Hari occupied, Hélène knows that this section of the prison is for doomed prisoners. During Mata Hari’s final hours before execution, of which she is unaware, a young prison guard (Jeff Lillico) attempts to satisfy his curiosity about his celebrity prisoner as he takes her for a stroll in the prison grounds. After a failed attempt at converting Mata Hari, a professed Hindu, to Catholicism, Sister Leonide has a genuine heart-to-heart chat. In 2016, as university professor Christopher Locke (David Christo) prepares a lecture about Mata Hari, he gets into a heated debate with a black female student (Cox as Karen Sinclair) over the meaning of feminism and how it relates to Mata Hari.

The sharp, darkly funny and thought-provoking script is well-matched by an excellent cast. Perehinec does a lovely job with the resourceful and unapologetic Mata Hari (the stage name chose by Margaretha Geertruida “Margreet” MacLeod); mining the vulnerability, celebrity entitlement, cultural appropriation and buried memories of a woman who change her name and her life, she reveals the abused wife, loving mother and sexually liberated woman behind the stage name. Famous and infamous for her erotic performances, we see a woman who loves sex and longs to be loved; and who will do what she needs to do in order to survive. Cox is an excellent foil and debater, to Mata Hari (as Hélène) and to Locke (as Karen); fearlessly challenging and questioning preconceived notions with intelligence and edgy humour, tempered with a good-natured personality and a strong desire to have a real dialogue about the issues. Christo brings an easy-going, cool vibe to the forward-thinking, self-professed feminist Locke; he’s genuinely interested in women’s and minority rights, but struggles with a modern marriage arrangement that may be working against his interests, as well as present-day, budget and diversity-conscious hiring practices.

Wing is a delight as the feisty and commanding Sister Leonide; wily and worldlier than she appears, she has a kind heart beneath that take-charge exterior, as evidenced in a lovely two-hander scene with Perehinec. Lillico (a late addition to the cast when Christo suffered a cycling accident that impaired his mobility) does an excellent job with the young guard’s conflicting feelings about Mata Hari; both curious about and furious with her, an apparent crush takes a turn as he reveals his own heartache and loss.

No one is as they seem; and each character challenges our biases and preconceived notions of their social roles and life experiences. This is a play that will make you think about, as well as question, what you believe about gender, race, white privilege, inclusion, economics and power.

With shouts to set/costume designer Melanie McNeill for the opulent and exotic touches to an otherwise drab and Spartan prison setting.

Debating feminism, equality and privilege in the provocative, smart, sharply funny Don’t Talk to Me Like I’m Your Wife.

Don’t Talk to Me Like I’m Your Wife continues at the Theatre Centre Mainspace until Aug 14. Go see #thematahariplay

In the meantime, check out some interviews with playwright Scott by yours truly and this week’s cover story by NOW Magazine’s Glenn Sumi.