FireWorks Festival: Fairy tale favourites collide with a contemporary feminist twist in the hilariously charming, bawdy If the Shoe Fits

 

Erik Mrakovcic & Marina Gomes. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Margaret Spence. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Bruce Peters.

 

Alumnae Theatre launches the final week of its FireWorks Festival with Genevieve Adam’s If the Shoe Fits, directed by Heather Keith—opening last night in Alumnae’s Studio Theatre. Fairy tale favourites collide, with a contemporary feminist twist, in this hilariously charming, bawdy deconstructed Cinderella story—and an inside look at what really happens after the “happily ever after”.

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Chris Coculuzzi & Erik Mrakovcic. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Margaret Spence. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Bruce Peters.

Hosted by our glittering Narrator (Eugenia De Jong, with a twinkle in her eye and an arch in her brow) as she interacts with both audience and characters, we’re introduced to the intrepid Sir Eglantine (Chris Coculuzzi), who’s been tasked by the Prince to find the young maiden who fits the pretty size 7 glass shoe that was left behind at the ball. He’s been at it for over two years with no success, and is at his wit’s end—until he learns of a simple pig farmer Ned (Erik Mrakovcic) who has a sister that he believes may be the one. Having raised his sister and run the family farm since they were orphaned as children, Ned is incredulous at first—especially as his sister is a rough and tumble kind of gal—but the possibility of a life of wealth and comfort for Nora (Marina Gomes), and a plumb position as the Royal Hog Supplier, convinces him to let Sir Eglantine try. And the shoe fits!

Meanwhile, at court, Felicite (Sophie McIntosh), Amandine (Jennifer Fahy) and Virginie (Chantale Groulx) share laughs and woes over a good sisterly bitch session (think Desperate Housewives of the French Court); all have either neglectful or beastly husbands, and all are engaged in affairs to varying degrees—in some cases, for economic survival.

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Jennifer Fahy, Sophie McIntosh & Chantale Groulx. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Margaret Spence. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Bruce Peters.

Upon his arrival at court with Ned and Nora, Sir Eglantine finds himself in hot water with Virginie after sending no word while he was away for over two years. Amandine has her eye on some fresh meat: Ned, who has also recently been fitted with some fancy court clothes (big shouts to costume designer Margaret “The Costumator” Spence for the stunning—and surprising—period wardrobe). Felicite is charged with training Nora to be a lady, with hilarious results as Nora navigates court fashion, manners and deportment. Enter a young court violinist (Mark McKelvie), who is not all he seems, who has been watching Nora with great interest. Plots, plans and unexpected alliances ensue; and even the Narrator seems at a loss about what to do. Will tattered marriages be mended—and will the Prince have his mystery sweetheart for his wife?

Excellent work from the ensemble in this fast-paced, sharply funny fairy tale for modern times that incorporates issues of gender, class, marriage and consent in candid, provocative ways. Coculuzzi rounds out Sir Eglantine’s loyal, fastidious sense of duty with a soft, romantic heart; this plays nicely against Groulx’s sharp-tongued, cynical and pragmatic Virginie, a desperate, neglected wife and mother who longs for love and security. Mrakovcic gives an amiable, but opportunistic, turn as the homespun pig farmer Ned, who has quite the eye-opening when he becomes Amandine’s boy toy; putting the shoe on the other foot, so to speak. Fahy is deliciously arch and saucy as Amandine; as experienced in the ways of love as she is in revenge, Amandine is tougher than her powdered, ribboned exterior would suggest. Gomes is extremely likeable and feisty as the rough, independent Nora; with a Puck-like agility and sense of irreverent fun, Nora plays along with her courtly transformation—but finds she’s got a big decision to make. McIntosh infuses Felicite’s poignant sweetness with a determined sense of resolve and virtue, even when she’s in doubt of what to do. And McKelvie gives the ridiculously handsome and adorably awkward Prince a boyish naiveté; entitled and sheltered, the Prince has no idea about the world outside the castle, especially when it comes to meeting women.

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Mark McKelvie. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Margaret Spence. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Bruce Peters.

The knights and princes who save the damsels, or use the damsels save them from themselves, or find the mysterious girl who fits the shoe she at the ball, all feel entitled to own these women through marriage—all the while calling it “true love”. But who says the women were in distress, or wanted to save a cursed man from himself, or marry a prince?

The shoe may fit, but she doesn’t have to wear it.

If the Shoe Fits continues in the Alumnae Studio Theatre until November 24; get tickets online, by calling 416-364-4170 (ext. 1) or in-person at the box office one hour before curtain time (cash only). There will be a post-show talkback with the director, playwright and cast following the Saturday, November 23 matinée performance.

 

Women’s stories across the ages in the sharp-witted, illuminating & timely Top Girls

Jordi O’Dael (Gret), Jennifer Fahy (Patient Griselda), Charlotte Ferrarei (Pope Joan), Alison Dowling (Marlene), Lisa Lenihan (Isabella Bird), Tea Nguyen (Lady Nijo). Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Bec Brownstone. Lighting design by Jay Hines. Projection design by Madison Madhu. Photo by Bruce Peters.

 

Alumnae Theatre Company opened its timely, updated production of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls last night, directed by Alysa Golden, assisted by DJ Elektra. Sharp-witted, illuminating and theatrical, Top Girls is a both an observation and commentary of women’s lived experiences across the ages. Written in 1982 and given a contemporary framing in this production, it’s both funny and sad how little has changed for women in terms of opportunity, oppression, and the expectations of the spaces they occupy and the roles they play—a timely undertaking in the age of #MeToo and #timesup.

We open on a fantasy dinner party, hosted by Marlene (Alison Dowling), who is celebrating her promotion at the Top Girls employment agency. Her guests include the fastidious Victorian world traveller Isabella Bird (Lisa Lenihan); 13th century Japanese concubine and material girl Lady Nijo (Tea Nguyen); Gret, the coarse, lusty subject of Breughel painting “Dulle Griet” (Jordi O’Dael); the esoteric, philosophical Pope Joan (Charlotte Ferrarei); and the unquestioningly obedient Griselda, from Chaucer’s “The Clerk’s Tale” (Jennifer Fahy). The women share stories of love, marriage, motherhood, travel, oppression and hardship as they eat, drink and descend into drunken stupor.

Shifting into present day, we meet Marlene’s niece Angie (Rebekah Reuben), who lives in the country with her mother, Marlene’s sister Joyce (Nyiri Karakas), and spends most of her time with best friend Kit (Naomi Koven), who is several years younger. More than just a handful of a teenager, Angie is troubled, young for her age, and adrift in her life; mistrusting and disrespecting of her mother, she dreams of getting away and learning the truth about herself.

We get a glimpse of the Top Girls employment agency, populated by female recruiters, the office abuzz with Marlene’s upcoming move to her own office and greater things. Not everyone is thrilled, however, and a male colleague’s wife Mrs. Kidd (Lenihan) pays a visit to protest his being passed over. Marlene’s colleagues Win (Claire Keating) and Nell (Grace Thompson) interview prospective recruits— including a couple of ambitious, vague 20-somethings (April Rebecca) and an overlooked, undervalued 40-something (Peta Mary Bailey). Angie arrives on the scene, having gone AWOL from home and inviting herself to stay at Marlene’s.

Jumping a year into the past, Marlene visits Joyce and Angie—tricked by Angie with an invitation that supposedly came from Joyce. The family dynamic of estrangement between the estranged sisters comes into focus, as does a life-changing family secret.

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Naomi Koven (Kit), Nyiri Karakas (Joyce). Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Bec Brownstone. Lighting design by Jay Hines. Projection design by Madison Madhu. Photo by Bruce Peters.

Lovely work all around from this considerable, all-female cast, with several actors playing multiple characters. Stand-outs include Dowling as the sharp, bold and unapologetic Marlene, who’s executed some major shifts in her life to get where she is, in spite of the naysaying and resentment from family and male colleagues. Reuben is both exasperating and poignant as the immature, lost Angie; like her mother, we come to worry for her future—she can’t hide out and play in the backyard with her little friend Kit (played with sweet, wise child energy by Koven) forever. Karakas brings a home-spun rural edge to the gruff, worn-out Joyce; unlike Marlene, who couldn’t get out of town fast enough, Joyce stayed in their hometown to raise Angie.

Keating and Thompson make a great pair as the gossipy, snippy and ambitious Top Girls recruiters, interviewing their respective prospects with the impervious attitude of entitled gate keepers. And O’Dael brings both great comedy and drama as Gret, with her hearty appetite, lust for life and hair-raising tale of her campaign against the demons of Hell.

Golden’s theatrical, multimedia staging is both technically effective and dramatically compelling, as scenes shift from fantasy to reality, and present to past—Teodoro Dragonieri’s set largely constructed from doors, an apt image for the production. Scene changes feature a spritely young Dancer (a confident, mischievous and willowy Estella Haensel); and Viv Moore’s elegant, expressive choreography is playfully and tenderly accompanied by Richard Campbell’s sound design. Projected backgrounds (projection design by Madison Madhu) mark the change of space and passage of time, form urban to rural, and light to dark.

While the lives, times and stories of these women vary dramatically, crossing a broad range of lived experience, the themes of class, female identity and male entitlement emerge as common threads. The more things change, the more they stay the same. It is comic in its tragedy that, in 2019, half of the world’s population is still held back, to varying—and sometimes violent and criminal—degrees, from achieving its full potential. On the upside, we see these women persevere and push back—breaking rules and shattering expectations to thrive and live their dreams.

Top Girls continues this weekend on the Alumnae mainstage until February 2; get tickets online, by calling 416-364-4170 (ext. 1) or in-person at the box office one hour before curtain time (cash only).

The run includes a pre-show Panel “Women, Power and Success in the Age of Me Too” on January 24 at 6:30 pm; and a post-show talkback with the director and cast on January 27.

Check out the trailer by Nicholas Porteous:

 

Department of corrections: The original post misnamed the lighting designer as Jan Hines in the two photo credits; it’s actually Jay Hines. This has been corrected.