Tea time at the end of the world in the surreal, intimate, unsettling Escaped Alone

Clockwise, from bottom left: Brenda Robins, Clare Coulter, Maria Vacratsis & Kyra Harper. Set & costume design by Teresa Przybylski. Lighting design by Jennifer Lennon. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper and Necessary Angel, with an all-female cast and production team, take us to the edge of calamity—in a suburban backyard where four 70-something neighbours chat over tea before the impending apocalypse—with the Canadian premiere of Caryl Churchill’s surreal, intimate and unsettling Escaped Alone, directed by Jennifer Tarver and running at the Young Centre.

Gathered in a backyard, Mrs. Jarrett (Clare Coulter), Vi (Brenda Robins), Lena (Kyra Harper) and Sally (Maria Vacratsis) share gossip, memories and catch up. There are children and grandchildren to update about, and changes to the landscape of local shops to recall and relay—especially for Vi, who’s been away for six years. And amidst the candid and intimate conversation, where one can finish another’s sentence and the short-hand is such that sentences sometimes don’t even need to be finished, each woman breaks out to share her inner world. Her fears, her regrets, her reminiscences.

It is in these moments that we see another side of these otherwise sociable, animated women. Mrs. Jarrett is a walking, talking 21st century Book of Revelations, in which the everyday and the terrifying combine in an absurd, horrific and dark-humoured alchemy. Vi, a hairdresser by trade, may or may not have killed her husband in self-defence; and, while Sally acknowledges the complexity of their situation, she has a different take on that fateful moment. Sally struggles with her own demons: her efficacy in her career as a health care professional and her fear of cats. And the sensitive Lena looks back on her life as an office worker with mixed feelings of vague, wistful regret and amazement at time flown by.

Told through a collage of conversation, memory, musings and peaks into these women’s interior lives, the mundanity and complexity of everyday life—juxtaposed with the absurdity of meeting over tea in the face of impending catastrophe—is both darkly funny and chilling. The uncertainty of what comes next—whether it’s impending calamity threatening the world at large or the aging mind in a life of transition—while these four women are gathered together in friendship, each faces her mortality alone.

Compelling, sharply drawn work from the ensemble, from Coulter’s grouchy, pragmatic Mrs. Jarrett; to Robins’ edgy, irreverent Vi; Harper’s nervous, child-like Lena; and Vacratsis’ earnest, uneasy Sally. Teresa Przybylski’s minimalist set combines four ordinary, but different, chairs with hundreds of white paper birds, frozen in murmuration, suspended above; and is nicely complemented by Verne Good’s understated, haunting sound design. The effect is magical, disturbing and ultimately theatrical.

Escaped Alone continues at the Young Centre until November 25. Get advance tickets online or call the box office: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

Check out the production teaser:

And have a look at this great Intermission piece by actor Maria Vacratsis, as told to Bailey Green.

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You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll sing along in your heart with the brilliant, hilarious & deeply poignant Stupidhead!

Katherine Cullen & Britta Johnson in Stupidhead!—photo by Michael Cooper

 

Better late than never to the party, as I finally got out to see Katherine Cullen and Britta Johnson’s SummerWorks hit Stupidhead! A Musical Comedy, directed by Aaron Willis—now in its final week in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Mainspace.

Written and performed by Cullen and Johnson, who also collaborated on the lyrics, with music by Johnson, Stupidhead! is a part musical, part stand-up, part personal storytelling journey of Cullen’s experience living with dyslexia.

Stupidhead! is Cullen’s childhood dream of being in a musical come true. And, despite her lack of training, experience and self-reported ability, she was determined to make it happen; and recruited her good friend Johnson to help her write the music. Johnson joins her onstage, accompanying her on piano and back-up vocals—reacting to Cullen’s performance throughout, sometimes cracking up along with the audience.

Pointing out that dyslexia affects people differently, Cullen has no trouble with reading and writing—and as a child enjoyed escaping into writing poetry, and stories about the adventures of a silly koala and rabbit. Diagnosed at a young age, Cullen relates her struggles with math, organizational skills and directions, finding herself mentally lost at school and physically lost in her own neighbourhood—and, above all, labelled. And that label put her in the position of having to deal with ignorance and lack of compassion from others, making her sense of otherness feel even more isolating and humiliating, and becoming a part of her identity.

Her anecdotes about trying to fit in are both hilarious and moving—from her grade three poetry contest nemesis (now a CFL football player), to being lost on her own street, to two weeks in a puppet camp in Vermont as a young adult and her love of Jesus Christ Superstar—all delivered with genuine feeling and gusto. While it’s a show about the “glamour of failure,” it’s also a show about throwing off the chains of shame and isolation. In the end, Cullen avoids tying it up neatly, but emerges from the darker moments of her experience into a place of hope and determination.

Stupidhead!
Katherine Cullen in Stupidhead!—photo by Michael Cooper

Cullen shines onstage. An engaging, genuine and charming performer, she’s gutsy and kick-ass, but also vulnerable and fragile. As she schools us on dyslexia, she gives us the straight goods about what it’s like to live inside her head. And she gives ‘er with the music, putting her all into performing the songs, from belted out numbers to gentle, heartfelt ballads. She and Johnson make a terrific duo. Johnson is pretty damn funny herself; and there’s a lovely tender moment of compassion and understanding between them that rings with friendship and love. And their anthem of “don’t give up!” brought tears to my eyes.

With big shouts to set designer Anahita Dehbonehie and lighting designer Jennifer Lennon for the cool and beautiful neurosciencey environment.

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll sing along in your heart with the brilliant, hilarious and deeply poignant Stupidhead!

Stupidhead! continues in the TPM Mainspace, closing on Apr 2; book in advance online or call 416-504-7529. Check out Hallie Seline’s interview with Cullen and Johnson for In the Greenroom.

And here’s the trailer:

 

 

SummerWorks: A compelling morality tale of modern-day slavery in Better Angels: A Parable

Akosua Amo-Adem in Better Angels - A Parable
Akosua Amo-Adem in Better Angels – A Parable

I first had the pleasure of seeing Andrea Scott’s Better Angels: A Parable in an early production at the 2014 New Ideas Festival, so I was excited to see how the piece had evolved for the SummerWorks production, directed by Nigel Shawn Williams and currently running at the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Backspace.

Akosua Mansa (Akosua Amo-Adem) is a young woman from Ghana who moves to Toronto to work as a nanny/maid in the home of Leila (Sascha Cole) and Greg Tate (Peyson Rock). Wide-eyed with excitement over her new job, the prospect of living in a new place and her first plane ride, Akosua welcomes this change and adventure in her life. Leila and Greg are friendly and welcoming – with Leila fastidiously in charge of the household; she’s left her corporate job to work on a novel, and the house must run like clockwork. Greg is low maintenance by comparison, if not a bit clueless about the household routine, and often working after hours – and we come learn that he has other things occupying his mind. Soon, though, Akosua finds things are not so easy-going in the Tate house, as she finds herself working without pay for several months, then having to choose between getting paid and going home for a visit during the Christmas holiday (which, as a Muslim, she doesn’t celebrate). And Leila successfully manages to manipulate day-to-day activities so Akosua has no unaccompanied access to the outside world – and she’s taken possession of Akosua’s passport. Rather than wallow in her misfortune, Akosua uses her intellect and power of observation to turn her situation around.

Williams and Scott (who both also provide voice-overs for the play) have assembled an outstanding cast for this production. Amo-Adem is a delight as Akosua, giving us a young woman embarking on a great adventure who is animated and excited, yet solidly possessing of strength and resolve. This exuberant young woman is no push-over; she may be new to her position and to Canada, but she is nobody’s fool, and unapologetically asserts her rights when she finds herself being cheated of freedom and wages. Cole does a lovely job with Leila’s complex layers; tightly wound and controlling, and extremely entitled, but desperately lonely – and with a jealous streak. She does a remarkable job with the backhand compliments and ethno-cultural faux pas, which serve to highlight that, while Leila is interested in – and even attracted to (Greg is half black) – the black community and culture, she views it as “other” and sees black people as stereotypical “exotic” creatures, and has little to no respect for, or understanding of, their history and lived experience. Rock does an amazing job conveying the multifaceted aspects of Greg; he is largely absent from his marriage and has a laissez faire attitude towards the household – his interest in the goings-on in his home only piqued when he feels his position is threatened. Beneath the affable, good-natured, hard-working husband exterior is a man squirming with inner conflict and secret passions.

Better Angels: A Parable is nicely bookended, with Akosua’s personal anecdote at the top of the play about a getting a childhood lesson in the unfairness of the world, and her closing piece of storytelling about the West African spider god Anansi turning the tables on Death.

With shouts to the set (Laura Gardner, who also designed costumes) and lighting (Jennifer Lennon) designers for the beautiful and evocative spider theme used in this production. The yellow fabric placed web-like floor to ceiling and along the floor, and the lighting effect on the wall of Akosua’s tiny attic room – all in all, highly effective and imaginative design and staging for this production, especially on so small a playing space.

Better Angels: A Parable is a compelling morality tale of modern-day slavery and a young woman’s action to regain her freedom.

Better Angels: A Parable continues at the TPM Backspace until Aug 16 – check here for exact dates and times. Advance booking or early arrival at the box office strongly recommended – they had a full house at yesterday’s performance.