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

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Climbing out with humour & rage – Alumnae Theatre’s Rabbit Hole

Rabbit-Hole-website-bannerAlumnae Theatre Company closes its 2013-14 season with David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole, directed by Paul Hardy.
Set in the Larchmont, New York home of Becca and Howie, who recently lost their four-year-old son Danny in an accident, Rabbit Hole takes the audience down into a place of deep loss as we watch this couple live through it – with humour, intense struggle and bewildered rage.
Hardy has an excellent cast to tell this story. Paula Schultz gives a lovely layered performance as Becca, tightly wound and wounded, a sharp edge to her housewife cheer as she barely stifles her rage. Cameron Johnston does great work with Howie, who struggles to stay positive, proactively gain closure and have their lives return to some sense of normalcy as he walks on eggshells in his own home, missing the family dog who’s been banished to Becca’s mother’s house. Joanne Sarazen, as Becca’s younger sister Izzy, is hilariously goofy and irreverent, edgy and no-bullshit, tempered with empathy and protective impulses; peas in a pod with Sheila Russell’s Nat, Becca and Izzy’s mom – quirky, warm and raucous, and dealing with the less recent loss of an adult son. And really nice work from Christopher Manousos as Jason, the sensitive teenager with a creative soul and a kind nature, who comes into Becca and Howie’s lives in an unexpected and tragic way – torn between his own feelings and taking care with theirs.
And I have to shout out the design team here. Jacqueline Costa’s two-level set puts us perfectly in this prim and tidy upper middle class home, with its sunken living room – complete with reclaimed wood coffee table – and fully loaded kitchen, the top level set up as Danny’s still intact bedroom. Angus Barlow’s sound design, featuring original compositions, transports us to 2002, with its beats and electronic keys, as does Sara Brzozowski’s costume design, tailored bang-on to both time and character. Kudos, too, to the props team of Razie Brownstone and Tess Hendaoui, who – on top of the standard household props – had a food-heavy script, as well as a lot of child’s clothes and stuffed animals to come up with.
Alumnae Theatre’s Rabbit Hole is funny, moving and profoundly human.
Rabbit Hole continues its run on the mainstage until April 26, with performances tonight and tomorrow afternoon. Go see this.

Magic & mayhem in a small town – Alumnae Theatre’s The Killdeer

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A rural kitchen with lavender walls, wallpapered below the chair railing on one side and paneled with different cuts of wood on the other. An open doorway reveals a pantry, shelves full of mason jars of colourful preserves. Up centre, a tree sprouts, covered in all manner of porcelain knick-knacks – a tea pot, glass animals – instead of leaves. Through the window, a portion of it cut away, vines enter from the outside world, and we get the stage right view of white birches, giant bull rushes and the beginning of a glittering green swamp.

Marysia Bucholc’s set is the audience’s introduction to the world of the Alumnae Theatre Company’s production of James Reaney’s The Killdeer, directed by Barbara Larose, with assistant director Ellen Green, part of Alumnae’s “Countdown to 100” retrospective programming as it approaches its 100th anniversary (it’s 95 now). Reaney’s play, which came about due to the encouragement of late director and Alumnae member Pamela Terry, had its premiere at Alumnae in 1960 (back when it was located on Bedford Road) and was directed by Terry – and it launched Reaney’s career as a playwright.

In this seemingly quaint country town – part rural gothic, part fairy tale place – with a mysterious and violent history, this kitchen in the Gardner home is a whimsical oasis of innocence. Through prose that is at times vernacular, at others poetic, storytelling and gossip, The Killdeer takes us on an intense, dramatic – and at times magical – journey into the lives and secrets of its characters.

Like me, you may be asking, what the heck is a “killdeer”? The press release for the production provides a helpful definition: a killdeer is “a small bird, known for feigning a broken wing to draw predators away from its nest, which is built on open ground, and for calling out its own name.” Sound designer Rick Jones incorporates the call of the killdeer into the production, along with musical touches of whimsy, mystery and drama, inspired by the original production’s sound design by John Beckwith.

The Killdeer features a very strong cast. Tricia Brioux’s Madam Fay is a deliciously arch, darkly comic and dangerously crazy lady with issues, while Tricia’s real-life nephew Matt Brioux (playing Madam Fay’s son) rounds out Eli’s seemingly simple-minded, childlike behaviour with good sense and a good heart. Rob Candy does evil up good as Clifford, a notorious piece of work whose menacing character rivals even that of Madam Fay. As Mrs. Gardner, Anne Shepherd combines a sense of rural tradition and individual quirkiness as Harry’s bric-a-brack collecting, overprotective mother, while Marie Carrière Gleason is great fun as Mrs. Gardner’s gossipy neighbour Mrs. Budge. Paul Hardy offers a nice transition as Harry goes from wide-eyed innocent teenager to a good man searching to find his way and save the true love of his life; and Blythe Haynes is lovely as Rebecca, a lost innocent like Harry, protective of those she loves even to her own detriment. Naomi Vondell adds some nice layers of mystery to the put upon Jailer’s wife Mrs. Soper, left to manage the cells while her husband is away. In their multiple roles, Michael Vitorovich is delightfully evil as the Hangman and comically officious as the Judge; Joanne Sarazen is especially entertaining as the mercurial Crown attorney and Tina McCulloch – doing quadruple duty playing two characters, as well as marketing/publicity and co-producer – gives a nice comic turn as courthouse cleaning lady Mrs. Delta. Peter Higginson’s enigmatic physician turned hermit Dr. Ballad is both gently wise and sharply funny.

Razie Brownstone’s costumes, and prop team’s Tess Hendaoui and Deborah Roed detailed touches, make for a lovely combination of realism and once upon a time. And Ed Rosing’s lighting design ranges from the clever (the box-like light on the floor for the witness stand in the courtroom) and magical (the lighting on the swamp and the twinkley lights on the walls of the set that burst out into the back of the house). All held together by intrepid SM/lighting op Margot “Mom” Devlin and her ASM team. Shouts also to co-producer Lynne Patterson and opening night catering mistress Sandy Schneider – and to Suzanne Courtney at Ticking Time Bomb Productions for the graphic design work on the poster (and for the entire season).

This was one crazy trip. And The Killdeer leaves the audience talking.

The Killdeer runs on the Alumnae Theatre main stage until April 27, with a talkback following the April 21 matinée. In the meantime, check out this Hye’s Musings blog interview with director Barbara Larose.