Dangerous desires, conflicting memories & a questionable verdict in Village Players’ dark, haunting Tainted Justice

Katherine Anne Fairfoul, Chris O’Bray & Rob McMullan. Set design by Alexis Chub. Costume design by Livia Pravato-Fuchs. Lighting design by Jamie Sample. Photo by Dave A. Fitzpatrick.


Did an American drifter or family secrets kill the town innkeeper? The Village Players opened their production of Don Nigro’s Tainted Justice, directed by Victoria Shepherd, at their home in the Village Playhouse last night.

Set mostly in 1914 Cape Breton, Tainted Justice criss-crosses time and space, taking us through memory and past events to such varied places as the Klondike and Winnipeg in the years leading up to 1914. Estranged from her mother Tena (Katherine Anne Fairfoul) and uncle Bill (Rob Candy), Pearl (Jess L. Callaghan) returns home to Cape Breton looking for answers. Haunted by the events surrounding her innkeeper father Ben’s (Dennis Mockler) death, Pearl is determined to learn the truth—especially regarding evidence brought to light during the subsequent trial against the inn’s American guest Frank (Chris O’Bray), who was defended by Pearl’s cousin Jim (Andrew Batten), a local celebrity lawyer. Frank was found guilty and executed. What was the nature of her mother’s relationship with the accused? And who was really responsible for her father’s death?

Through a series of conversations, moments and witness stand testimony, we learn that Frank wasn’t a stranger to Bill or Tena when he arrived in Cape Breton. But there are conflicting accounts of when and where they met him—and the coincidences of Frank just happening to meet up with them in various locations across the U.S. and Canada are dubious to say the least. As the story unfolds, we see a seedy, dark underbelly emerge among this close-knit family in this quiet town—revealing hidden suspicions, and hinting at forbidden relationships and dangerous desires. Only Jim’s quiet, sweet wife Maudie (Peta Mary Bailey) and the calm, steady Crown prosecutor Hearn (Rob McMullan) seem to be immune from the dark influences of lust and family loyalty at all costs.

Andrew Batten & Peta Mary Bailey. Set design by Alexis Chub. Costume design by Livia Pravato-Fuchs. Lighting design by Jamie Sample. Photo by Dave A. Fitzpatrick.

This play has everything: greed, lust, murder, family secrets. And Shepherd and the cast do a great job weaving past and present, memory and dream, and complex relationships in this true Canadian crime drama. Stand-outs include Batten’s cocky but amiable Jim; a gifted defender and eloquent orator, Jim’s drinking habit and laissez-faire approach to life mask a deeply troubled soul. O’Bray does a lovely job, both charming us and keeping us guessing about Frank; a mercurial, cheeky and well-read man with a flair for storytelling, Frank is a teller of tall tales at best and a con man at worst. A drifter and opportunist with a non-violent criminal record and at least four wives back in the States, like Jim says, Frank’s not the kind of guy you’d want marrying your sister. But is he a murderer?

Fairfoul’s Tena is a seductive cypher, also keeping us on our toes. Intelligent and beautiful, Tena is an ambitious businesswoman whose deepest desires run beyond real estate. There’s an edgy desperate housewife vibe and a dark air mystery about her. Did she bewitch Frank into doing her bidding? And Candy’s Bill is a complex combination of affable generosity and raging jealousy. Bill clearly loves his sister Tena very much and would do anything for her, including introducing her to the man who would become her husband (the murdered innkeeper Ben). But what exactly is the nature of that relationship—and are those feelings mutual?

With shouts to the design team for their work on bringing the past and present worlds of this haunting period crime drama to life on the small Village Playhouse stage: Alexis Chubb (set), Livia Pravato-Fuchs (costume), Jamie Sample (lighting) and John Stuart Campbell (sound and music composition). And to director Shepherd for orchestrating the multiple interwoven scenes and relationships as the characters traverse time and place.

Tainted Justice continues at the Village Playhouse until March 24. Advance tickets available online or by calling 416-767-7702. In the meantime, be sure to check out the promo video on the show page, featuring director Victoria Shepherd.



Love, revenge & calculated cruelty in the sexy, darkly funny & tragic Les Liaisons Dangereuses


Renee Cullen (Merteuil) & Chris Coculuzzi (Valmont) – photos by Dave Fitzpatrick

Amicus Productions opened its 2016-17 season with Christopher Hampton’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, directed by Victoria Shepherd, at the Todmorden Mills Papermill Theatre last night.

An edgy, erotic, sometimes chilling story of manipulation, desire and social gamesmanship, Amicus’s production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses plays out on a traditional proscenium stage, complete with drawn curtains, on a minimalist but gorgeous chess-inspired set (Alexis Chubb), with stunning period costume and wigs (Lindsay Forde), and sound design that includes original compositions (John Stuart Campbell, ft. Vivien Shepherd on vocals).

The Marquise de Merteuil (Renée Cullen) wants revenge against a former lover, and turns to another former lover, the notorious Vicomte de Valmont (Chris Coculuzzi), with a plan for him to seduce the man’s intended fiancée, the young Cécile Volange (Christina Leonard). In exchange, Merteuil promises Valmont a night of passion. Valmont has seduction plans of his own, however; he intends to bed the pious, loyal and married Présidente de Tourvel (Melanie Leon), a woman equally famous for her virtue as he is for his vice.

When his plans at his aunt’s home (Mme de Rosemond, played by Jenn Keay) are foiled by Cecile’s mother Mme de Volange (Kerrie Lamb), Valmont decides to go along with Merteuil’s plan, as the two also conspire to assist Cécile in her secret romance with the young Chevalier Danceny (Conor Ling). Meanwhile, Valmont has set his man servant Azolan (Andrew Batten) to spy on Tourvel, via his relationship with her maid; all this while paying regular visits to his favourite courtesan Émilie (Lindsay Forde). Constantly put off by Merteuil, Valmont goes to great lengths to procure payment for his services to her – and finds himself tangled in his own web.

Cullen and Coculuzzi are nicely matched as Merteuil and Valmont, who are both cunning as cats and master manipulators. Cullen’s Merteuil is coldly beautiful and ruthless; a woman tired of the second-class status afforded to her sex, she’s learned to take power by making pawns of those around her. Coculuzzi is diabolically charming and witty as Valmont; a sexy beast who’s gained notoriety as a callous rake (i.e., heartbreaking man whore), Valmont enjoys the game – but, unlike Merteuil, he’s more about the chase than the kill. As Tourvel, Leon brings a lovely sense of conflict and repressed lust; a gentle, pious soul, she is drawn to Valmont – and as much as she fights her feelings, she can’t help but succumb to the burgeoning passion between them. Some remarkable two-hander scenes, particularly in Act II, between Merteuil and Valmont (war) and Valmont and Tourvel (beyond my control).

Chris Coculuzzi (Valmont) & Melanie Leon (Tourvel)

Leonard gives Cécile a great combination of wide-eyed innocence and insatiable lust; schooled by Valmont, she learns things that aren’t taught to nice young ladies. And Ling’s Danceny is adorably awkward and proper; on the brink of manhood, he is innocent and naïve – and he too learns a thing or two.

Excellent work from the supporting cast: Lamb’s prim and trusting Mme de Volange; Batten’s wry-witted and resourceful Azolan; Keay’s wise and kind Mme de Rosemonde, who’s onto more than you might think; Forde’s good times party girl Émilie; and Jeff Burke gives a nice turn as the Major-Domo, who’s seen so much and says so little.

Love, revenge and calculated cruelty in the sexy, darkly funny and tragic Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses continues at the Papermill Theatre until Nov 19; check here for ticket purchase/info or call 416-860-6176.

You can keep up with Amicus Productions on Twitter and Facebook.

Casual cruelty & family secrets in ferociously funny, devastatingly poignant August: Osage County

Marie Carriere Gleason (foreground), with Paul Cotton, Kelly-Marie Murtha, Melinda Jordan, Pearl Ho & Andrew Batten – photos by Bruce Peters

Alumnae Theatre Company cordially invites you to attend a family gathering at the home of Beverly and Violet Weston in Pawhuska, Oklahoma.

Alumnae opened its production of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County on the mainstage last night. Directed by Victoria Shepherd and featuring a talented ensemble, this is family dysfunction at its grittiest, no holds barred best.

When the Weston family patriarch (Thomas Gough) goes missing, middle daughter Ivy (Andrea Lyons) – the only child who stayed in town – rallies the family around her ailing mother Violet (Marie Carriere Gleason). Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Carol McLennan) and husband Charlie (Rob Candy) are the first to arrive, and we get a sense of the estrangement that underpins the family dynamic. The Weston’s oldest daughter Barbara (Kelly-Marie Murtha) is the most wanted – but least wanting – to be there; she arrives from Colorado with husband Bill (Paul Cotton) and 14-year-old daughter Jean (Melinda Jordan) in tow. Add to this mix youngest Weston girl Karen (Kathleen Jackson Allamby) and fiancé Steve (Chris Peterson), and cousin Little Charles (Neil Cameron), and the family circus is complete – occasionally witnessed from the outside by housekeeper/caregiver Johnna (Pearl Ho) and Sheriff Deon Gilbeau (Andrew Batten). The atmosphere becomes rife with nostalgia (for better or worse), secrets and schemes as things fall apart and come together only to fall apart again and again.

Marie Carriere Gleason & Andrea Lyons

Nice work all around from this large, engaging cast. The play runs two and a half hours, plus intermission, but doesn’t feel like it. The Weston family women anchor this story – and the cast is particularly strong here. Gleason’s Violet is a complex puzzle of illness, addiction and survivor; quick to offer unsolicited – and decidedly not feminist – advice to the women in her life, her brutal honesty is shockingly unforgiving. Moments of manipulation and Hollywood-calibre drama queen can turn (seemingly) into flashes of genuine tenderness. Lyons gives a lovely, multi-layered performance as the put-upon Ivy; a character that could easily become a one-dimensional family doormat, she pushes back with a sharp wit and dark sense of humour. She has a pure heart and the patience of a saint, but as the main butt of her mother’s criticism, even she has her limits. Murtha’s Barbara is the picture of a woman on the edge, struggling with a complex set of emotions as her whole world is crumbling around her. The family rock, she strives to keep things together even as she’s falling apart herself – by turns angry, exasperated, protective and acerbically funny, putting out one fire as another appears. Allamby’s Karen is a beautiful contradiction; a high-energy chatterbox, Karen strives for self-awareness and adulthood, but comes off as flakey and deluded, with a poignant, child-like quality to her rose-coloured family nostalgia, born of selective memory. McLennan’s Mattie Fae, like her sister Violet, is a complex woman of contradiction – as cruel in her judgemental criticism (in her case, aimed at her son Little Charles) as she is fiercely protective of her family, including her son. And Jordan brings a precocious, wise child edge to Jean; a self-possessed young film buff coming into herself as she deals with her parents’ relationship issues.

Pearl Ho & Thomas Gough

Other stand-outs include Gough’s wry-witted, melancholy alcoholic Beverly; a lauded poet and academic at the end of his rope, we only see him at the top of the play, but his presence resonates and stays with us. Batten brings an understated, quiet and boyish bashfulness and sense of anticipation to the Sheriff, a former beau of Barbara’s. And Peterson’s Steve is both charming and skeevy; a smooth operator under that sweet, helpful exterior.

It’s like watching a train wreck – and you can’t look away. The high drama of this family gathering is tempered by sharp-edged, dark humour – which the family uses for both self-protection and sniper attacks – and occasional moments of genuine, loving connection. Nothing brings out a family’s true colours like tragedy.

With shouts to set designer Alexis Chubb’s minimalist, multi-level set, with its inventive and effective multiple playing areas and nooks for the various family vignettes. And to John Stuart Campbell for the sound design and original composition; his song “Can’t Run Far Enough” features vocals by Vivien Shepherd and Ron Smith on harmonica – and haunting, wistful western sounds.

Casual cruelty and family secrets abound in Alumnae’s ferociously funny, devastatingly poignant production of August: Osage County.

August: Osage County continues on the Alumnae mainstage until April 23; check here for ticket purchase/info. Performances include a pre-show chat with the design team at noon tomorrow (Sun, Apr 10); and a post-show talkback with the cast and crew on Sun, Apr 17.

Related trivia/info: Former Alumnae President (and damn fine actor) Dinah Watts is in a London Community Players’ production of August: Osage County in London, ON right now. Lett’s first play Killer Joe is in production at Coal Mine Theatre till April 24 (I’m seeing it on Tuesday). And founder/playwright at Cue6 Theatre Sarah Illiatovitch-Goldman (who was in Alumnae’s production of Wit, and has play We Three running now at Tarragon) is on the Steppenwolf Theater Company’s literary team for the world premiere of Letts’ play Mary Page Marlowe.

Oh yeah, and here’s the awesome trailer for the Alumnae production of August: Osage County (video by Nicholas Porteous):


Titanic mystery & intrigue in Amicus Productions’ haunting, twisting Scotland Road

scotland road deck chair!Amicus Productions explores the romance, mystery and tragedy of the Titanic in its production of Jeffrey Hatcher’s Scotland Road, directed by Victoria Shepherd.

“The Titanic – a symbol of arrogance, glamour and tragedy – has captured the imagination and passion of generations … Scotland Road tells the story of a passion so powerful that it transcends time and logic, completing a journey that was started over one hundred years ago.” – Victoria Shepherd (from the Scotland Road press release)

This is a perfect play for director Shepherd, a Titanic aficionado with a wealth of knowledge about the subject and a great love of storytelling. The “Scotland Road” of the play’s title refers to the lower-deck passageway that ran the length of the RMS Titanic. The cast does a lovely job handling the layers of these characters – like the enigmatic young woman, rescued as she floated in period dress on a piece of ice in the north Atlantic, each has his or her own mystery, and even a secret or two.

West McDonald is aloof, arrogant and entitled as John, with a touch of ruthlessness and cruelty – or is it something else? Laura Vincent takes the mystery-shrouded Woman from a mute, statue-like victim to a haunted, dreamy and passionate survivor. As the Woman’s medical caregiver, Anne McDougall gives us a Halbrech with compassion and empathy, protective of her young patient, with a decidedly tough and irreverent edge. As the last living Titanic survivor Frances Kittle, Paulette St-Amour brings a wry-witted, no-nonsense attitude to a seemingly frail and elderly recluse. But no one is as he or she seems.

Big shouts to a fabulous design team – Alexis Chubb (set), Emily Haig (costumes) and Jamie Sample (lighting) – whose work creates a world that’s time-trippy and eerie, the sterile and sparsely furnished set bringing to mind a piece of modern, utilitarian architecture, an iceberg and even the Titanic itself. And to master carpenter Brent Shepherd for the gorgeous replica first class deck chair (made of oak and pictured in the set photo at the beginning of this post), and sound designer/composer John Stuart Campbell for the evocative and haunting original soundtrack (give a listen to the song “Take Me Down”).

A family affair production, the soundtrack also includes voice-over and backup vocals from the Shepherds’ daughter Vivien, with additional voice-over work from Christien Shepherd, and young family friends Oliver and Finn Scott.

So much goes on during the course of this long one-act “metaphysical fairytale” (thanks to Victoria Shepherd for this phrase) that just when you think you’ve figured it out and can see where it’s going, it takes another turn. Then it’s over. And so quickly.

Check out the trailer for Scotland Road.

But wait – there’s more!

Artist Matt Chapman exhibits his Titanic-themed canvasses and plays music from onboard the ship before each performance. Read about Chapman’s first solo exhibit.

Scotland Road runs at the Papermill Theatre at Todmorden Mills until February 8. Check the Amicus website for exact dates, times and ticket reservations.