Toronto Fringe: The cult of selfism & celebrity in the sharply hilarious, satirical, eerie Wagon Play

Brendan Kinnon, Jonathan Walls, Katherine Cappellacci, Emma Banigan, Alexis Gontan, Lindsey Middleton & Brandon Gillespie. Photo by Owen Fawcett.

 

Are you living your truth?

Amber Moon and her followers invite you to join them for The Way’s special Resetting Ceremony in Theatre By Committee’s production of Ben Hayward’s Wagon Play. Directed by Hayward and Owen Fawcett, the play runs at Majlis Art Garden as part of Toronto Fringe.

Tired of playing the mall and county fair circuit, former pop idol Amber Moon (Emma Banigan) found her truth within herself, then founded The Way—an organization that guides members to discover and live their truth—comprised of seven levels of truth actualization. Leading up to the Resetting Ceremony, members at various levels along their journey (Katherine Cappellacci, Brandon Gillespie, Alexis Gontan, Brendan Kinnon, Lindsey Middleton and Jonathan Walls) compete for the prize of levelling up (rising up a level) as they each present a personal celebrity icon to prove their mastery over one of the six freedoms from: Humility, History, Apology, Culture War, Group Think and Moral Slavery.

It’s a selfie-taking, Instagram/social media-loving, self-absorbed world with the Mooners; and holding their celebrity inspiration (a TV/reality show dynasty, several music stars, a tech god and even a politician we love to hate) as dearly as any god, they are determined—and even desperate—to succeed and better their status within the organization. As they travel the country recruiting new members, they especially want to be held in high esteem by Amber, who rules the group with her charismatic presence, peppered with cutting honesty, manipulation and conditional love.

With highly engaging, committed and vulnerable performances, the ensemble brings us eerie shades of Scientology, greeting us as new members as we enter the garden and prepare for Amber’s arrival. Entering like a rock star, Banigan’s Amber Moon takes control and space; the human embodiment of the six freedoms The Way espouses. It’s unsettling and compelling at the same time; repulsive and fascinating—yet, like witnessing the train wreck of a dysfunctional family reality show, we can’t turn away. Who will the leader bless with the granting of a higher level tonight?

Wagon Play continues at Majlis Art Garden until July 15; check the show page for exact dates and times. It’s an intimate space and they sold out last night, so advance booking is strongly recommended.

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Love, death and the magic of the theatre in wistful, otherworldly then, then.

Jonathan Walls & Nicholas Surges in then, then. - photo by Jonathan Harvey
Jonathan Walls & Nicholas Surges in then, then. – photo by Jonathan Harvey

A community theatre becomes more than an artistic refuge in Messy Kween Collective’s premiere of Kyle Capstick’s then, then. – directed by Evan Harkai and running at Majlis Art Garden (163 Walnut Avenue).

Part indoors/part outdoors, Majlis Art Garden is a magical place all on its own – and it’s been transformed into a community theatre space for then, then., with audience placed along two sides of the playing area (onstage and off) and the house tented along the sides with white silky fabric, reminiscent of a parachute, and a protective tarp above. The sounds of Billie Holiday fill the space during the pre-show, as our eyes adjust to the fading natural light around us.

As then, then. unfolds, a rehearsal for a new play about a pair of star-crossed lovers becomes a backdrop for personal exploration and revelations as the players practice their craft and explore their inner demons and desires amidst the intermittent, menacing noise of aircraft above. The vintage pop music and sounds of planes overhead (identified as “friendly” or “enemy”), coupled with the costuming (40s for the actors within the play, using Elizabethan costumes for the play they’re rehearsing) give a WWII flavour, but there’s an otherworldly, alternate universe quality to the play that defies time and place. The effect is a curious combination of disorienting and fascinating, and places the focus on the characters, and their memories and responses to events they witness and in which they participate.

Lovely work from the cast in this raw, visceral work – each tapping into his/her vulnerability to bring heart-on-sleeve emotions to the fore. As the company’s director Jack, Jamie Johnson gives a kind, gentle performance; extremely protective of the group, especially his young nephew and ward Brian, Jack soldiers on despite feeling his age as he struggles with his own fears – of safety and of being too old for love. Madeleine Brown is adorably rambunctious as the bright, imaginative, plane-loving Brian; he notices and understands things beyond his years, and reveals them with the earnest frankness of a child. Karie Richards gives a compelling performance as Miriam, a woman of a certain age, and intimidating in her seriousness and professionalism; possessing of a quick, wry wit, she doesn’t suffer fools (or ingenues) gladly, and she has the haunted edge of loss about her, concealing a big heart. Is it just her youth she mourns or is there something else?

Michelle Lewis is lovely as the ingenue Abigail; playful, even coquettish, she is a girl on the verge of womanhood, full of spunk and longing, with an enormous curiosity about love and death. As the young male lead Chris, Jonathan Walls brings a great sense of inner conflict and frustration; undone over a stage kiss that misses the mark, he struggles with a heaviness he can’t put his finger on – and one gets the feeling that he’ll jump out of his skin if he can’t sort things out. As Paul, Nicholas Surges gives us a nuanced performance as a young man who takes in a lot as he watches from the wings; he feels much and uses his sharp, mocking sense of humour to cover his feelings – and it appears he’s secretly in love with one of his colleagues.

With shouts to the designers: Johnny Cann (sound and lighting) and Lindsay Dagger Junkin (costumes) for their beautiful work in creating this world.

Love, death and the magic of the theatre as a company of players mines emotion to uncover individual tragedies in the wistful, otherworldly then, then.

then, then. continues at Majlis Art Garden until September 27; click here for advance tickets.

Photography by Jonathan Harvey