A journey into the light & dark of self-discovery in the bittersweet, courageous Welcome to my Underworld

Clockwise, from top left: Grace Thompson, Nikoletta Erdelyi, Carolyn Hetherington, Samson Brown, Radha S. Menon, Maddie Bautista & Bilal Baig. Set design by Brett Haynes. Lighting design by Sharmylae Taffe-Fletcher. Photo by Sophia Thompson-Campbell.

 

RARE Theatre Company, in partnership with Soulpepper, presents the world premiere of Welcome to my Underworldwritten by Bilal Baig, Maddie Bautista, Samson Brown, Simone Dalton, Nikoletta Erdelyi, Carolyn Hetherington, Radha S. Menon, Ellen Ringler and Grace Thompson, on stage at the Young Centre. Dramaturged/directed by RARE’s AD Judith Thompson, choreographed by Monica Dottor, and featuring original composition/live accompaniment by Olivia Shortt, a 10-year-old girl’s search for her truest self weaves nine individual stories into one as we follow her into the world of the shadow self.

Anchored by 10-year-old Willow (Grace Thompson), who struggles with her own sense of self, Welcome to my Underworld is part fairy tale, part hero’s journey, part autobiography as each performer presents their own story; a place where light and dark meet, and where spirits are tested and tempered. Possessing of a sharp, curious mind and keenly interested in how others navigate the world, Willow and her imaginary friend Mara invite the other characters in to share their stories.

There are the infuriating stories of a pre-transitioned trans man being confronted in a woman’s washroom, and a Trinidadian lesbian’s connection with an HIV+ gay father figure-told with humour, tenderness and heartbreak by Brown. The harrowing experiences of the elderly surviving a terrifying adverse reaction, apparently common among seniors, to a post-op medication (a feisty, fighter Harrington); and the feelings of family betrayal and confusion as an Indian woman is driven alongside a truck full of cattle to her new home at an assisted living facility (a spirited, poignant performance from Menon). Navigating prejudice regarding competence and attractiveness based on Roma (“gypsy”) ethnicity and physical ability (the candid, suffers no fools Erdelyi, performing from a wheelchair). Childhood innocence and trust lost during a time of burgeoning sexuality (a delightful, heart-wrenching performance from Bautista, a bi, Saudi Arabia-born Filipina).

There are the social castaways dealing with addiction and mental illness (fierce and lyrical performances from Menon and Baig); observed by Willow while in the psych ward. And queer, genderqueer Baig’s sassy, poignant secret party girl persona, fleeing their home and fearing attack from both parents and strangers, shares a narrow escape that hearkens back to the recent tragedy of missing and murdered gay men in the Village. Humourous, heart-breaking and eye-opening, each shares a broad range of lived experience from their own unique perspective—calling upon us to examine who we’ve ignored, shoved aside or disrespected. Who will love or miss the disenfranchised, the social pariahs, those living on the fringes?

Shortt’s live onstage music and pre-show mix blends sound effect with soundtrack, tailored perfectly to each story; and Dottor’s choreography is playful, balletic and emotive as it visually weaves one tale into another. Haynes’s set deftly combines black/white, dark/light; the central image a tree of life, its branches reaching for the sky as its roots dig into the earth.

Playful, poetic and funny—at times harrowing, infuriating and heart-breaking, the storytelling is raw, candid and impossible to ignore. These are stories from those whose voices are seldom heard, let alone given space to speak their truth. While Welcome to my Underworld promises no happy endings, it does bring a sense of hope and resilience. We all need to be seen, be heard, be loved and respected. We all need to feel safe to be ourselves. And we need more theatre like this.

Welcome to my Underworld continues at the Young Centre in the Tankhouse Theatre until May 25; advance tickets available online, or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

ICYMI: Check out Phil Rickaby’s interview with dramaturg/director Judith Thompson on Stageworthy Podcast.

 

SummerWorks: Brave & sharp memoir in Women Who Shout at the Stars

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA straight-talking, no-nonsense cockney woman, a former scullery maid turned nanny. A vivacious, suicidal socialite mother who loves gin and the works of Dorothy Parker. A sensitive and creative young woman, raised, influenced and loved by both of these women.

Women Who Shout at the Stars, written and performed by Carolyn Hetherington, and directed by Kathryn MacKay, with dramaturgy by Judith Thompson, is a journey through the lives and loves of three women, intersecting and weaving together across time and an ocean, played out on the Theatre Passe Muraille main stage as part of SummerWorks.

Told through monologue, anecdote and correspondence, Hetherington’s three real-life characters each shift from first-person to second-person narrative, morphing into each other, at times interacting in dialogue. The stage, with its two arm chairs and side tables, a red silk jacket hanging between them upstage, separate the two worlds of mother Gwen and nanny Edie, with Hetherington crossing between them – and as them – and into her younger self. The atmosphere is intimate, and the audience is taken into the confidences of each woman as thoughts, feelings and secrets are revealed. You feel like you’re sitting across from each of them, sharing a cup of tea or a glass of gin as each reminisces aloud. Now in her early 80s, Hetherington is remarkable in this performance, with its range of emotion and storytelling – not to mention stamina.

These three women have a lot of story to tell – and I wonder how a pared down version would hone the focus of the storytelling. Still, Women Who Shout at the Stars is a bittersweet, sharp – at times archly funny – memoir.

The show runs at the TPM main space until Sun, Aug 17 – check here for exact dates/times.

So much fun coming up!

Thought I’d take a moment to post about some ongoing/upcoming arts events.

Alumnae Theatre Company’s New Ideas Festival (NIF) continues this week with the Week Two program and reading (March 13-17), with Week Three program/reading running the week after (March 20-24).

Quick note on Saturday’s Week One reading of Falling: We had a packed house, with an audience who responded very positively and had some great feedback for playwright Jamie Johnson. Shouts to Jamie, co-artistic directors Pat McCarthy and Carolyn Zapf, director Ed Rosing, AD/SM Jake Simpkins, dramaturge Diane Forrest, sound designer Rick Jones, and fellow cast members Carys Lewis, Cora Matheson, Ruth Miller and Kristen Scott! And a big thanks to all the folks who came out to support the play, including friends and family – some of whom trekked in from Ottawa, Burlington and Hamilton. xo

The next edition of The Beautiful and the Damned is Thursday, March 14 – 7 p.m. at Glad Day Bookshop. Host DM Moore introduces feature performers Greg “Ritallin” Frankson, Gerald Hannon and Andraya Smith, and some amazing open mic folks.

The next Songwriters Circle of Jerks is coming up on Thursday, March 14 – 8:30 p.m. at Free Times Café, featuring Brian Cober, Hugh Wilson, Marcus Walker, Nelson Sobral and Nick Verona.

Nightwood Theatre’s Groundswell Festival opens Friday, March 15 and runs until March 24 at Berkeley Street Theatre – check out the cool promo vid for the fest.  Features a new play by one of my favourite playwrights: Judith Thompson’s Who Killed Snow White? Also check out Nightwood’s annual International Women’s Day Celebration FemCab on Wednesday, March 20.

Speaking of my favourite playwrights, check out ongoing productions of works by Hannah Moscovitch (Double Bill) at Tarragon Theatre (till March 24) and Theatre Brouhaha’s production of Kat Sandler’s Rock at Storefront Theatre (till March 23).

And while you’re at it, check out the March programming and workshops at Red Sandcastle Theatre.

Canadian Music Week (CMW) is coming up hard and fast (March 19-24) – so check that out. Just a selection of some artists I know who will be performing: Angela Saini, blueVenus, Meghan Morrison, Jessica Speziale, Tin Star Orphans

But wait – there’s more! Bella’s Burlesque Birthday Bash: DIRTY THIRTY DANCE PARTY is coming up on Thursday, March 28 at Lee’s Palace – 8:30 p.m. Bella Fox hosts a night of burlesque, music (including High Heels Lo Fi), dancing – it’s going to be a blast. Next day is Good Friday, so lots of you will be able to sleep that one off.

All the more reason for me to get over this stupid head cold, which I’ve had since last Thursday.