Preview: Survival, resilience & resistance in the powerful, raw, timely Four Sisters

Bea Pizano & Company. Production design by Kaitlin Hickey in collaboration with Susanna Fournier. Wardrobe and props design by Patrick Peachey Higdon. Video design by Steph Raposo. Photo by Bernie Fournier.

 

Four Sisters is the final installment of Susanna Fournier’s Empire trilogy; produced by Paradigm Productions and commissioned by Luminato, and running this week at the Theatre Centre. Directed by Fournier and choreographed by Amanda Acorn, this powerful, raw and timely tale takes us to the Empire 259 years after the events of The Scavenger’s Daughter; into a world of plague and social cast-offs, where a 279-year old former madam raises the orphaned children of women who worked for her. A doctor arrives, promising to help as she works to come up with an inexpensive cure for marginalized, low-income populations; and she needs to experiment on the children.

We are in the Skirts, an outlying neighbourhood on the outskirts of the city where society’s marginalized and cast-off people dwell—the poor, mostly women and sex workers. And because this is the Empire, this is a world where only those with money, power and connections can afford to survive and thrive in the toxic, disease-ridden mess left behind after centuries of greed, violence, war and cut-throat capitalism. Former madam Sarah (Bea Pizano) has managed to cheat Death and now finds herself being mother to Abby (Chala Hunter, Krystina Bojanowski, Yolanda Bonnell), Beah (Aria Evans, Ximena Huizi, Jennifer Dahl), Cassie (Claudia Moore) and Dee (Virgilia Griffith)—children of women who worked for her, who all died of plague. When a Doctor (Krystina Bojanowski, Yolanda Bonnell), driven by the desire to find an inexpensive cure that can be used on the low-income population, arrives from the city with the promise of medical help, Sarah must decide if she’s willing to let her girls be Guinea pigs or die of plague.

The story plays out both within and without time and space—on a bare stage, sculpted with light and punctuated with video on a solitary TV screen (designed by Steph Raposo), the chilling atmosphere hauntingly complemented by Christopher Ross-Ewart’s sound design. Time folds and bends in on itself, with the multiple casting for Abby and Beah allowing for both younger and inner selves to speak to these characters, with shades of things to come for an older Beah. And the ongoing role swapping between the actors playing Abby and the Doctor (Bojanowski and Bonnell) shines a light on the choices health care practitioners have when it comes to their practice: to play a role in the male-dominated arenas of capitalism and Big Pharma, promising low-cost health benefits at unknown personal and societal cost, or working on the front lines of health care among those who society has discarded.

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Krystina Bojanowski & Company. Production design by Kaitlin Hickey in collaboration with Susanna Fournier. Wardrobe and props design by Patrick Peachey Higdon. Video design by Steph Raposo. Photo by Bernie Fournier.

Compelling work from this remarkable cast, as the staging incorporates movement, video and voice-over to tell a story that, like the earlier parts of this trilogy, is both visceral and cerebral, past and present, present and future. Pizano nicely balances Sarah’s wry-witted madam pragmatism with the tender-hearted, concern of a good mother. Bojanowski and Bonnell mine the Doctor’s clinical detachment and sense of social responsibility to great effect. Are the Doctor’s later efforts a move toward redemption—or too little, too late?

The four girls grow before our eyes, from children playing in Sarah’s kitchen into conflicted adults struggling to choose a path in a world where paths are being cut off and replaced with walls—literally and figuratively. Hunter, Bojanowski and Bonnell bring sharp focus and inner conflict to Abby, who becomes an apprentice to the Doctor even as she longs to be a mother—and in the painful light of her new-found medical knowledge and expertise. Evans, Huizi and Dahl are loveable and heartbreaking as the energetic, resilient Beah; the dancer sister who longs to study at the academy—her exhausted, battered feet continuing to create despite the unexpected turns her life takes. Griffith brings both profound vulnerability and power to the deeply wounded, angry Dee; self-medicating in an effort to deal with troubling visions, Dee becomes an addict and an outcast among her own marginalized family, setting her on the path toward a surprising evolution. And Moore’s Cassie is adorable and wise; ever a child, Cassie sees and responds to unfolding events with innocent honesty.

Operating both in and out of time and space, we witness what the Empire has come to following centuries of war and social disintegration—leaving us wondering what, if anything, will rise from the ashes. (During intermission, you can view artifacts in the National Museum of the Empire installation in the upper lobby, outside the theatre.) In the end, through pain, grief and loss, there is resilience and resistance. It is apocalypse with a glimmer of hope. And all with the recognition—both disturbing and reassuring—of our own time and place.

Four Sisters continues in the Franco Boni Theatre space at the Theatre Centre until June 16. Post-show talk backs with the artists are scheduled to follow the 8 pm performance on Fri, June 14 (hosted by Ted Witzel); and the 2 pm performance on Sat, June 15 (hosted by Maria Vamvalis). Advance tickets available online; it was a full house at last night’s final preview performance, so advance booking or early arrival is strongly recommended.

If you’re like me and missed the first two installments of the Empire trilogy, or want a refresh before seeing Four Sisters, you can catch up and listen to the podcasts of The Philosopher’s Wife and The Scavenger’s Daughter on The Empire website, co-produced with Expect Theatre’s PlayMe Podcast.

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Truth & reconciliation through music, one step at a time, in the inspirational, intersectional I Call myself Princess

Marion Newman & Aaron Wells. Set design by Christine Urquhart. Costume design by Snezana Pesic. Lighting design by Kaitlin Hickey. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Paper Canoe Projects and Cahoots Theatre join forces with Native Earth to present Jani Lauzon’s I Call myself Princess, directed by Marjorie Chan, with associate director Keith Barker and music direction by Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate. History, biography, opera, and truth and reconciliation combine in this inspirational, intersectional tale of two Indigenous opera singers connecting across time and space in a journey of discovery, identity and bridging the gap between peoples one step at a time. The show opened to a packed house at the Aki Studio last night.

When opera student William (Aaron Wells), a gay Métis man, moves from Winnipeg to Toronto to study on a scholarship, his work on a production of Shanewis (The Robin Woman), 100-year-old “Indian Opera,” turns into a journey of discovery, revelation and mystical connection. Dropping clues into his path is the spirit of Tsianina Redfeather (Marion Newman), whose life and experience inspired and informed the opera, written by white composer Charles Wakefield Cadman (Richard Greenblatt) and white librettist Nelle Eberhart (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster).

Borrowing from Indigenous music, filtered through the colonial lens of well-meaning, but unaware white artists, the opera seems hokey and embarrassing by today’s standards in terms of its cultural appropriation, and romanticized, homogenized presentation of Indigenous culture. And as he delves deeper into its history—consulting mainly the works of white academics—Will finds himself increasingly uncomfortable rehearsing it. His numerous calls to the Dean falling into a voicemail black hole, he reaches out for support from his boyfriend Alex back home (Howard Davis)—who’s overwhelmed with shift work, business school and looking after his family—and finds he’s on his own. Until Tsianina appears. An Indigenous opera singer from the past, she shows him the path she chose and the part she played in putting Shanewis on the stage.

Lovely, compelling work from this cast, featuring some impressive vocal chops. In an artfully balanced performance that features soaring mezzo soprano vocals, Newman’s Tsianina is playfully mischievous and possessing the wisdom of an elder; part colleague, part spirit guide on Will’s journey of identity and expression. Understanding that sharing truth and effecting change take time, Tsianina is patient and circumspect as she works on the opera—growing and earning respect as an artist, but holding back as she gauges what her non-Indigenous colleagues and audiences are ready for. Turning down two opportunities to perform at the Met, sees her work as a balance between self-expression and truth-telling—and making connections, step by step. Wells adeptly navigates Will’s inner conflict and serves up passionate, robust vocal performances. Personal and professional challenges collide, and Will struggles to be truth to himself and his drive for artistic expression and career, and his Indigenous heritage as he struggles with the content of the opera.

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Richard Greenblatt, Aaron Wells, Marion Newman, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster & Howard Davis. Set design by Christine Urquhart. Costume design by Snezana Pesic. Lighting design by Kaitlin Hickey. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Rounding out the intersectional angle of the piece are Greenblatt’s Charles, a gay man navigating his personal and professional life during a time when being out was suicide; and Ch’ng Lancaster’s Nelle, who like Tsianina must keep the public’s preparedness (in her case, for a female librettist) in mind. Greenblatt and Ch’ng Lancaster do a commendable job with Charles’ and Nelle’s personal arcs—going from well-meaning, but patronizing and largely clueless in their support of Indigenous peoples to more respectful and thoughtful allies. And Davis’s Alex, a Black gay man who doesn’t read as Black due to his light skin tone, and who must deal daily with the outside perceptions and assumptions in a largely white population. In a performance that shows both strength and vulnerability, Davis gives us a loyal, passionate man who sacrifices much for those he loves, but must come to terms with the fact that, despite his best efforts, he can’t be all things to all people, all the time.

You can tell that a lot of love, work and thought went into the production design. The fringe on Christine Urquhart’s set, combining colonial and Indigenous elements, mirrors that of Tsianina’s costume; designed by Snezana Pesic, and built by Kinoo Arcentales (Yana Manta), with beading by playwright Jani Lauzon (who delivered the moccasins last night after working all night to finish the beading). And Marc Meriläinen’s sound design—drawing from Shanewis (The Robin Woman) and classical opera, as well as original compositions by Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate and Jani Lauzon—immerses us in this world of music, cultural intersection and history.

Truth and reconciliation—step by step, in each connection, each collaboration, each brave act of expression.

I Call myself Princess continues at the Aki Studio until September 30. Get advance tickets online and go see it.

Magic, puppets, shenanigans & horror in spellbinding, diabolically funny The Harrowing of Brimstone McReedy

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Eric Woolfe & something wicked in The Harrowing of Brimstone McReedy – photo by Adrianna Prosser

There are stranger things done in the midnight sun other than cremating Sam McGee. And there are more ways to moil for gold – some with even darker consequences.

Eldritch Theatre takes us on a strange, dark and magical adventure with their production of The Harrowing of Brimstone McReedy. Created and performed by Eldritch Theatre co-founder Eric Woolfe, and directed by Dylan Trowbridge, the show opened at Red Sandcastle Theatre on Thursday night; I caught the spooky fun last night.

It is 1898 and our charming host for the evening is the affable scoundrel Brimstone McReedy, who sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for that which he most desires. Armed with dark mystical objects proffered by Old Scratch himself – bell, book and candle – McReedy joins an infamous gang of grifters. Learning of the gold rush, the gang is bound for Dawson, where they plan to mine gold from the wallets and pockets of prospectors and other fortune-seekers there.

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Brimstone & Epiphany – photo by Adrianna Prosser

Things take a turn when McReedy falls for the boss’s girl, the lovely dark-haired Epiphany Blackburn, and he cheats his way into her heart. Armed with nothing but their wits and determination, they leave the gang and finish the harsh trek to Dawson, where Epiphany goes to work as a dancing girl at Belinda Mulrooney’s Fairview Hotel and McReedy gets to swindling. And it’s all jake for a while. Until jealousy rears its ugly green head and loyalties come into question, culminating in some nail-biting, life-changing matches of wits and card playing as the tale reaches its harrowing finale.

After all, magic always comes with a price and the house always wins – especially when the Devil is dealing.

Weaving the tale with magic, puppetry and a gruesome version of the shell game, Woolfe is a deft and entertaining storyteller. As McReedy, he’s a lovable scoundrel, giving us a lesson in the art of the swindle and incorporating some friendly audience participation before and during the show.

With big shouts to the design team for their work in creating this spooky, evocative period environment: Eric Woolfe (puppets), Melanie McNeill (production design), Kaitlin Hickey (lighting), Jude Haines (sound), Joanne Boland (vocals and piano music) and dark arts guide Magic Mike Segal. And to intrepid producer/box office girl Friday Adrianna Prosser and SM Sandi Becker for keeping it all together.

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Eric Woolfe as Brimstone, with puppet Brimstone – photo by Lyon Smith

Magic, puppets, shenanigans and horror in the spellbinding, diabolically funny The Harrowing of Brimstone McReedy.

The Harrowing of Brimstone McReedy continues at Red Sandcastle Theatre until Nov 13; get your advance tickets online and have yourself a spooky Halloween good time.

You can keep up with Eldritch Theatre on Twitter and Facebook.

In the meantime, check out the trailer: