Waiting for the American Dream in the provocative, disturbing, razor-sharp Pass Over

Kaleb Alexander & Mazin Elsadig. Set design by Julia Kim. Lighting design by Chris Malkowski. Costume design by Vanessa Fischer. Photo by Cesar Ghisilieri.

 

Obsidian Theatre takes us to the edge of the world in an urban Black neighbourhood in America with its provocative, mind-blowing production of Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over, directed by Philip Akin, assisted by Jay Northcott, and running at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. Disturbing, thought-provoking and razor-sharp, it’s a 21st century Waiting for Godot, infused with the hope and resilience of The Book of Exodus, as two young Black men hang out on a street corner, making plans to better their situation and get to the Promised Land.

Before the action starts, we’re immersed in this microcosm of the modern-day Black experience in America—via Julia Kim’s effective, minimalist set design; Chris Malkowski’s lighting and Miquelon Rodriguez’s sound design. A lone streetlight, a fire hydrant and a wooden industrial spool on a stylized L-shaped street corner with an exaggerated curb. The edge of the world. A solitary figure in a hoodie sits, sleeping against the base of the streetlight, his back to us; a man appears, alternately pacing and sitting. The sounds of a classical music piece, ranging from tranquil to majestic, accompanied by the whoosh of passing traffic, as the light wanes and the streetlight glows to life. An object on the sidewalk, off to the right of the man—a lost sneaker, a rock?

Moses (Kaleb Alexander) awakens to see his friend Kitch (Mazin Elsadig). The dynamic between them creates an atmosphere of restlessness, wheels spinning and going nowhere, as they settle into an easy, familiar banter. And then, crackling with electric promise, Moses shares his hopes, dreams and plan to make something of himself and get out—out and away across the river to the Promised Land. Visions of champagne, caviar and top 10 lists dance in their heads as they speak of a better life to come, reveling in the possibilities that lie ahead.

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Kaleb Alexander, Alex McCooeye & Mazin Elsadig. Set design by Julia Kim. Lighting design by Chris Malkowski. Costume design by Vanessa Fischer. Photo by Cesar Ghisilieri.

Their reverie is continually interrupted by the abrupt, brief and jarring light and sound of a police cruiser; the cops constantly on patrol, looking for non-existent trouble and repeatedly harassing young Black men who are doing nothing wrong. Each time this occurs, Moses and Kitch assume the position: hands in the air, sometimes dropping to their knees. They’ve lost count as to how many friends have been killed. A stranger appears; the whitest white man you’ve ever seen (Alex McCooeye as Mister)—I’m talking 1950s suburban “golly gee” white. Carrying a picnic basket, he got lost on his way to his mother’s. Initially met with wary indifference, his Lord Bountiful offer of food is too good for the two friends to pass up; and like Mary Poppins and her bottomless carpet bag, he produces a veritable feast from his basket, including an apple pie.

Contrasted and complemented to the encounter with Mister, Moses and Kitch are set upon by the local beat cop (McCooeye as Officer), on patrol and looking for an excuse to hassle, or even shoot, a Black man—who he views as shiftless, lazy and stupid. “To serve and protect” only applies to people who look, act and speak like him. Left to themselves again, discouraged, weary and beaten down, Moses begins to question his original plan for exodus, and hatches a desperate alternate plan for himself and Kitch.

pass over 2
Mazin Elsadig & Kaleb Alexander. Set design by Julia Kim. Lighting design by Chris Malkowski. Costume design by Vanessa Fischer. Photo by Cesar Ghisilieri.

Stunning, compelling and electric performances from the cast in this uncomfortable, sometimes satirical, and instructive piece of theatre. Alexander gives a passionate, charismatic performance as Moses; living up to his namesake, Moses is a natural leader, inspiring those around him with the hope of better things to come—but not without self-doubt and internal conflict. Elsadig’s playfulness, warmth and swagger as Kitch perfectly complements Alexander’s Moses; Kitch is more than just a friend—he’s a confidante, a brother. While Moses tends to be more of a cerebral ideas man with a dream to manifest, Kitch is driven by more pragmatic, visceral concerns; but he’s nonetheless inspired and willing to follow his friend, based on love and trust.

McCooeye offers two fascinating and telling portraits of white male power. Mister is a patronizing, clueless entitled white man whose hospitable demeanour is peppered with microaggressions and judgements of Black culture—insidious, “polite” racism. The white person who claims to never even think about using “the n word’, but who calls out Black people for using the term—wondering, if they can use it, why can’t he? As Officer, he’s the picture of the racist asshole cop who relishes abusing his power; keeping Black people “in their place”, he’s the embodiment of the darker, shameless side of the white-dominated power structure. Moses and Kitch speak the language of streetwise urban Black youth; and internalized racism makes them question whether it would be better to adopt a more white manner and speech, and assimilate into the safety of the dominant culture.

From plantation to ghetto, Pass Over provides ample evidence that white-powered systemic racism is alive and well in 2019—and and it will make allies question the true nature of their allyship. The apple pie of the American Dream is held out under the noses of those who are perpetually barred, blocked and beaten away from that dream, then taken away before they have a chance to taste it. It’s an unforgettable, uncomfortable, at times shocking, look into the hopes, dreams and lived experiences of the Black community—which is as it should be in the case of discourse on deep-seated systemic racism in America and, by extension, Canada. Make no mistake, Canada is far from innocent in this regard. And with the growing emergence of a new alt-right, emboldened by extreme right-wing leadership around the world, this is definitely not just an urban street corner issue—nor does it only impact the Black community.

Pass Over continues at Buddies until November 10; advance tickets available online or by calling 416-975-8555.

For additional context, check out this Artist Perspective piece by Obsidian producer Luke Reece in Intermission Magazine.

And check out the trailer:

 

 

 

SummerWorks: The painful truth on the road to reconciliation in beautiful & compelling The Living

Cast of The Living, photo by Paul Lampert
Cast of The Living – photo by Paul Lampert

How can we move on if we can’t accept the impossible?

Brown paper, like fallen leaves, strewn across the floor – a struggling landscape. Two shrouded bodies, still, unbreathing – the dead. This is the sight on the playing area as you enter the Theatre Centre Incubator space – the stage set for the premiere of Colleen Wagner’s The Living, directed by Ines Buchli for the living project in this SummerWorks run.

The play is dedicated to the women and girls of Rwanda who Wagner met during her travels in Africa – and who asked her to be their storyteller. To tell of what happened after the genocide. The rebuilding. The caring for orphans. The system of transformative justice whereby “perpetrator” becomes part of the “victim’s” life in a new, positive relationship dynamic – healing, reconciling. And maybe even finding redemption and forgiveness.

Anita La Selva in The Living - photo by Paul Lampert
Anita La Selva in The Living – photo by Paul Lampert

Jacqui (Miriam Fernandes) and Henry (Kaleb Alexander) have known each other since they were children, and their memories of their times together take a brutal turn when, on opposite sides of the genocide, Henry becomes a “perpetrator” and Jacqui becomes a “victim.” Henry saves her from the killers only to become part of the rabid mob that kills Jacqui’s father and brother, and one man – a neighbour – rapes her mother (Anita La Selva), leaving her infected with HIV. But then something impossible happens. Henry and Jacqui fall in love.

The Living Beryl Bain Wayne Ward Stephanie Jung photo by Paul Lampert
Beryl Bain, Wayne Ward & Stephanie Jung in The Living – photo by Paul Lampert

The community is in a brittle, fragile state as formerly imprisoned men return home, some still harbouring anger and hate, simmering in their perceptions of the wrong-doing and culpability of the people they sought to exterminate. Three spirits– murdered teenage sisters – emerge on the scene. Restless. Living their deaths over and over again. Played with startling intensity by Beryl Bain, Gabrielle Graham and Stephanie Jung; like the Furies, they haunt, taunt, whisper and hiss for the truth.

Lovely work from this ensemble. Fernandes (luminous in her positive demeanour and fearlessness as Jacqui) and Alexander (repentant and sheepish as Henry, pushing beyond his deep sense of shame towards love) have beautiful chemistry, their conversations taking on a lyrical, poetic tone; two young people struggling to rebuild their lives after the horrors – striving, but hopeful to live in peace. La Selva is heartbreaking as Jacqui’s mother; sick and broken, waiting for death and afraid of facing it alone. As their neighbour Leopold, Wayne Ward brings a complexity of character; bitter and unrepentant after serving his time in prison, he hides with his fear at the bottom of a bottle, leaving his wife with the burden of being the household breadwinner. Cindy Block gives a poignant performance as his wife, a woman once abandoned by her husband’s violence and now abandoned by his hatred of the world, desperately trying to make ends meet as she lives in denial of her own horrid memories and suspicions.

Françoise Balthazar is marvelous and strong as the local barkeep, now running the business alone as her husband continues serving time in jail. Tough-talking and suffering no fools, she is hurt and lonely – and, like her neighbour, feeling the guilt and shame of not speaking up during the rampage to try and stop it. Richard Lee does a nice job with the layers of the town preacher, a  man who has chosen a life of religious service as his path to redemption. His words of love and forgiveness are not entirely selfless, though – including his interest in Jacqui, which while somewhat comical, has a dark edge to it.

And the multicultural casting has the effect of placing this story beyond the borders of any one country, any single ethnicity. The atrocities and the aftermath could happen anywhere.

With shouts to Shawn Kerwin (set and costume design) and Erika Batdorf (movement).

The painful truth on the road to reconciliation in Colleen Wagner’s beautiful and compelling premiere of The Living.

The Living continues at the Theatre Centre Incubator until Aug 16 – check here for the detailed schedule.

A delightfully magical production – Driftwood Theatre Group’s The Tempest

tempestWe are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep…

Saw some delightful outdoor Shakespeare last night: Driftwood Theatre Group’s performance of its Bard’s Bus Tour production of The Tempest at Withrow Park. Directed by D. Jeremy Smith, collaborating with text editor/dramaturg Toby Malone, this Tempest is updated and full of awesome surprises.

Opening with the departure of King Alonso and his retinue on his private jet, and the eventual enchanted crash landing on a charmed island (here, Stephano is the drunken pilot and Trinculo the goofball gal flight attendant), the storm sequence is very cleverly – and playfully – staged, complete with a model airplane, hoist aloft by the actors on its wobbly and harrowing descent.

Played out on a circus-like ring of stones, Prospero weaves his magic, overseeing the meeting and courtship of his daughter Miranda and young Prince Ferdinand, and orchestrating the reunion of the shipwrecked nobles, which also includes his traitorous brother, the power-hungry sister of the King and a loyal old friend. Here, the island spirits that serve him are artfully rendered puppets: Ariel a delicate, gossamer creature with retractable wings; and Caliban a near life-sized thing of earth, stone and gills, emerging from his camouflaged hiding place and operated by two actors. As the play progresses, Caliban undergoes a surprising metamorphosis, getting smaller – to Muppet-sized, then finger puppet – as his power weakens.

Featuring a lovely, otherworldly a cappella soundtrack by composer/musical director Tom Lillington and an excellent cast, The Tempest takes the audience on a two-hour journey of wonder, fun and philosophy. Richard Alan Campbell does a lovely job of balancing Prospero’s righteous indignation and rage with a deep melancholy and longing to right his life – for both himself and his daughter – and live out the remainder of his days at home. Miriam Fernandes is sweetly innocent and wide-eyed, and full of youthful wisdom as Miranda; and Kaleb Alexander is adorably awkward and gallant as the love-smitten Ferdinand. Cast stand-outs also include double-duty performances by Madeleine Donohue, playing a cheeky, goofy Trinculo, and the lovely and enchanting Ariel; and Peter van Gestel, as the outrageously drunken and cocky Stephano, and the sullen and vengeful Caliban. Donohue also provides some beautiful vocals as Ariel and sings an ethereal duet with Christina Gordon (a female Gonzalo, as well as one of the island spirits), with Gordon’s gorgeous voice perfectly combining, and creating an atmosphere of charm and wonder.

With big shouts to the design team: Lokki Ma (props), Melanie McNeill (costumes) and director Smith (set) for their brilliant work in this magical production.

Driftwood Theatre’s touring production of The Tempest is an ethereal, magical and highly entertaining production, featuring some delightful surprises and an equally delightful ensemble.

You have two more chances to catch The Tempest at Withrow Park: tonight (July 26) and tomorrow (July 27) – please note the 7:30 p.m. start time. The tour makes stops at various locations across Ontario until August 17 – check here for dates and locations. Some performances feature pre-show performance Food of Love, an a cappella concert (6:30 p.m. start) of the music of Driftwood Theatre, which is celebrating its 20th season this year, as well as pre-show and late night chats.

 

Fiercely sexy, ruthlessly funny, real & raw – Theatre Brouhaha’s Delicacy

DELICACY_Tennille-Read-Andy-Trithardt-Kelly-McCormack-and-Kaleb-Alexander-left-clockwise.-Credit-ZAIDEN-620x500I had the great pleasure of seeing Theatre Brouhaha’s production of Kat Sandler’s Delicacy for the second time during its SummerWorks run at Lower Ossington Theatre last night. I’d first seen it during at Factory Theatre Studio back in the Fall and loved its sharp-edged, quick-witted, socially apt story and characters – played out by an outstanding cast. I was very interested to see if the play had changed for this current run – and with the exception of some minor tweaks, it hadn’t. And I loved it all over again.

Since I can’t think of much more to say about it, here are my thoughts from the November post:

Deliciously sharp and brutally funny, Delicacy (which Sandler also directed) is part modern-day comedy of manners, part exploration of modern relationships. Married couple Tanya (Tennille Read) and Mark (Andy Trithardt) invite into their home Colby (Kelly McCormack) and Len (Kaleb Alexander), a couple they met during their virgin visit to swingers bar Wicked. And an eventful, erotic first time it was. Opposites attract here – Tanya and Mark are perfectly put together, mid-30s urban professionals, living in a pristine white loft designed by Tanya. Perfectly chosen pieces of “important” art. Indoor shoes. Uptight is the first impression we get. Colby and Len, on the other hand, are 30-ish, hail from the suburbs, work in non-white collar jobs and engage in a decidedly “crazy” bohemian lifestyle – and are no strangers to the swingers scene. Secrets, as well as previously unexpressed thoughts and feelings, emerge throughout the course of the evening, as both couples are forced to confront some unpleasant issues facing their marriages.

Sandler’s sharp, quick-witted dialogue is in good evidence here and this stand-out ensemble is more than up for the challenge. Read and Trithardt do a lovely job of peeling back the mask of Tanya and Mark’s perfectly coiffed, charcuterie-serving, HBO-viewing exterior to the turmoil that lies beneath, with Colby and Len as the catalysts. Read’s already sexy Tanya blossoms with Len, from impervious ice queen to hot passion-flower, while Trithardt’s controlled Mark finds his wild side with Colby. Alexander and McCormack do an equally nice job of unfolding the raw emotion underlying Colby and Len’s playful, care-free lifestyle. McCormack is adorably kooky as Colby and Alexander is puckishly irreverent – but appearances can be deceiving and both possess a gravitas that belies their youthful, rowdy behaviour.

With shouts to the SummerWorks run designers Cat Haywood (costumes) for the spot on character fashions, and Melissa Joakim (set/lighting) for creating the sleek, almost sterile, urban environment of Tanya and Mark’s condo living room (as designed by Tanya).

Yep, Delicacy has it all going on this time around. Loved the addition of the Labyrinth reference and the bit between Mark and Colby. Something else that struck me, then heard aloud from a man sitting in front of me mention to his friend as we were exiting the theatre, sparking a brief chat: Delicacy has the same feel of God of Carnage in the polar opposite dynamic of the two couples, in its brutal wit and socially current themes – and in its dark, dramedy of manners edge.

Delicacy runs until August 17 at Lower Ossington Theatre’s main space. I highly recommend reserving in advance or getting there well before the box office opens – the house was packed last night, and this is a very popular show and bound to sell out. I can also see this show going places, but don’t wait. Go see this. Now.

Deliciously sharp & brutally funny – Theatre Brouhaha’s Delicacy

Very happy that Ed, Andy and I finished up on The Drowning Girls set last night in time for me to make it out to the 10 p.m. performance of Delicacy at Factory Studio Theatre, where I bumped into another Alumnae Theatre pal, Tina McCulloch. I’d heard a lot of good things about Delicacy and really enjoyed playwright Kat Sandler’s Help Yourself at Toronto Fringe this past summer, so I was really looking forward to seeing it. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Deliciously sharp and brutally funny, Delicacy (which Sandler also directed) is part modern-day comedy of manners, part exploration of modern relationships. Married couple Tanya (Tennille Read) and Mark (Andy Trithardt) invite into their home Colby (Kelly McCormack) and Len (Kaleb Alexander), a couple they met during their virgin visit to swingers bar Wicked. And an eventful, erotic first time it was. Opposites attract here – Tanya and Mark are perfectly put together, mid-30s urban professionals, living in a pristine white loft designed by Tanya (for the play, by designer Alain Richer, with Sandler). Perfectly chosen pieces of “important” art. Indoor shoes. Uptight is the first impression we get. Colby and Len, on the other hand, are 30-ish, hail from the suburbs, work in non-white collar jobs and engage in a decidedly “crazy” bohemian lifestyle – and are no strangers to the swingers scene. Secrets, as well as previously unexpressed thoughts and feelings, emerge throughout the course of the evening, as both couples are forced to confront some unpleasant issues facing their marriages.

Sandler’s sharp, quick-witted dialogue is in good evidence here and this stand-out ensemble is more than up for the challenge. Read and Trithardt do a lovely job of peeling back the mask of Tanya and Mark’s perfectly coiffed, charcuterie-serving, HBO-viewing exterior to the turmoil that lies beneath, with Colby and Len as the catalysts. Read’s already sexy Tanya blossoms with Len, from impervious ice queen to hot passion-flower, while Trithardt’s controlled Mark finds his wild side with Colby. Alexander and McCormack do an equally nice job of unfolding the raw emotion underlying Colby and Len’s playful, care-free lifestyle. McCormack is adorably kooky as Colby and Alexander is puckishly irreverent – but appearances can be deceiving and both possess a gravitas that belies their youthful, rowdy behaviour.

The audience got an additional laugh when, during a heated scene between Tanya and Mark, Trithardt needed to break the fourth wall to excuse himself to the washroom, prompting a brief unscheduled intermission for the audience. They were on their second show of the evening – and the actors consume a lot of liquid during this play. The audience was good-humoured about the break and some folks took the opportunity to use the loo themselves. Live theatre, folks – keeping it real. These guys are pros, and upon returning to the stage, they backed up the scene a bit and carried on.

Big laughs, big life questions and big heart – a thoroughly enjoyable evening of theatre.

Delicacy has two more performances today (Sat, Nov 3): 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Check the Theatre Brouhaha site for details and reservations: http://theatrebrouhaha.com/portfolio/delicacy/