Real-life ghost stories come out of the dark in the compelling, entertaining, thoughtful The Ghost Project

Karie Richards. Photo by Tanja-Tiziana.

 

Playwright/performer/producer Karie Richards opened the Toronto premiere of her documentary solo show The Ghost Project to a sold-out house in the BMO Incubator at The Theatre Centre last night. Originally directed by Jeff Culbert, The Ghost Project was a hit at the Fringe circuit, premiering at the Halifax Fringe 2018, and went on to the London Fringe and Winnipeg Fringe in 2019. Distilling 13 stories from 28 interviews with friends and family, Richards weaves a series of monologues, all told in the first person, from the storyteller’s point of view—capturing the gamut of emotional and rational responses; and exploring the thoughts, feelings and questions about what happens to us after we die. The result is a compelling, entertaining and thoughtful piece of verbatim storytelling.

Do you believe in ghosts? Have you ever encountered one? While Karie Richards isn’t sure what she thinks, she believes the stories told to her by friends and family—personal experiences with spiritual manifestations that defy explanation and everyday frame of reference; and that ultimately make us question the nature of the afterlife. Each real-life character reveals their story, be it from their university days, childhood or adulthood, or even an experience their child had while they were present. People reacting and responding in the moment; and, in some cases, wondering aloud what it all means. Are these the actual souls or spirits of the departed, or the energy traces they left behind? Or are these encounters a chance look through a thin veil of everyday reality, providing a glimpse of another time or plane of existence while the one experiencing it remains rooted in their own?

Encounters with, and messages from, deceased loved ones; former homeowners looking in on new residents/guests; and unexplained events at a haunted theatre space (Alumnae Theatre folk and fans will be familiar) all come into play—with manifestations ranging from malevolent to friendly, frightening to calming, everyday to ethereal. Experiences of shadowy figures blacker than the darkness, a floating blue girl, a surprising encounter during an Indigenous ceremony, the comfort of a nurturing parental energy, and the high-spirited insistence of a youthful presence that evoked profound responses for the storyteller emerge in Richards’ performance. Navigating myriad emotions, from paralyzing fear, to grief and loss, confusion, relief and joy, each character is vulnerable, curious, wonder-struck and thoughtful. Do these spirits want to be noticed and acknowledged? Are they relieving boredom with their spooky shenanigans? Do they have something to tell us?

Deftly shifting from character to character—signified by the collection and return of a single costume piece or prop from a wardrobe, and remarkable adjustments to voice, facial expression and posture—with a gentle calmness and the care of ceremony, Richards conjures up each storyteller for us, presenting with nuance and profound sensitivity the experiences, reactions and thoughts of each. And her carefully, finely-drawn embodiment of each storyteller makes for a compelling and entertaining performance that goes beyond the storytelling itself. In many cases, it’s the first time the storyteller has revealed their experience to anyone—requiring a high level of trust in, and comfort with, Richards during the interview process that preceded the creation of the piece. The results are eerie, funny, deeply moving and thought-provoking.

Richards’ performance is nicely supported by Glenn Davidson’s minimalist, effective production design, as well as John Sheard’s haunting composition, and atmospheric sound effects supplied by Peter Thillaye and Steve Munro.

Whatever you believe, The Ghost Project engages as much as it challenges the audience to open up and reach out into the unknown—and entertain the suggestion that death is not the end of our journey, but the beginning of a new one. If you have the opportunity, stick around for the post-show talkback, where audience members are invited to ask questions and share their own ghost stories.

The Ghost Project continues in the Incubator space at the Theatre Centre until January 26, with evening performances at 7:00 p.m., and matinées on Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are available online, in person at the box office, or by calling 416-538-0988. It’s a very short run and seating is limited, so advance booking or early arrival is strongly recommended; please note the 7:00 p.m. curtain time for evening performances.

 

 

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

Toronto Fringe: Karie Richards’ birdy – a moving & brave piece of storytelling

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Karie Richards – photo by Lesley Marino

I kicked off this year’s Toronto Fringe with a solo show: Karie Richards’ birdy … or how not to disappear at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Theatre.

Directed by Jeff Culbert and created by Richards during a Playfinding Master Class with Daniel MacIvor at The Banff Centre, birdy is a brave and touching piece of storytelling.

Performing solo, on a naked stage and with no props, Richards speaks to us as “birdy,” an anxious and fragile – but extremely positive and empathetic – woman who longs to do good for, and make connections with, others. As birdy struggles to calm her inner turmoil, her lightness of voice and presence is both soothing and eerie, her smile at times masking deep anger and confusion about the callousness of the world around her.

While birdy’s take on life is very specific to her situation, we can all relate to how she feels. Featuring a lovely a cappella performance of the song “Come to Me,” written by Casey Hurt, and stories from childhood memory and daily life, birdy is moving piece of storytelling – powerful in its fragility and strong in its vulnerability.

birdy runs at the Helen Gardiner until July 13 – check the birdy page on the Toronto Fringe website for dates and times.