Putting the spotlight on who gets to tell the story in the hilarious, gut-wrenching, deeply moving BANG BANG

Karen Robinson, Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah, Richard Zeppieri, Jeff Lillico & Sébastien Heins. Set design by Nick Blais. Costume design by Lindsay Dagger Junkin. Lighting design by Oz Weaver. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography.

 

What happens when a white playwright’s play, inspired by the shooting of an unarmed young Black man by a Black female cop, becomes a huge success destined for a Hollywood movie adaptation?

Factory Theatre presents the world premiere of Kat Sandler’s BANG BANG, directed by Sandler, assisted by Kwaku Okyere, with dramaturgy by Donna-Michelle St. Bernard. Inspired by all too common headlines of innocent lives lost, the play turns a spotlight on how these stories are told and who gets to tell them.

Suspended from the force two years ago, former rookie police officer Lila (Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah) now lives with her mother Karen (Karen Robinson), a psychologist, and the memory of her deceased cop father. Lila’s story—and that of Derek Chambers, the young man she shot—is of particular interest to playwright Tim (Jeff Lillico), who wanted to write an important, socially relevant piece about excessive and deadly police force; and this case is unusual—and dramatically juicy—in that it involved a Black female police officer.

When Tim shows up unexpectedly at Karen’s door to see Lila one rainy day, the reason for his visit is even more of a surprise than his arrival. His play Hands Up was a huge success and is being turned into a Hollywood movie. And they’re about to have another surprise visitor: actor Jackie (Sébastien Heins), who’ll be playing the police officer—and whose arrival is abruptly heralded by security detail Tony (Richard Zeppieri). And just when you thought things couldn’t get any weirder, amidst a morning of day drinking (all except Karen), Lila decides that they need to do selected readings of the play, insisting that this will be helpful for her. And that’s when shit gets really real.

Outstanding work from the ensemble on this roller coaster ride of ideas, emotions and storytelling. Robinson brings both ferocity and vulnerability to Karen, a protective mother and a sharp, wry-witted professional. Willing to do whatever’s necessary to shield her daughter from harm, Karen also struggles with how Lila’s actions reflect on her. As Lila, Roberts-Abdullah rides the edge of good-humoured self-deprecation and hopeless despair. Lost and isolated, and putting on as brave a face as she can, Lila is haunted by the shooting, nursing her pain with outbursts of edgy humour and sliding into day drinking as she tries to make it through the day.

Lillico’s multilayered performance as Tim gives us a driven, ambitious and socially awkward young man who longs to make a name for himself as much as he wants to make a social statement. Although he has no ties to the community or profession that are key components of the story, Tim feels entitled to tell it—and feels justified in researching the finer details through Google and interviews. Caught up in his own growing celebrity, does he even know who or what he’s writing this for anymore?

Heins is an energetic ball of fire as Jackie—and does an excellent job with the public and private faces of celebrity. An extroverted master of put-on sincerity, and referring to himself in the third person on the one hand, Jackie also gives a genuinely passionate account of a play he saw that also tells the story of a police shooting of an innocent Black youth. Driven and ambitious like Tim, Jackie is also biracial and more socially astute than his former Disney child star turned wannabe serious actor persona might indicate. Zeppieri is an irreverent, foul-mouthed delight as Tony; a former cop himself and a bull in a china shop socially speaking, Tony has some surprisingly gentle qualities beneath that gruff, macho exterior. And he gives a hilarious read of the Hands Up stage directions.

Who gets to tell these stories—and how and when? And what kind of impact will the telling have on the immediate audience and the public at large? Rarely do you get to see a play that makes you think, laugh, puts you on the edge of your seat and moves you to tears like BANG BANG.

The design team has created a marvelous, theatrical environment for this play within a play journey: from the visible props tables in the unmasked wings that flank the gorgeous living room set (set by Nick Blais) and lighting scaffolding (lighting by Oz Weaver), to the snippets of epic, sweeping soundtracks that emerge throughout (sound by Verne Good).

BANG BANG continues in the Factory Theatre mainspace until February 18; advance tickets strongly recommended.

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Funny as hell & sh*t gets real in the socially sharp, outrageously funny Late Night

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Kat Letwin & Alon Nashman in Late Night – photos by John Gundy

Moses Znaimer and Kat Sandler have teamed up for Zoomer LIVE Theatre’s inaugural production, the debut of Sandler’s Late Night (winner of Toronto Fringe 24-hour playwriting contest), currently running in ZoomerHall – a new space that will serve as a launch pad for intimate, multi-media indie productions. Located in a Liberty Village complex that’s also home to ZoomerMedia, ZoomerHall is part of ZoomerPlex (70 Jefferson Ave., Toronto), a multi-media production and event space.

Directed by Sandler, and produced in partnership with Theatre Brouhaha, Late Night opened on Thanksgiving weekend; I caught the show last night. As we enter the space, we’re greeted by the painfully shy intern Davey (Michael Misu), and a couple of audience members are invited to ask Marty some pre-programmed questions.

After 22 years hosting The Early Late Show, Marty O’Malley (Alon Nashman) is leaving the chair to young, fresh comic talent Sarah Goldberg (Kat Letwin), with a surprise reveal planned in his final show, broadcast live for the first time in the show’s history.

When the running order of the guests has to be changed, the reveal comes early. And when Sarah makes a joke about her and Marty, all hell breaks loose, exploding on social media and forcing longstanding exec producer Alanna (Maria Vacratsis) into emergency measures to appease a titillated and scandalized audience, and a confused bunch of network execs, pushing Sarah into a co-host position for the remainder of the show.

And when Sarah and Marty crack open Marty’s retirement present and begin chatting with guest Kevin Lee Hicks (Nigel Downer), things get really crazy – and the crazy gets turned up to 11 when Marty’s actress wife Vivienne Lawrence (Rachel Jones) shows up.

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Michael Misu, Maria Vacratsis & Rachel Jones in Late Night

Sandler’s script goes for the jugular, hitting all the nasty facets of show business: ageism, sexism, racism, sizeism, homophobia and the myth of heteronormative, traditional relationships; not to mention sex scandals and the exploitation of disease-battling kids turned celebrities. The main event here is Boomer versus Millennial, and she’s got an outstanding, kick-ass ensemble for this wild and wacky ride – all nicely balancing the funny with the real.

Nashman hits all the notes as Marty; classic inappropriate Boomer white guy, in the tradition of Letterman, O’Malley is magnanimous an even a bit verklempt on camera as he bids farewell to a job he loves. Nashman provides some nice layers of hurt and bitter, as O’Malley’s external calm collapses into rage. As Millennial comic Sarah, Letwin is a natural-born smart-ass; she does a really nice job mining the conflicting emotions of this moment for Sarah, who’s thrilled to be taking over the show and scared to death at the same time. She’s made a name for herself as an unashamed and out there comedienne, and masks her discomfort with an irreverent bravado. Vacratsis is a scary delight as Alanna; a hilarious combination of cheerleader and dragon lady, she’s been with the show for years and will do whatever it takes to keep it alive. Musi is adorkably funny as the socially awkward intern Davey; forced out of his comfort zone on a number of occasions, his reward is the care and feeding of Vivienne, who he goes fan boy gaga over.

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Nigel Downer & Rachel Jones in Late Night

Downer is entertaining and compelling as actor Kevin Lee Hicks; a gay black man who’s come to fame by playing cool grandma Mama Jones (who we also get to meet) on the big screen, Hicks is unapologetic, sharp-witted, resourceful and opportunistic. Jones is both a laugh riot and deeply poignant as Vivienne Lawrence; an actress in her mid-forties now relegated to mom roles, she’s struggling with her career and her marriage, and gutted that her kids get drawn into the gossip about her and Marty.

ZoomerHall is the perfect venue for this production. The studio audience sound stage set takes Late Night beyond site-specific and into immersive theatre, complete with cameras and live video monitors.

Funny as hell and shit gets real in the socially sharp, outrageously funny Late Night. My ass was laughed off. Get yourself on over to ZoomerHall to see this

Late Night continues at ZoomerHall until October 23. Check out show dates and get your advance tix online.

Toronto Fringe: Take a moment to play in the Shed in Monologues for Nobody

2016_Fringe-Signage_FINALLate yesterday afternoon, I stopped by the Fringe Club (Honest Ed’s Parking lot – Bathurst/Bloor) to experience Jordan Mechano’s Monologues for Nobody, one of several Shed Shows on offer at this year’s Toronto Fringe.

When I say “experience,” I mean this is DIY theatre acted by you, for you. There’s a list of 20 monologues to choose from, all written by Fringe veterans like Kat Sandler, Laura Anne Harris, Jiv Parasram and Rebecca Perry, among others. Characters cover a broad range of age and dramatic styles, as well as varying levels of challenge. You get five minutes in the Shed to read over and perform the piece – and you’re encouraged to read it aloud at least once and notice any discoveries you make during the process. If you need assistance selecting a piece, one of the box office folks (including Mechano) will be happy to help you out. And no worries about watching the clock; you’ll get a friendly knock on the Shed door to let you know when your time’s up.

As I scanned the list to make a choice, Laura Anne Harris’s When I Grow Up caught my eye. The character is a five-year-old girl who likes trucks, wants to be Spiderman and longs to run around on hot summer days with her shirt off. But her dreams are constantly getting squashed by her mother, who wants her to be a ‘normal’ girl – nice, well-behaved and lady-like.

Full disclosure: I’m a classically trained actor. I had a blast being this kid for five minutes, playing with her frankness, her innocence, and especially her defiance, mischief and bravery. Throughout the process, I thought about her revelations, and if she knew that her feelings were unconventional, or even socially forbidden, or if she was unaware and just following her bliss. What had she been thinking about for a while and what was she just discovering in the moment? Playing this kid made me remember that I was that little girl who loved to run around topless in the summertime, playing Tarzan around the inflatable wading pool in our backyard.

The ‘so what’ here is that art is for everyone – and we can all learn something about ourselves and the world when we take a risk and experience putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes (however fictitious) and work on a piece in solitude. It’s a ‘dance like nobody’s watching’ kind of moment – or singing in the shower. No one’s going to judge you. It’s just you, performing for you.

Take a moment to play in the Shed and act out a piece for an audience of one – you! Fun, playful and thought-provoking good times in Monologues for Nobody.

Monologues for Nobody is PWYC and continues in the Shed until July 10 on these dates/times:

July 2, 5 & 8 @ 6:30-8:30 p.m.

July 4, 7 & 10 @ 8:30-10:30 p.m.

Toronto Fringe: Do you want to believe? Sharp, dark comedy in Bright Lights

 

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Theatre Brouhaha’s production of Kat Sandler’s Bright Lights opened to a sold out house of super enthusiastic folks at the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace late last night.

Written and directed by Sandler, Bright Lights is set in a community centre, where members of the Alien Experience Support Group gather for their regular meeting to share their experiences of alien encounters in a safe, supportive space. The arrival of newcomer Zoe (Heather Marie Annis) shakes the group to its foundations; her abduction memory includes group organizer Ross (Colin Munch) – and his true identity and motive for forming the group come into question.

The action is fast-paced, and the storytelling is equal parts hilariously funny and darkly edgy; collegial turns combative as the heat gets turned up. Sandler’s outstanding cast is laser-focused and mercurial, weaving tight comedy with fringe society paranoia – and features the creative forces behind Punch Up, Morro and Jasp, Peter n’ Chris and Shakey-Shake & Friends.

Amy Lee is delightfully kooky as the group’s snack baking den mother Laurel; earthy and nurturing, she’s pregnant by a man who isn’t her husband and describes her abduction in terms of a classic rock song. As Zoe, Annis brings a bright-eyed sense of curiosity and tightly wound nerves as she steps into this strange world of those who believe. Peter Carlone is hilariously paranoid as Dave, who’s turned survivalist after suffering multiple probings, a family tradition; dressed in militia gear, he carries a duffle bag of weapons at all times – just in case. Equally hilarious is Chris Wilson’s Wayne; a former child actor who starred in a legal procedural TV show, he fancies himself a legal expert and claims to have been gifted psychic powers during his abduction experience. (Carlone and Wilson are also performing Peter vs. Chris at this year’s Toronto Fringe). Munch gives Ross an affable, welcoming vibe and keeps us guessing as he reacts to the group’s accusations against Ross’s humanity and intentions; Ross has definitely been hiding something.

The only thing for certain is that the dynamic of this group is permanently altered during this meeting – with suspicions, theories and alliances unfolding in unexpected ways. And, in the end, you’re asking yourself: What and who do you believe?

Do you want to believe? Alien abduction, conspiracy theory and suspicion in sharp, darkly funny Bright Lights.

Bright Lights continues at the Tarragon Mainspace until July 9; advance booking for this one is strongly recommended. For ticket info and advance tickets/passes, check out the Fringe website.

Toronto Fringe: Punch drunk with laughter in Theatre Brouhaha’s Punch Up

_r1a6215Kat Sandler and Theatre Brouhaha bring it again big time with the dark comedy Punch Up, written and directed by Sandler, playing now at the George Ignatieff Theatre as part of this year’s Toronto Fringe.

Stand-up comic/comedy writer Pat’s (Colin Munch) life is in the toilet, his wife/comedy team partner has left him and is now starring on a hit TV show using their material – which he wrote! And his stand-up act sucks. Then, he gets kidnapped by lonely guy Duncan (Tim Walker), who needs Pat to teach him how to be funny so he can win the love of the saddest girl in the world, Brenda (Caitlin Driscoll).

Playing the edge between tragedy and comedy, the Punch Up cast is so much awesome. Munch does a hilarious job with Pat’s stand-up meltdown, his comic rant turning to rage, revealing a man who’s hit rock bottom, his feral energy refocusing to solving Duncan’s problem to gain his freedom calmed as he’s literally chained to a typewriter. Walker’s Duncan is a loveable nerd, full of child-like naiveté, wide-eyed and willing to go to extreme lengths for a woman he’s just met and fallen in love at first sight with. (And, having recently finished a run of Kate and Sam Are Not Breaking Up with Cue6, Walker has become the go-to choice if your show needs a sweet nerd who kidnaps a celebrity for a good cause.) As Brenda, Driscoll is adorably troubled, afraid to love but longing too – her sharp humour softened by a glimmer of optimism when she accepts Duncan’s dinner invitation.

With shouts to the fun set design of Duncan’s place – aka “Pee Wee’s murder basement.”

So. Much. Funny! And some sad. Punch Up kills.

Punch Up continues its run at the George Ignatieff Theatre until July 13 – check here for exact dates/times. Strongly suggest advance tix on this one – this is a very popular company and the place was packed yesterday afternoon.

 

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.

It’s almost that time, kids — Toronto Fringe Festival is coming!

So how did it get to be the last week of June already?! Good news is that means that we’re about a week away from the Toronto Fringe Festival, running July 3-14.

Here’s a handful of shows I’m planning on seeing, with more to come:

Just Lift Your Feet, by Heather Allin  (stay tuned for my interview with actor/playwright Heather Allin on her one-woman show Just Lift Your Feet)

Killcreek, by Brandon Pitts

Stop Kiss, by Diana Son

We Are The Bomb, by Kat Sandler/Theatre Brouhaha

A Young Lady’s Guide to Vivisection, by Empty Box Company

What will you be seeing at Fringe this year?