Getting real at the movies in the intimate, entertaining, immersive The Flick

Durae McFarlane & Amy Keating. Set & lighting design by Nick Blais. Projection design by Nick Bottomley. Costume & lobby design by Anahita Dehbonehie. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Outside the March and Crow’s Theatre join forces to present Annie Baker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning love letter to the 35mm movie theatre in The Flick, directed by Mitchell Cushman, assisted by Katherine Cullen and Rebecca Ballarin, and running in the Guloien Theatre at Streetcar Crowsnest. Intimate, entertaining and immersive, workplace shenanigans, friendship, loyalty and personal demons emerge in the world of a run-down dive of a neglected movie house and the lives of three people who work there for minimum wage.

When you enter the Guloien Theatre, the audience seating faces rows of empty movie theatre seating, with a raised projection booth up centre. As the lights go down, the projector comes to life in the booth (projection design by Nick Bottomley), accompanied by Richard Feren’s sound design, giving you the full movie theatre experience—from a different perspective from the one we’re used to experiencing—including production company theme music and movie soundtrack snippets that play along with the light show.

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Durae McFarlane & Colin Doyle. Set & lighting design by Nick Blais. Projection design by Nick Bottomley. Costume & lobby design by Anahita Dehbonehie. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

It’s Avery’s (Durae McFarlane) first day on the job at The Flick Cinema, a run-down endangered species of a 35mm movie house in Massachusetts run by absentee owner/manager Steve (who we never meet). Veteran usher Sam (Colin Doyle) shows him the ropes of the walk-through—sweeping up and collecting trash in between screenings (and even waking up the occasional sleeper: Brendan McMurtry-Howlett). Rose the projectionist (Amy Keating) is working up in the booth; and despite Sam’s enthusiastic attempts to catch her attention, she’s not having it.

Avery is a college student, working there as a summer job; and he’s a big-time movie nerd and six degrees of separation savant, as Sam soon learns, much to his amazement. Sam’s broad tastes in movies include more popular, mass appeal films; and Avery is a serious film snob. And while Sam pursues the attentions of Rose, Rose seems to be interested in getting to know the new guy Avery.

As the relationship and workplace dynamics unfold, the three gradually and selectively reveal themselves to each other—and to us. Avery is dealing with some heavy psychological and emotional shit, including family issues. Sam is resentful that younger, less experienced staff are being promoted over him; and he keeps his family life close to the chest. Serial monogamist party girl Rose thinks there’s something wrong with her. And rumour has it that Steve may be selling The Flick; and in an age where 35mm is being replaced with digital, this means it will likely be updated with a digital projector—something that film buff Avery can’t abide. Various levels of privilege are highlighted; while Avery is Black, and having a professor father means a free ride to college, he’s the most likely to get blamed (by their racist boss) for screw-ups at work. Sam and Rose enjoy white privilege, but their familial and financial circumstances mean heavy student debt or no college at all, and a struggle to survive with minimum wage jobs. In the end, friendship and loyalty are put to the test as revelations and consequences emerge.

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Foreground: Amy Keating. Background: Colin Doyle & Durae McFarlane. Set & lighting design by Nick Blais. Projection design by Nick Bottomley. Costume & lobby design by Anahita Dehbonehie. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Remarkable work from this outstanding cast, each creating a sharply-drawn, authentic and flawed character that we all end up rooting for; and like in real life, they’re all putting on a show of sorts, wearing the public masks we all don on a daily basis—and occasionally, the masks are lifted and things get real. Doyle is endearing and entertaining as Sam; there’s a combination of grumpy old man and chill young dude that masks Sam’s discouragement at being personally and professionally rejected. He’s in love, but can he bring himself to say so? McFarlane is an adorkable delight as Avery; highly intelligent, socially awkward and longing for a friend, there’s a lost little boy quality about Avery that hints at a deeper internal conflict. Keating brings a lovely combination of fire and vulnerability to the high-octane, free spirit Rose; as much of an extrovert as Avery is an introvert, Rose is a free spirit whose desires are expressed in brief and intense sexual relationships. Even though Rose does what she likes and likes what she does, she wonders about the long term—and if something is really wrong with her.

All the world’s a stage—or in this case, a movie screen—and we’re all merely players. Real life isn’t like it is in the movies, but sometimes we can hit some of those sweet spots. And we all have opportunities to choose to get real and drop the stereotype mask for a moment, or not.

The Flick continues at Streetcar Crowsnest, extended by popular demand to November 2; advance tickets available online. Advance booking recommended; this is a really popular show.

See for yourself in the trailer:

Real & virtual worlds collide in the chilling, mind-blowing The Nether

Hannah Levinson & David Storch. Set and lighting design by Patrick Lavender. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Photo by Tim Leyes.

 

Production warning: While nothing graphic whatsoever happens onstage, The Nether has violent and sexually explicit content, including rape, murder, suicide and pedophilia, that may be deeply disturbing to some. Please be advised.

Coal Mine Theatre joins forces with Studio 180 Theatre, opening its 5th season last night, taking us to a shocking virtual reality world with its Toronto premiere of Jennifer Haley’s The Nether, directed by Peter Pasyk. Part crime procedural, part sci-fi thriller, The Nether explores the dark side of human desire, asking us: Are pedophilia, rape and murder, committed with impunity in an online world, truly victimless? And should these online crimes be punishable in the offline world?

The Nether is the evolution of the Internet in not too distant future; an virtual online world that provides access to “realms” of education, work and fantasy role play on a level never seen before. In a world where trees, grass and plants—aspects of nature we take for granted—are rare and costly, The Nether provides access to startlingly realistic environments that engage all of the senses; and the chance to become anyone you want via an avatar persona. It is here that Sims (David Storch) has created The Hideaway, a stately, secluded Victorian home placed in a pastoral setting lush with trees and a garden. Presenting himself as Papa to his virtual guests and employees, he plays host to those who, like himself, have certain proclivities that would be considered heinously criminal in the “offline” world. The Hideaway is a pedophile playground, where adult guests may interact with, rape and murder children with complete impunity. After all, Sims argues, these aren’t “real” children, so no crime has been committed; and his realm provides a service in that it keeps pedophiles from realizing their desires in the real world as they satisfy their hunger online.

Nether law enforcement Detective Moss (Katherine Cullen) would disagree and has taken Sims in for interrogation. [Mini-spoiler alert] As part of the investigation, undercover agent Woodnut (Mark McGrinder) infiltrates The Hideaway as a guest, to witness first-hand the goings-on there. Woodnut spends a great deal of time with Iris (Hannah Levinson), a girl of about 12 and Papa’s favourite. Eerily life-like and possessing of an old soul, Iris is aware of her role as child victim; she is patient and encouraging with newbie Woodnut, who is bashful and hesitant to fully play out the game, assuring him that she resurrects after each murder.

Moss also questions Doyle (Robert Persichini), a high school science teacher and former guest at The Hideaway who claims to know nothing about Sims’ motives and plans, but whose troubled demeanour suggests that he’s hiding something. He does confess to Moss that he wants to “cross over”—leave the offline world behind and live out the rest of his life completely online. Referred to as “shades,” those who set out to do so must make arrangements for life support for their corporeal bodies in the real world—and Moss is alarmed at the prospect, warning Doyle that these supports aren’t as advertised.

What’s critical for Moss’s investigation is that the characters at The Hideaway are not computer programs or AI constructs—they are avatars with a person behind them. And while Sims insists that he fastidiously vets all participants to ensure adult-only entry, Moss believes that his realm is far from victimless.

Gripping, laser-focused work from the cast in this haunting tale of a fascinating and disturbing new world—all the more troubling as it’s not too far into the future. Cullen gives an edgy, driven performance as Moss; determined to get to the truth at nearly any cost, Moss also has her own demons to tame. Storch delivers a razor sharp, complex pair of characters: the cool, clever virtual entrepreneur Sims, and the playful, warm father figure Papa. Masterfully compartmentalizing his offline and online lives, Sims rationalizes his creation by positing that he keeps pedophiles off the streets, but appears to struggle with personal attachments of his own in The Hideaway.

Levinson is a precious, likable smarty pants as Iris; playful, curious, observant and empathetic, Iris begins to question her world, putting her position at risk. Persichini gives a deeply poignant performance as the troubled Doyle; a sharply intelligent and profoundly lonely and sad man, Doyle longs to be in a world where he is loved and feels a sense of belonging. Nicely layered work from McGrinder as the kind, conflicted Woodnut; entering The Hideaway to investigate, he finds himself strangely drawn to this world—and must come to grips with the personal feelings that emerge while in this undercover position.

The ensemble is nicely supported by compelling, atmospheric design elements, from Patrick Lavender’s startling, transporting set and lighting design, to Michelle Bohn’s mix of period and futuristic costumes, and Richard Feren’s spooky, game-like sound design.

It’s a lot to process—and raises important moral and ethical questions about the power of technology to transport, entertain and engage. Would a realm such as The Hideaway keep society safe in that rapists, murderers and pedophiles could enact their dark desires only online? Or would it serve as a dress rehearsal for the real thing or convert those who’ve never considered such atrocities? And if you believe that behaviour is shaped by thought, is there really such a thing as a victimless crime in any world?

The Nether continues at Coal Mine Theatre until November 4; get advanced tickets online—advance booking strongly recommended.

In the meantime, check out cast and crew interview videos on the Coal Mine website.

 

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll sing along in your heart with the brilliant, hilarious & deeply poignant Stupidhead!

Katherine Cullen & Britta Johnson in Stupidhead!—photo by Michael Cooper

 

Better late than never to the party, as I finally got out to see Katherine Cullen and Britta Johnson’s SummerWorks hit Stupidhead! A Musical Comedy, directed by Aaron Willis—now in its final week in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Mainspace.

Written and performed by Cullen and Johnson, who also collaborated on the lyrics, with music by Johnson, Stupidhead! is a part musical, part stand-up, part personal storytelling journey of Cullen’s experience living with dyslexia.

Stupidhead! is Cullen’s childhood dream of being in a musical come true. And, despite her lack of training, experience and self-reported ability, she was determined to make it happen; and recruited her good friend Johnson to help her write the music. Johnson joins her onstage, accompanying her on piano and back-up vocals—reacting to Cullen’s performance throughout, sometimes cracking up along with the audience.

Pointing out that dyslexia affects people differently, Cullen has no trouble with reading and writing—and as a child enjoyed escaping into writing poetry, and stories about the adventures of a silly koala and rabbit. Diagnosed at a young age, Cullen relates her struggles with math, organizational skills and directions, finding herself mentally lost at school and physically lost in her own neighbourhood—and, above all, labelled. And that label put her in the position of having to deal with ignorance and lack of compassion from others, making her sense of otherness feel even more isolating and humiliating, and becoming a part of her identity.

Her anecdotes about trying to fit in are both hilarious and moving—from her grade three poetry contest nemesis (now a CFL football player), to being lost on her own street, to two weeks in a puppet camp in Vermont as a young adult and her love of Jesus Christ Superstar—all delivered with genuine feeling and gusto. While it’s a show about the “glamour of failure,” it’s also a show about throwing off the chains of shame and isolation. In the end, Cullen avoids tying it up neatly, but emerges from the darker moments of her experience into a place of hope and determination.

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Katherine Cullen in Stupidhead!—photo by Michael Cooper

Cullen shines onstage. An engaging, genuine and charming performer, she’s gutsy and kick-ass, but also vulnerable and fragile. As she schools us on dyslexia, she gives us the straight goods about what it’s like to live inside her head. And she gives ‘er with the music, putting her all into performing the songs, from belted out numbers to gentle, heartfelt ballads. She and Johnson make a terrific duo. Johnson is pretty damn funny herself; and there’s a lovely tender moment of compassion and understanding between them that rings with friendship and love. And their anthem of “don’t give up!” brought tears to my eyes.

With big shouts to set designer Anahita Dehbonehie and lighting designer Jennifer Lennon for the cool and beautiful neurosciencey environment.

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll sing along in your heart with the brilliant, hilarious and deeply poignant Stupidhead!

Stupidhead! continues in the TPM Mainspace, closing on Apr 2; book in advance online or call 416-504-7529. Check out Hallie Seline’s interview with Cullen and Johnson for In the Greenroom.

And here’s the trailer: