Rough & rowdy, it’s all guts & no glory in the funny, poignant, political The Gut Girls

They’re an unruly, foul-mouthed, hard-working, hard-drinking bunch ‘a gals—and their world is about to be turned upside down.

Alumnae Theatre starts off the New Year with its production of Sarah Daniels’ The Gut Girls, directed by Maya Rabinovitch. The Gut Girls is part of Alumnae’s Retrospective Series, leading up to its 100th anniversary next season.

The Gut Girls takes us to 1901, where the “gut girls” work in a gutting shed in the Foreign Cattle Market in Deptford, England. Paid good money, but working punishing hours in a foul environment—often up to their ankles in blood—it’s an offal job, but somebody’s got to do it.

Gut girls Polly (Alexandra Augustine), Ellen (Sarah Thorpe), Maggie (Kaya Bucholc) and Kate (Tasia Loeffler-Vulpe) take new girl Annie (Claire Keating) under their wing. Formerly in service, Annie found herself pregnant and fired, now living in a home for wayward women since the birth of her stillborn child—and finds friends, support and some new digs as she learns the ropes in the shed.

Enter do-gooder Lady Helena (Nicole Arends) with her friend Lord Edwin (Brendan O’Reilly) in tow. A self-appointed crusader for the downtrodden, especially working class women toiling in harsh conditions, she is instrumental in running a women’s club that teaches domestic skills and lady-like manners so women can transition into service. Through her friend Arthur (Mike Hogan), Lady Helena brokers an arrangement for the girls to be let off work an hour early on Thursdays, and garners the assistance of Arthur’s painfully shy wife Priscilla (Thorpe) to coax the girls to come to the club.

Hilarious times ensue, revealing class divisions and presumptions, as Lady Helena and Priscilla attempt to tame this wild group of young women. And when they learn that the sheds are to be shut down, their timing for training the women becomes all the more urgent—the gut girls are unemployable without new skills and ‘proper’ manners to recommend them. And the so-called gentlemen Edwin and Arthur prove to be not as gentlemanly as they appear, causing Maggie to quit the club and Priscilla to go on sick leave.

Struggling to learn new skills and find jobs, and with few prospects beyond the factories, pubs, service or the street, the gut girls have to take what they can get—and that means giving up their independence, dreams and even hope, in order to survive. Grimly circumspect about their situation, they’ve got the lady balls to take it, even though their hearts and spirits are broken.

Really lovely work from the ensemble, which shifts adeptly from comedy to drama throughout this compelling—not to mention timely—story. Augustine’s Polly is the roughest, toughest, biggest tomboy of the gang; she’s also a great jokester with a big heart. Thorpe (doing double duty as actor and co-producer) gives a strong, impassioned performance as Ellen, who tirelessly attempts to spread awareness of workers’ rights and the benefits of unionizing; as Priscilla, she blossoms from mousy wallflower to a caring and assertive mentor—a transformation that is quickly, and sadly, nipped in the bud by her bullying husband. Bucholc’s Maggie, like Polly, has a big heart under that devil-may-care attitude; a gut girl veteran, she’s supporting her mum and umpteen siblings—and must make a hard choice in order to keep life and limb together.

Loeffler-Vulpe’s Kate is a cheeky delight; one of the youngest gut girls, she’s an optimistic realist as she dreams big dreams and longs for a better life with her boyfriend Jim (O’Reilly). As new kid Annie, Keating gives us our introduction to the sights and smells of the gutting shed; formerly in a relatively comfortable job in service, Annie has first-hand experience of where ungentlemanly behaviour can put a young working class woman.

Arends is a formidable Lady Helena; on a single-minded mission to tame these rowdy young things into respectable young ladies, her lack of understanding and conditional respect for these women have unexpected, serious consequences. You know what they say about the road to hell. O’Reilly goes from clown to villain as Lord Edwin; a love-sick puppy following Lady Helena about, he turns his unwanted attentions to Maggie in a more forceful manner—with dire results for her. And he gives a sweet turn as Kate’s boyfriend Jim, who dreams of owning a toy shop. Hogan is an especially busy actor, playing four characters; notably the gruff gutting shed foreman Harry, barkeep Len (who has an eye on Maggie), and Priscilla’s controlling, devious husband Arthur.

With big shouts to the design team: Marysia Bucholc for the evocative, textured set (featuring scrubbed blood stains); Wendel Wray for the period costumes (especially the hats!); and Julie Skene for the entertaining period music (ranging from vaudeville to Scott Joplin).

Rough and rowdy, it’s all guts and no glory in the funny, poignant, political The Gut Girls.

The Gut Girls continues on the Alumnae Mainstage till February 4; for ticket info and online purchases, visit their website.

Special pre-show event in the lobby Jan 21 @ 6:45 pm: Prior to tonight’s performance, writer/performer and producer of the storytelling show Storystar Erin Rogers leads a group of storytellers as they relate tales of women’s and workers’ rights. Participants include Toronto-based writer, activist and social agitator Anne Thériault; United Church minister Evan Smith; and Seneca College and Second City storytelling instructor Sage Tyrtle.

Special pre-show event in the lobby Jan 26 @ 6:45 pm: President of United Steelworkers Local 8300 and the Steelworkers Toronto Area Council Carolyn Egan speaks about the rise of the labour movement and its impact on women in the workforce.

Photo by Ashley Elliot: Back – Nicole Arends. Front – Kaya Bucholc, Sarah Thorpe, Alexandra Augustine, Tasia Loeffler-Vulpe & Claire Keating

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To breed or not to breed? Choices, identity & divisions in reflective, funny Rattled

paige and lena couch
Nessya Dayan & Ximena Huizi – photo by Claire Holland

Brouillon Productions examines the spectrum of women’s choices and attitudes towards motherhood in Claire Holland’s Rattled, directed by Holland and currently running at the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace.

BFFs Lena (Ximena Huizi) and Paige (Nessya Dayan) can count on each other for everything, calling or texting each other every day with updates, advice, rants. That all changes when Lena has a baby, and she becomes too busy, too tired and too mommy brained to maintain frequent, focused contact. And when they attend Lena’s post-delivery baby shower at Lena’s aunt Donna’s (Stacey Iseman), it becomes apparent that the two friends now belong to two different groups: the breeders and the non-breeders. The breeders are Grace (Carina Cojeen), Julia (Kaya Bucholc) and Aundrea (Fleur Jacobs), and the non-breeders include Lena’s colleague Michelle (Regan Brown) and Donna, who takes more neutral territory as host and referee. During the food, drinks and games, the range of attitudes and desires regarding motherhood emerges. It’s a big life change for Lena, with a huge impact on her friendships; and on top of all this, Paige needs to decide if she’s going to stay in Toronto or move to Vancouver with her boyfriend as he starts a new job.

whole cast stroller scene
L to R: Regan Brown, Nessya Dayan, Stacey Iseman, Ximena Huizi, Kaya Bucholc, Carina Cojeen & Fleur Jacobs – photo by Claire Holland

The cast does a lovely job, with all the funny, touching and wit’s end insanity of caring for a tiny human – or not – arguing about strollers on transit and toddler meltdowns in restaurants. Huizi does a really nice job with Lena’s conflicting desire to be a mom and a friend; missing her little James even during the few hours of the shower, she struggles to recall details of conversation with Paige and finds herself distracted by the mommy talk in the room. Dayan brings a nice balance to Paige’s devotion to Lena and the growing frustration that their friendship will never be the same; a non-breeder by choice, now that Lena’s attentions are more focused on her baby, Paige needs to decide where to refocus her own life. Iseman brings a lovely sense of calm and quiet to Lena’s aunt Donna; with a history of cancer deciding her non-breeder status, she is gently pragmatic and pensive, and grateful for her life even though it took an unexpected turn. Brown is both cheerful and heartbreaking as Michelle, who longs to be a mother, but finds life’s busyness has kept her from finding a partner with which to create and share her dream. Lovely work in the two-handed scene with Iseman, where Michelle and Donna respectfully and poignantly share perspectives on identity and the disappointment of watching hopes drift away.

michelle and donna
Regan Brown & Stacey Iseman – photo by Claire Holland

Representing the mommy spectrum are Cojeen’s amiable and practical Grace, a mom of twins who’s happy to be out with the grown-up girls; on the more traditional side of parenting as far as boundaries go, she cares about her kids’ impact on others. Jacobs’ Aundrea is Grace’s hilarious polar opposite; bursting into the party, wondering where the booze is and over the moon that she has time away from the rug rats. She believes in free-range kids, and people just have to deal with it if they’re being their wild, kid-like selves in public. Bucholc’s Julia is a picture of fastidious efficiency and kid programming; doting mother to her Henry, she’s an encyclopedia of the best pre-school classes and knows where all the stroller accessible spaces are within a 10-km radius.

The social and peer – and self-imposed – pressure to be a woman in a certain way is alive and well in the 21st century, with motherhood being a significant piece of that equation. Perhaps if we were a bit gentler on ourselves, we could be a little less judgemental of the choices other women make.

The pre-show lobby video monitor and program include some fabulous quotes on motherhood from various notable women. My favourite is from Gloria Steinem: “I’m completely happy not having children. I mean, everybody does not have to live in the same way. And as somebody said, ‘Everybody with a womb doesn’t have to have a child any more than everybody with vocal cords has to be an opera singer.’”

To breed or not to breed? Choices, identity and divisions – funny ‘cuz it’s true in poignant, reflective Rattled.

Rattled continues till July 23 in the Tarragon Extraspace, running every night at 8 p.m. with an additional performance on July 23 at 2:30 p.m. It’s a very short run, so get yourself out there to avoid disappointment.

Grotesquely beautiful and darkly comic tragedy – Alumnae’s Antigone is a work of art

In the semi-darkness, a masked, covered figure lies centre stage, surrounded by three ropes that hang from the ceiling. Sleeping or dead? The house lights go down and there’s movement from the front of house entrance as a procession of masked figures enters, each bearing a death mask mounted on a bamboo pike. Their voices rise in a wordless, melodic, wailing music that evokes the sounds of ancient mourning. A people torn apart by war. Living with unspeakable loss.

And so the stage is set for the Alumnae Theatre Company’s production of Antigone (Anouilh), directed by Janet Kish.

Amanda Cordner (Chorus) and the ensemble in Antigone
Amanda Cordner (Chorus) and the ensemble

Enter the Chorus (Amanda Cordner), our narrator and guide to this world. We are in a nowhere land of here, there, then and now – out of time and place, in a parallel universe where ancient Greece meets WWII Paris. And the lighting on the three ropes gives the space a three-ringed gallows appearance – and the Chorus, dressed in tails, is the Ringmaster.

In a country recovering from a civil war between Oedipus’s two sons, who once shared the throne but are now both dead at each other’s hand, Oedipus’s brother Creon (Scott Moore) is now king, a tyrant who has buried one nephew with honours and left the other’s corpse to rot in the sun and be devoured by animals. By royal decree, anyone who attempts to bury the corpse will be put to death. Creon’s niece Antigone (Kaya Bucholc) defies her uncle’s order and buries her brother, leaving Creon with a difficult choice: cover up her actions or put her to death. Antigone will do what’s right no matter what – and will do it over and over again. Creon’s response has devastating ripples – and it was all preventable.

Antigone (Kaya Bucholc) held by Guard (Eric Mrakovcic) as Guards (Renee Awotwi & Patrick Fowler) look on
Antigone (Kaya Bucholc) held by Guard (Eric Mrakovcic) as Guards (Renee Awotwi & Patrick Fowler) look on

Kish has an outstanding cast for this tragic tale of right versus might. Cordner is wryly comical and sharply, at times brutally, observant as the Chorus; Marlene Dietrich meets cabaret emcee in tails, black pants, black bra and a fascinator. A laser-focused and dispassionate host, she bridges our world with that of the play. Bucholc gives a moving and compelling performance as the doomed heroine. Rough and tumble, unapologetically conscientious, brave and defiant; she seeks no permission and asks no forgiveness – but struggles with her protective feelings for her sister Ismene (Carly Telford) and lover Haemon (Christopher Oszwald), in great pain over how the consequences of her actions will hurt them. Moore gives a nicely balanced performance as Creon, Antigone’s conflicted uncle tyrant/protector who leads with a cruel pragmatism and punitive, controlling hand. The debate scene between Antigone and Creon is particularly gripping; and Creon is ultimately stung by Antigone’s assertion that he is a prisoner king – not free by virtue of the choices he refuses to make, all in fear of losing control over his kingdom.

Haemon (Christopher Oszwald) pleads with Creon (Scott Moore)
Haemon (Christopher Oszwald) pleads with Creon (Scott Moore)

Really nice work from Oszwald as the passionate, playful and loyal Haemon; and Telford’s Ismene gives a sweet, wide-eyed quality to the favoured, entitled “good sister.” Martha Breen’s Eurydice, while largely a silent figure, is ever watchful as she knits with her blood red yarn – and her cry at the news of her son’s death would break the stones. Silent too is Christina Leonard’s page, a young boy who serves Creon well, but who registers the anxiety and oppression of a kingdom struggling to rise up from the ashes of war under an iron thumb.

Great comic relief from Sara Stahmer, as Antigone and Ismene’s doting, old-school and gently scolding Nurse. And from the Guards (Eric Mrakovcic, Renee Awotwi and Patrick Fowler), salt of the earth everymen who have no use for politics, and just want to keep their well-paying jobs so they can feed their families. Mrakovcic has a nice moment of empathy with Antigone as he guards her cell; and Awotwi is hilarious as she echoes Mrakovcic’s report of Antigone’s capture and arrest to Creon. Fowler does double duty as the Messenger, dressed as a WWII pilot, who gives a heartbreaking account of Antigone’s and Haemon’s deaths in the tomb meant for Antigone’s punishment and eventual grave.

This production of Antigone features powerful, evocative design, complemented by the play-themed art installation (in the lobby for the duration of the run, by set designer/scenographer Teodoro Dragonieri, assisted by scenic artist Sara Ahmadieh Rad); startling lighting design (Kelsey Laine Jacobson); and costume (Martina Christensen) and makeup (Eleanor MacVeigh) that aptly bring elements of time and place together to create this universe. The movement choreography (Jane Deluzio, in collaboration with the ensemble) and sound design/composition (Jeffrey Jones) are organic and visceral, hearkening back to the ancients while rooted in the present.

A grotesquely beautiful and darkly comic tragedy, Alumnae Theatre’s production of Antigone is a work of art. Get yourselves out there to see this.

Antigone runs on the Alumnae mainstage until Oct 3; click here for details and tickets. Some special performances to note: Social Media Night (Sat, Sept 19) – texting, tweeting and messaging in the last three rows; no flash photography, please. There will be a pre-matinée panel discussion (Sun, Sept 20 – noon to 1 p.m.), Women of Courage, with six “ordinary women who have exhibited extraordinary courage in our current day and age”: Rachel Lauren Clarke, Tasvinder Gill, Tessa Hill, Andrea Patreau, Lia Valente and Meagan Tuck Yaksich.

With production photos by Bruce Peters.

p.s. Almost forgot to mention some minor pre-show drama when the fire alarm went off around 10-15 minutes before show time; likely set off by the fog machine. Thanks to the Alumnae peeps who ushered us outdoors and to the firefighters who arrived to ensure that all was well.