Women of wit & wisdom debate religion in the compelling, funny, thought-provoking Unholy

Nightwood Theatre continues its 2016-17 season of groundbreaking theatre with Diane Flacks’ Unholy, directed by Nightwood A.D. Kelly Thornton, opening at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre last night.

Given the upcoming presidential inauguration and the accompanying Women’s March events, as well as ongoing changing attitudes towards religion, its treatment of women and LGBTQ people, and its place in our world, Unholy is a timely piece. It asks the question: Should women abandon religion?

Inspired by the 1989 documentary Half the Kingdom, Unholy is set as a TV debate, with host/moderator Richard Morris (Blair Williams) and debate teams of two women. On the pro side of the question are atheist lesbian pundit Liz Feldman-Grant (Diane Flacks) and excommunicated nun Margaret Donaghue (Barbara Gordon); on the con side are Orthodox Jewish spiritual leader Yehudit Kalb (Niki Landau) and progressive Muslim lawyer Maryam Hashemi (Bahareh Yaraghi).

Each woman is allowed two minutes at the podium to present her argument, followed by discussion and debate. This is an unapologetic, gloves off affair as arguments cover religion’s culpability for violence against women, women’s physical separation from male congregants, the niqab, family, sex, LGBTQ and women’s reproductive rights, and justice for pedophile priests. It is a battle of scripture interpretation, points of religious and secular law, wit and conscience—conducted with sharp intelligence and humour.

Woven into the debate scenes are some revealing monologues and tender, intimate two-handers; through these, we get glimpses into the private lives of these four women. Liz rejected Judaism when her now deceased partner Stacey received a terminal diagnosis. Margaret, in her role as a nurse and administrator at a Catholic hospital, made a decision the Catholic Church couldn’t abide. The love of Yehudit’s life married someone else. Maryam found strength in family tragedy, and love and acceptance in her family’s new life in Canada. As private and public lives collide, and the debate heats up, of course all hell breaks loose.

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Diane Flacks & Barbara Gordon in Unholy – all photos by John Lauener

Flacks’ powerful script is matched by an equally strong cast that brings these fully drawn, complex women to life in this nicely staged, multi-media piece. As the atheist Liz, Flacks is a fierce, mercurial and determined debater; seeing the world of organized religion in black and white terms, Liz rejects the notion that religion can be a positive force in the world. Deeply wounded by the loss of her partner, out of her grief she became mad as hell at the state of organized religion and its impact on women—and chose her battle. Gordon brings a lovely, understated quietude to the soft-spoken ex-nun Margaret; beneath the surface, though, is a heart of strength, hope and courage. Not entirely convinced of her official debate argument, she is a disillusioned former soldier of the Catholic Church who disobeyed orders to follow her own conscience.

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Niki Landau & Bahareh Yaraghi in Unholy

As Yehudit, Landau is both comic and poignant; shifting from a willful young woman to dutiful adult, she serves her family and community with strength and stand-up comic good humour. Circumspect in her interpretations of her Orthodox Jewish faith, she sees room for growth and change; this includes space for women to play a significant leadership role. Yaraghi is sharp and passionate as Maryam, and an excellent foil for Flacks’ Liz. Like her debate partner Yehudit, Maryam is hopeful and believes in a progressive Islam as she strives to break the barriers of stereotype and ignorance in a post-9/11 world where extremists are continually making headlines.

Turnabout is fair play for the male moderator. As women are largely relegated to the sidelines in day-to-day life, especially religious life, it is he who stands off to the side as the studio is dominated by the four women. Williams does a nice job with the affable Morris; as the women take the podium, he rides the fine line of refereeing authentic discourse and the desire to create gripping television.

Each of the women is an archetype: the wounded Fighter, the Lover with a patched up heart, the heartbroken Mother and the haunted Healer. Although each is broken-hearted and struggling with a crisis of faith, each is passionate, strong, wise and loving as she strives to stay hopeful and work towards a better world.

Serious issues, but Unholy makes you laugh a lot—and it’s going to stay with you well after you leave the theatre. It may even change your mind.

Women of wit and wisdom debate religion in the compelling, funny, thought-provoking Unholy.

Due to popular demand, Unholy has extended its run at Buddies to February 5; you can book tix in advance online or by phone. The run also includes several scheduled talkbacks:

Friday, January 20 – Gretta Vosper: as an atheist and a minister with the United Church of Canada, Gretta’s self-proclaimed motto is “Irritating the church into the 21st century.” SOLD OUT

Monday, January 23* – Nightwood Theatre Young Innovator Michela Sisti hosts a panel discussion about women in religion as part of Brave New Theatre’s response to Unholy. Joining her will be playwright Diane Flacks, Raheel Raza (journalist and inter-faith consultant) and Andrea Budgey (Humphrys Chaplain, freelance writer and environmental activist).

*Please note: there are no performances of Unholy on Mondays. For more information on Brave New Theatre, please visit their Facebook page.

Wednesday, January 25 – Stay post-show for a Q & A with the stellar cast members of Unholy.

Friday, January 27 – Lynn Harrison: a Reverend with First Toronto Unitarian, an interfaith, non-denominational congregation with its roots in social justice and inclusion.

Thursday, February 2 – Due to popular demand, atheist minister Gretta Vosper will return to share her insights on women in religion and inclusive atheism.

You can keep up with Nightwood Theatre on Twitter and Facebook. In the meantime, check out the trailer for Unholy:

Tantalizing treats & 2016-17 season sneak peeks @ Nightwood Theatre Dramatic Spring Social

It was a fabulous night of tantalizing treats and 2016-17 sneak peeks in very good company as Nightwood Theatre gave invited guests a sneak peek at its 2016-17 season at a Dramatic Spring Social, held at the home of Nightwood Board Chair Karon Bales on Wednesday night. The evening’s festivities included delicious food and drink, with wine supplied by GreenLane Estate Winery, and food from Sublime Catering and Beacon Restaurant Concepts.

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A.D. Kelly Thornton & Managing Director Beth Brown – photos by Taylor Trowbridge

Host Karon Bales welcomed us to her home, thanking us for our attendance as she highlighted the importance of theatre and the arts, and our shared dedication to the advancement of women. Nightwood A.D. Kelly Thornton and Managing Director Beth Brown echoed the importance of equity in the arts, hearkening back to the founding of Nightwood in 1979 – and shouting out founder Cynthia Grant, who was present – and its dedication to producing “relevant, dynamic and powerful theatre.” And that the low proportion of produced works written by women (22%) is evidence that, even in 2016, there is still a need for a women’s theatre.

We were then treated to excerpts from three of the four productions from Nightwood’s upcoming 2016-17 season:

Mouthpiece (Oct 21 – Nov 6, 2016 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre). A Dora award-winning Quote Unquote Collective production; created and performed by Norah Sadava and Amy Nostbakken, and directed/composed by Amy Nostbakken. Presented as a double bill with Quiver.

Amy Nostbakken & Norah Sadava
Amy Nostbakken & Norah Sadava

Gorgeous, fluid a cappella harmonies, unison spoken word and expressive movements make this an engaging and evocative piece. Performing an excerpt from the second half of the play, Sadava and Nostbakken portray two sides of a character whose mother has died. Shifting from the hauntingly beautiful a cappella harmonies of a roots spiritual to the unison voice message from the woman’s aunt, the audience is both moved and tickled as this young woman deals with conflicting emotions, inner turmoil and a funeral fashion crisis. I missed the RISER Project production last year – and will be sure to see it this time around.

Anna Chatterton
Anna Chatterton

Quiver (Oct 21 – Nov 6, 2016 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre). Written and performed by Anna Chatterton, directed by Andrea Donaldson. Presented as a double bill with Mouthpiece.

Chatterton incorporates a vocal processor, laptop and microphone to create atmospheric and vocal effects to orchestrate this multi-character one-person show. In the excerpt, 14-year-old Maddie observes the world around her, particularly her mother’s bad romance with boyfriend Daniel, who turns out to be cheating on her. This revelation is exacerbated further when her teenage sister tells them the one he’s cheating with! Funny, dramatic and quirky, it’s a remarkable and engaging piece of solo storytelling.

Unholy (Jan 15 – Feb 5, 2017 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre). Written by Diane Flacks, directed by Kelly Thornton.

Niki Landau
Niki Landau

Set as a live, televised debate, four women argue the question: “Should women abandon religion?” The play weaves flashbacks with debate moments, where each woman’s personal life is revealed (showing us what’s not being said). In the excerpt, Niki Landau performed a flashback: a hilarious drunken Jewish wedding toast from the sister of the bride that turns into confession and accusations of favouritism.

Century Song (April 12 – 29, 2017 at Crow’s Theatre). A Volcano Theatre production; created by Neema Bickersteth, with Kate Alton and Ross Manson, directed by Ross Manson and performed by Neema Bickersteth.

Inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, Century Song combines song, movement and projected images to create a feast for the senses as the storytelling takes the audience on a stunning journey of 100 years of women and art.

With thanks to Nightwood’s Marketing Coordinator Taylor Trowbridge for the photos and Development Coordinator Victoria Leberge for the invite.

Coming up soon for Nightwood: The annual Lawyer Show fundraiser; this year, it’s Guys and Dolls (June 9-11 at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts). Also, coming up: the Creativity Gym; contact Michelle Alexander for info.

Can’t make it to The Lawyer Show, but want to support Nightwood? Consider making a donation.

You can keep up with Nightwood Theatre on Twitter and Facebook.

 

 

Assumptions, uncertainty & paranoia in powerful, eye-opening Refuge

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Pamela Mala Sinha & Andrea Davis in Refuge – photos by John Lauener

There’s a heart-wrenching and thought-provoking piece of socio-political theatre running in the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace right now: Nightwood Theatre’s production of Mary Vingoe’s Refuge, directed by Kelly Thornton. The play was inspired in part by the award-winning CBC Radio documentary Habtom’s Path by Mary Lynk, as well as Vingoe’s personal experiences tutoring a woman from Ethiopia and hosting a Chinese student in her home. Refuge is presented in association with Amnesty International.

Community immigrant support group member Pamela Ross (Pamela Mala Sinha) tutors East African refugee Amleset Zerisenai (Andrea Davis) in English, and learns that Amleset’s son Ayinom, an army deserter, has been detained for arriving in the country without papers. She enlists the aid of immigration lawyer Saul Ackerman (Jason Weinberg), who eventually convinces her to take Ayinom in – much to the dismay of her husband Allan (Ryan Hollyman). With the assistance of interpreter Mebrahtu (Raïs Muoi), Ayinom gains a friend and a job. Shifting between past and present, Pamela, Saul and Mebrahtu are interviewed by a CBC interviewer (Mary Francis Moore) about Ayinom’s story.

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Mary Francis Moore & Raïs Muoi in Refuge

We never see Ayinom – but his presence is felt strongly throughout. We never get a full picture of this young man, perceived as mysterious in that relatively little is known about him. Without documentation, authorities and allies must rely on first- and second-hand accounts of his status and character – an uncertain situation that provokes more questions than answers, as well as paranoia in a post-911 world. Exacerbating this is Pamela and Saul’s personal and legal history with the Air India bombing disaster, where Pamela lost her grandparents. Ayinom’s anxious mother describes him as a “good boy,” but we also learn from Mebrahtu that he was an uneducated young man, drafted into the army and handed a gun, and there are conflicting accounts of his rank and activities. And Ayinom’s quiet, unassuming personality gives them pause as well: is it due to the shock of the horrors of war and the long, terrible journey to get away – or is he up to something?

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Pamela Mala Sinha & Jason Weinberg in Refuge

Nice work from the cast in this quiet, tension-filled piece. Stand-outs include Sinha, who brings an understated nuance to Pamela Ross’s inner conflict. Her head is at odds with her heart; and despite a reluctance to take Ayinom in, she wants to help Amleset and chooses to take a leap of faith and host him in her home – an undertaking that becomes even more challenging in the face of her husband’s growing paranoia and a complicated relationship with Saul. Weinberg’s Saul is a great combination of gruff charm and pragmatism on the outside with a warm-hearted centre that roots for the underdog. Beneath the bad jokes and sharp, realist attitude, he genuinely cares; like Pamela, Saul isn’t doing this so much for Ayinom as for someone he knows and cares about, and even though they have their doubts, they both want to believe in the good in this young man. Muoi is an informative delight as Mebrahtu; energetic, talkative and affable, he lays out the facts of the brutal situation in East Africa in a matter-of-fact, but never clinical, way. He doesn’t know Ayinom well, and they became close friends, but even he only knows what he’s been told and what he translates from Ayinom’s diary. And we get the sense that even he’s not sure what Ayinom is about.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Refuge is the physical absence of a key character. Ayinom is lacking (a word Pamela is teaching Amleset) in the action, but his presence is felt nevertheless. He is cared about, theorized about, talked about. But we never hear directly from him. We gather from others that he is a beloved son, a social cause, a refugee claimant under suspicion, a friend. He is determined, hard-working and well-liked, but quiet, solitary and uncommunicative. He has survived the bloodshed of war, travelled thousands of miles, enduring unknown and unspeakable horrors along the way. Ayinom is a young man seeking a better life, going through hell to get out of a horrific situation in his home country only to be put through a fresh kind of hell in the new country he longs to call home.

With shouts to set/costume designer Laura Gardner for the striking set design, with its cold whites and greys, footprints in the snow, and highly effective screen projections on fabric ‘walls’: the beautiful, eerie tree silhouettes and raging sea.

Assumptions, uncertainty and paranoia in the powerful, eye-opening Refuge.

Refuge continues at the Tarragon Extraspace until May 8; you can purchase advance tix online.

Check out the trailer:

 

The Penelopiad is back!

Nightwood Theatre’s much lauded production of Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, directed by Kelly Thornton, is back for a remount starting tonight (Jan 8) and runs until February 10 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. The remarkable all-female cast includes Megan Follows, Maev Beaty, Neema Bickersteth, Fiona Byrne, Sarah Dodd, Monica Dottor, Audrey Dwyer, Nicole Joy-Fraser, Kelli Fox, Cara Gee, Patricia Hamilton, Pamela Sinha and Sophia Walker.

If you didn’t catch the run last year, get out and see this – or come out and see it again.

Here’s the trailer for the 2013 production:

World premiere of Nightwood production of Jordi Mand’s Between the Sheets – riveting & heart-wrenching

I had the pleasure of attending another world premiere of a work by an emerging female playwright last night: Nightwood Theatre’s production of Jordi Mand’s Between the Sheets, a two-hander directed by Kelly Thornton, and starring Susan Coyne and Christine Horne, onstage at the Tarragon Theatre Extra Space. Don’t let the short running time (approx. 1 hour) fool you – there is a lot going on in this hour in the classroom during parent/teacher interview night. And the stakes are huge.

Kelly Wolf’s set took me back to the first day of school, and I found myself walking past a perfectly rendered third grade classroom as I found a seat. Along the top of the green chalkboard are four printed cardboard trees, each set in different seasons, starting with Fall. Above the chalkboard, students’ paintings are taped up all along the wall. There is a large clock with big numbers and hands. A cubby with books and craft supplies. Small desks, with colourful duotangs set on top and blue chairs in front of them, dot the light blue floor in groups of three, miniature islands – smaller worlds within this small world. And in the background, the sound of rhythmic clapping, perhaps skipping too. Schoolyard games.

As the lights go down and come back up on this microcosm of life, we see Teresa, the young grade three teacher tidying up and preparing to leave following an evening of meetings with parents when Marion, the mom of a student named Alex, appears unexpectedly at her classroom door. A discussion of Alex’s social and academic progress turns to accusations of infidelity, as Marion accuses Teresa of having an affair with her husband Curtis. The intense battle of words that follows has both women fighting for their lives – riveting and heart-wrenching, with unexpected flashes of humour, and even compassion and understanding. In the end, as both are left to pick up the pieces of the evening’s revelations, Teresa is alone once more, the ticking of the clock becoming louder as it echos throughout the empty classroom.

Outstanding performances from both Coyne and Horne, with Horne’s Teresa showing surprising guts and strength beneath the sweet and fragile exterior, and Coyne bringing lovely layers to Marion – from imperious corporate lioness to exhausted, frustrated and confused wife and mother. Nice work, ladies! And I was very happy to bump into both of them as I was leaving so I could tell them so.

Also want to give a shout out to Nightwood’s 10,000 Women campaign in support of women’s voices in the arts, a fundraiser that the company is launching with this production. The aim is to get 10,000 donations of $10, with each donor offering the name of a woman in their life that they want to honour – the names will appear in print at the end of the campaign. For more info – and to donate – check out this page:  http://www.nightwoodtheatre.net/index.php/support/10000_women

Between the Sheets runs at the Tarragon Theatre Extra Space until October 7, with a post-show talkback – parenting and relationship expert Sara Dimerman with moderator Diane Flacks – coming up tomorrow night (Thurs, Sept 27): http://www.nightwoodtheatre.net/index.php/whats_on/between_the_sheets#tab4

For more info and reservations, please visit the Nightwood Theatre website: http://www.nightwoodtheatre.net/index.php/whats_on/between_the_sheets#tab1

Between the Sheets, February & Gay Play Days – plus Nuit Blanche!

The good times just keep on rollin’, my friends. Here are just a few fabulous arts and culture events happening right now or coming up soon:

Nightwood Theatre’s production of Jordi Mand’s Between the Sheets at Tarragon Theatre (extra space) – started its run last night and runs until Sun, Oct 7. Directed by Kelly Thornton, and featuring actors Susan Coyne and Christine Horne. Get the 411 on this production at Nightwood’s site: http://www.nightwoodtheatre.net/index.php/whats_on/between_the_sheets#tab1

The world premiere of Lisa Moore’s play February at Alumnae Theatre (main stage) – Fri, Sept 21 – Sat, Oct 6 with a Q&A talkback with Moore, director Michelle Alexander, and the cast and creative team after the Sun, Sept 23 matinee. For details and reservations, visit the Alumnae website: http://www.alumnaetheatre.com/1213feb.html

Gay Play Days, a festival of LGBT theatre, at Alumnae Theatre (studio) – Fri, Sept 28 and Sat, Sept 29 at 8 p.m. Featuring short plays: Intervention by Bruce Harrott, The Object of Her Attraction by Tina McCulloch, Stupid Bitch by Durango Miller and Ramblings of a Middle-aged Drag Queen by Darren Stewart-Jones (starring Philip Cairns), as well as a staged reading of Sky Gilbert’s Hamilton Bus Stop, starring Ellen-Ray Hennessy. For the scoop, visit their Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/GayPlayDay

Nuit Blanche 2012 (Toronto) lands a bit early this year – starting Sat, Sept 29 at 7 :03 p.m. and running till sunrise on Sun, Sept 30. I’ll be heading out to see Dr. Draw (http://drdraw.ca/) at the Rivoli at 8 p.m. and Lizzie Violet reading horror poetry in Small Audiences at the Theatre Local space at Artscape Wychwood Barns  at 3:30 a.m., among other artists. Check out the program/locations here: http://www.scotiabanknuitblanche.ca/