Love, family & home in the heartwarming, hilarious Bed & Breakfast

Paolo Santalucia & Gregory Prest. Set design by Alexandra Lord. Costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by Bonnie Beecher. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper takes us on a heartwarming, hilarious gay pioneering adventure of love, family, community and belonging with its deftly staged production of Mark Crawford’s Bed and Breakfast. Featuring a cast of nearly two dozen characters, performed by two exceptional actors, this poignant comedy directed by Ann-Marie Kerr is running now at the Young Centre.

City boys Brett (Gregory Prest) and Drew (Paolo Santalucia) long to get out of their Toronto condo and into a house they can call home; but despite the best efforts of their flamboyant real estate agent friend Ray (Prest), they continually find themselves on the losing end of cut-throat bidding wars. All that changes when they attend Brett’s aunt Maggie’s funeral and learn that she’s left her large small-town Victorian house to him. Brett, who works as an interior designer, and Drew, who works as a hotel concierge, decide to join forces professionally, go for a total lifestyle makeover and hatch a plan to move in, renovate and open a hip, contemporary B&B.

Easier said than done, as Brett and Drew are two gay fish out of water in a conservative small town. On the plus side, Brett has some knowledge of the town and people from his youth, having stayed with Maggie during the summer, and working with local contractor Doug (Santalucia). It doesn’t take long to find who their supporters are, but opponents are more cowardly and closeted. And, despite all efforts to engage with the community as they pitch in to help with the Santa Claus parade, there’s a cruel streak afoot in the town and the initial hostility they face escalates into something more disturbing. Soldiering on with the support of new friends and their commitment to the project, Brett and Drew persevere.

Chaos and hilarity ensue during the B&B’s opening weekend, when the guys host a Brit couple (Prest & Santalucia), a right-wing activist (Prest) and a pair of newlyweds (Santalucia)—plus deal with assorted emergencies and adopt a rambunctious puppy. They stumble through with a little help from their newfound friends—delightfully hippy dippy café owner Alison (Prest) and her Irish motorcycle-driving partner Chris (Santalucia), bubbly local real estate agent Carrie (Santalucia) and emo teen son Dustin (Prest), and even the tough, homophobic Doug and Brett’s sullen teen nephew Cody (Santalucia). But when Carrie informs them that she has a buyer willing to pay an obscene amount of money for the B&B, Brett and Drew have a tough decision to make—one that gets more complicated as family confessions and revelations emerge.

Outstanding, marathon performances from real-life couple Prest and Santalucia; creating a complementary pair of opposites with Prest’s more private, soft-spoken, circumspect Brett and Santalucia’s out, proud and extroverted Drew. And all this in addition to the sharply drawn, compelling, physically demanding performances as they each turn on a dime to deliver a cast of multiple characters in this tightly staged production. The design supports the story and staging both aesthetically and practically: Alexandra Lord’s multi-purpose airy set features Victorian architecture highlights; Ken MacKenzie’s spot-on, minimalist costume design; Bonnie Beecher’s magical, atmospheric lighting design; and sound design that features music by gay favourites, courtesy of John Gzowski.

The insightful, witty storytelling in Bed and Breakfast goes beyond the differences between gay and straight, and urban and small-town folks. It reminds us of the universal longing for a place where you belong, with people who accept you for who you are. Home is where your loved ones are; and the families we choose are just as potent—if not more so—as the ones we grew up with.

Due to popular demand during the first week of the run, Bed & Breakfast has been extended to September 8. Get advance tickets online or call the Young Centre box office: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

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Culture, identity & the meaning of the blues in Soulpepper’s powerful, entertaining Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Top: Alex Poch-Goldin. Bottom: Marcel Stewart, Diego Matamoros, Beau Dixon, Neville Edwards & Alana Bridgewater. Set & lighting design by Ken MacKenzie. Costume design by Alexandra Lord. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper takes us to 1920s Chicago, where the race, power and creative exploitation collide in a lively, tension-filled recording studio session in August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, directed by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu. This is the first time Ma Rainey has been performed in Canada since 1985, shortly after its 1984 premiere on Broadway.

A faint haze hangs over the dark, empty Chicago recording studio, conjuring visions of musicians and singers smoking between—or even during—takes (set and lighting design by Ken MacKenzie). Gradually, the space is peopled with the steady, quiet pace of familiar routine. Cranky, gravel-voiced studio owner Sturdyvant (Diego Matamoros) and Ma’s put-upon, ingratiating manager Irvin (Alex Poch-Goldin) get set up in the booth and on the floor. Then the boys in the band arrive: the bookish, philosophical piano man Toledo (Beau Dixon); the quiet, no-nonsense bassist Slow Drag (Neville Edwards); and fastidious, practical band leader/banjo player/trombonist Cutler (Lindsay Owen Pierre). Last to arrive is the energetic, stylish Levee (Lovell Adams-Gray), the new whiz kid on the trumpet, arriving late and showing off a new pair of shoes. The band hangs out in the rehearsal room downstairs (downstage), shooting the breeze and rehearsing a bit while they wait for Ma to arrive. The tension is already cooking, as Ma is running late, the play list is ever-changing, and the ambitious new kid—who has his sights set on starting his own band and recording his own music—doesn’t seem to think he needs to rehearse.

When the big energy, take-charge Mother of the Blues Ma (Alana Bridgewater) finally arrives an hour late, resplendent in a green dress (costumes by Alexandra Lord) with her young flapper girlfriend Dussie Mae (Virgilia Griffith) and sharp-dressed nephew Sylvester (Marcel Stewart) in tow, there’s more arguing and scrambling. An irritated policeman (Derek Boyes) has followed them into the studio, charging Sylvester with reckless driving and Ma with assault; Irvin quickly “handles” the situation, then finds himself under orders to arrange for repairs to Ma’s car. And then there’s the ongoing debate over which version of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” they’re going to record: the original or Levee’s version. And Ma wants Sylvester, who stutters, to do the spoken intro on the recording; a decision that’s greeted with thinly veiled annoyed cynicism. Irvin continues bouncing like a ping pong ball between Sturdyvant, Ma and the band, playing peacekeeper, and taking care of all the concerns and issues. Young Levee has eyes for Dussie Mae; Cutler is trying to keep the band on track, especially Levee; and Slow Drag just wants to get it over with and go home. Toledo has his books to keep him company, while Sylvester and Dussie Mae are thrilled to be there—and Dussie Mae has taken notice of Levee’s attention.

Conversations among the band range from the comic to the tragic, from day-to-day shenanigans, to stories of personal struggle and the lived experience of being Black in America. And though she comes off as a diva, Ma is a shrewd businesswoman; she knows what she does and does not have control over. Where she can have a say, you can bet she’ll have it! Commanding respect with her seemingly unreasonable demands, Ma navigates a world where artists—particularly artists of colour—are used up for their creative talents then cast aside; in the meantime, they’re paid a fraction of what they’re worth while white producers, managers and studio owners profit handsomely from their work. And, for Ma and the band, the blues are more than just a money-making music genre—it’s “life’s way of talking.”

rainey-3
Virgilia Griffith & Lovell Adams-Gray. Set & lighting design by Ken MacKenzie. Costume design by Alexandra Lord. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Outstanding, compelling work from this tight, multi-talented ensemble. Bridgewater shines as the unstoppable, talented Ma—a force to be reckoned with. A large woman with a larger than life personality, Ma is an exacting professional; a fierce mamma bear when it comes to protecting loved ones; and a tender, generous lover. Like most women in her situation, a respected and highly popular artist like Ma has a reputation for being “difficult”—a charge that would never be levelled at a white male artist in her shoes.

Adams-Gray does an amazing job peeling back the layers of Levee. From a traumatized child to a volatile young man, Levee is confident in his talent and eager to make a name for himself as a composer and band leader—but, unlike his more seasoned bandmates, has yet to learn how the game is played. Stewart is a delight as the shy, child-like Sylvester; wide-eyed, and filled with wonder and joy to be in the studio. With Ma’s support and encouragement, and bolstered by his plan to send money home to his mother, we see Sylvester’s self-confidence blossom as he works hard through his speech impediment to do the best he can on the recording.

Though set in the 20s, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom speaks to the situation of artists today. While artists have gained more control over their work and working conditions, the industry still has work to do with regard to cultural and creative exploitation, and assigning labels of “difficult” on women and artists of colour. And we only have to look at Ma and Levee to see that artists must learn to play the game and be at peace over that which they cannot control—or be swept up in the undertow of their own frustrated ambition and expectations.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom continues in the Michael Young Theatre at the Young Centre—now extended by popular demand to June 9. Get advance tickets online or give the box office a shout at: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

Revolution, reversal, revulsion: Soulpepper’s disturbingly hilarious, brutally satirical, timely Animal Farm

Rick Roberts, Sarah Wilson & Miriam Fernandes. Set and costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by André du Toit. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper brings George Orwell’s chilling and bizarre cautionary tale of revolution, politics and corporate greed to life with its world premiere of Anthony MacMahon’s stage adaptation of Animal Farm, directed by Ravi Jain, assisted by Darwin Lyons, currently running at the Young Centre in the Distillery District.

Originally written as an allegorical representation of the rise of Stalin in Russia, Animal Farm gets a decidedly contemporary take in this stage production—it’s all too familiar and hits the mark with discomfiting accuracy.

The animals on Farmer Jones’s farm have had it with their lives and working conditions. Inspired by elder pig Old Major’s (Jennifer Villaverde) “All animals are equal” speech, they plan a revolt, resulting in casualties, including their beloved comrade Bessie the cow (Leah Cherniak). When it comes time to organize in the aftermath and make a plan to take over the farm going forward, the pigs take charge, and eventually comprise the only candidates for the leadership election. Moderated by his right-hand pig Squealer (Miriam Fernandez), the right wing, conservative Napoleon (Rick Roberts) faces off against the more progressive, liberal-minded Snowball (Sarah Wilson) in a debate—and things get ugly. Accusing Snowball of colluding with the humans, with her book learning and desire for committees and studies, Napoleon effectively bullies his way to the win, with his Doberman allies (Paolo Santalucia and Sugith Varughese)—who later become his security/muscle—chasing Snowball off.

Animal Farm, Soulpepper
Oliver Dennis and Guillermo Verdecchia. Set and costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by André du Toit. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Projecting an image of strength, resolve and deep caring for everyone, Napoleon is a master of providing easy answers to complex questions—and what the populace wants to hear. His promises of a better life and golden years of relaxation in a field of clover win over the exhausted and simple-minded alike, including the lovable old horse Boxer (Oliver Dennis). But the farm’s donkey Benjamin (Guillermo Verdecchia) and chicken Mercy (Raquel Duffy) aren’t so convinced. Napoleon, who prefers building fences to bridges, is highly suspicious of the neighbouring farm animals (in an insightful parody of foreign trade/relations); yet is constantly shifting position on the nature of those relationships (aptly illustrated when he blind-sides Mercy on an AFNN interview). Even worse, domestic policy makes labour conditions even worse and puts social services on life support, forcing the old and injured to continue working without proper medical care (Michaela Washburn’s Doctor is also an animal—you’ll have to go see for yourself to see what kind), medical insurance or employer support to recuperate.

Under Napoleon’s rule, the rich live a tax-cut life of comfort and leisure, while the workers put in longer hours for the same pay, and struggle with basic cost of living and services. Old Major’s original proclamation “All animals are equal” earns the addendum “but some animals are more equal than others.” Who is Napoleon really working for? Once discovered, or even hinted at, the backlash is inevitable.

Kudos to the largely multitasking cast for their solid, compelling performances in this playful but disturbing story of a society gone wrong. Roberts does a fantastic job as Napoleon, giving us an uncomfortably familiar politician; a charismatic leader who can spout whatever he needs to say to save face and maintain support, Napoleon is a dangerously bellicose man, bullying his way to status and power for the sake of the position. Wilson’s Snowball is the perfect opposite; a level-headed and intelligent, but shy opponent, Snowball just can’t muster the level of popularity she needs. The animals are tired, and feeling put-upon and cheated—and the quick, easy answers coming from Napoleon are much more attractive than the long-term, more challenging proposals she suggests. Sound familiar?

Dennis’s sweet but dim horse Boxer and Verdecchia’s sharp-witted, cynical donkey Benjamin make for a hilarious and poignant odd couple of pals. Not one to suffer fools, Benjamin is at his most patient when attempting to teach Boxer to read. And Dennis is heartbreaking as the old work horse Boxer suffers both disillusionment and injury; the policies of their leader—a leader he believed in—dashing his dreams of retiring to clover-filled fields. And the chickens are off the charts with the LOLs! Duffy is both adorable and impressively determined as feisty Mercy, the chicken’s appointed leader; and Villaverde is a laugh riot as the radical, compost-crazed Poophead.

Animal Farm, Soulpepper
Jennifer Villaverde, Raquel Duffy, Michaela Washburn & Leah Cherniak. Set and costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by André du Toit. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Big shouts to the design team for their incredible, imaginative work on this production: Ken MacKenzie (assisted by Christine Urquhart on set and costumes), André du Toit (lighting), Richard Feren (sound and music composition) and mask consultant Nicole Ratjen.

Animal Farm continues in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre. Get advance tickets online or call the box office: 416-866-8666 / 1-888-898-1188. Last night’s performance was packed, so advance booking recommended.

Heart vibrations as the dead weave tales reminding us to live in the inspirational, uplifting Spoon River

Spoon River ensemble—photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

 

Is your soul alive?

As we make our way into the theatre, we find ourselves entering the funeral of Bertie Hume; filing past old family portraits and rows of headstones as we make our way out of the funeral parlor and into the cemetery. We are greeted by funeral home attendants and, possibly, friends and family of the deceased.

This is our introduction to Soulpepper’s immersively staged Spoon River, based on Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology poetry collection, and adapted by Mike Ross and Albert Schultz for the stage, with music composed by Ross. A remount of this beloved, award-winning show is currently running in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre, located in Toronto’s Distillery District.

As Bertie Hume is left to her eternal rest, former citizens of the town—now “asleep” in the cemetery on the hill—emerge to share their stories with us, the passersby. Set in small-town America, the lives, loves, joys and pain of its people are revealed with memories, regrets, confession; at times harrowing (“Fire”), hilarious (“Couples” and “Drinking”) and heartbreaking (“Mothers and Sons”). The quirks, the humanity, the secrets and betrayals—all interwoven with poetry, spoken word, music and song, as we get snapshots of the people they once were.

The remarkable, multitalented ensemble plays and sings, with rousing, foot-stomping sounds and gorgeous, resonant harmonies in a collection of blue grass and gospel-inspired songs. Stand-out soloists include Alana Bridgewater, Hailey Gillis (as Bertie Hume), Miranda Mulholland, Jackie Richardson (“Widow McFarlane”) and Daniel Williston (“Fire”). Soulpepper veterans Oliver Dennis and Diego Matamoros bring stellar character work, as do Raquel Duffy, Stuart Hughes, John Jarvis and Michelle Monteith. Ultimately, Spoon River is a celebration of life (“Soul Alive”)—and a reminder that life, warts and all, is a cherished gift. I dare you to not stomp along.

With big shouts to the design team for their work on this magical, evocative production: Ken MacKenzie (set and lighting), Erika Connor (costumes) and Jason Browning (sound).

Heart vibrations as the dead weave tales reminding us to live in the inspirational, uplifting Spoon River.

Spoon River continues in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre until April 21; booking in advance is strongly recommended to avoid disappointment—the place was packed last night and this show is getting lots of standing ovations. Get your advance tix online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.

Up next: Soulpepper will be taking Spoon River to New York City’s 42nd Street in July as part of its first NYC season at The Pershing Square Signature Center.

The Spoon River soundtrack is available on CD in the lobby of the Young Centre; you can also find it on iTunes. In the meantime, check out the trailer:

 

 

Betrayal & ruin to forgiveness & reunion, with witty, rollicking good times in As You Like It

Photo by Daniela Mason: George Brown Theatre School class of 2017

The George Brown Theatre School class of 2017 takes us back to a time of rum-running gangsters in their production of As You Like It (directed by Geoffrey Pounsett), currently running in rep with A Midsummer Night’s Dream (directed by alum Aaron Willis) in the Tank House Theatre at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, located in Toronto’s Distillery District. I dropped by the Young Centre for As You Like It yesterday afternoon.

We learn via a remarkably staged prologue, set as a silent film reel delightfully set up by the Fool Touchstone (Thomas Nyhuus), how Duke Senior (Chase Jeffels) was betrayed by his brother Frederick (Jake Runeckles) and banished, his organization taken over by the traitorous Frederick, who becomes the new Duke. Duke Frederick allows his niece Rosalind (Justine Christensen) to stay as a companion for his daughter Celia (Geneviéve DeGraves), who is very fond of her bff cousin.

In a parallel tale of sibling betrayal, Orlando (Seamus Dillon-Easton) has endured a life of abuse and neglect at the hand of his older sister Olivia (Lucy Meanwell), who has betrayed their father Sir Rowland’s charge to look after her younger brother after his death. When Orlando goes to test his mettle in a wrestling match with Charles (Jeffels), a favourite of the new Duke, he crosses paths with Rosalind and the two are mutually smitten. Winning the match, Orlando also wins a new enemy in the Duke, and returns home to learn from the faithful family servant Adam (Patrick Horan) that his sister is plotting to kill him—prompting him to flee, with Adam accompanying him.

Displeased at Rosalind’s popularity with a sympathetic public, and wary that this will reflect badly on his daughter, the Duke banishes Rosalind. In an ultimate act of friendship and loyalty, Celia elects to go with her; and the two concoct disguises so they may travel in safety, with Rosalind dressing as a man called Ganymede and Celia as his sister Aliena. Enlisting the Touchstone as their travelling companion, they too flee their home.

Meanwhile, Orlando and Adam have made their way to the forest of Arden, where they come upon Duke Senior and a group of loyal followers, who are living a merry rustic life in the woods. Merry, except for sad sack Jaques (Parmida Vand), who perceives all on the darker, melancholy side. Now living in the forest and pining for Rosalind, Orlando takes to praising her dear name in poetry and posting it on the trees.

Rosalind, Celia and Touchstone find themselves a cottage in the forest; and Rosalind discovers Orlando’s poetry on the trees. To test his love, she (as Ganymede) tells Orlando she can cure his love sickness if he comes to woo him as if he were Rosalind. Meanwhile lovesick neighbouring shepherd Silvius (Evan MacKenzie) is pursuing the uninterested Phebe (Gabriella Albino), who becomes love struck when she meets Ganymede/Rosalind. Even Touchstone finds a sweetheart: the lovely, simple shepherdess Audrey (Jocelyn Feltham).

Orlando’s sister Olivia arrives on the scene after getting a taste of her own medicine from the Duke, forcing her to flee to the forest. She comes to Ganymede/Rosalind and Aliena/Celia with news of Orlando, who has been seriously wounded by a lioness while saving her. Contrite and seeking redemption for her wrong-doing, she has joined Duke Senior, who was a good friend to her father. And, not to leave Celia out of the romance, she and Olivia are obviously and immediately taken with each other. Realizing she truly loves Orlando—and left with two love knots to untangle—Rosalind plans a wedding in the woods, promising to sort everything out, including the plight of lovesick shepherd Silvius and the callous Phebe.

And all is revealed at the wedding, with much merriment, music and dancing—and Rosalind reunited with her father, who is restored to his office in yet another fortuitous twist of Shakespearean fate.

Excellent work from the ensemble, who get ample opportunity to showcase their considerable music and vocal chops with a number of delightful songs and musical numbers—led by music directors/composers/classmates Lucas Penner and Jake Runeckles.

Stand-out performances include Christensen, who is luminous as the brave, witty and resourceful Rosalind; great chemistry with Dillon-Easton’s Orlando, who goes from courageous risk-taker in endeavor to bashful mute in the face of love. Both become adorably moonstruck silly in love.

DeGraves gives Celia a feisty and fiery spark; deeply loyal to the point of defying her cruel father, Celia leaves her lush city life behind to find herself, hilariously, a fish out of water in the country. Meanwell does a nice job with Olivia’s salvation; going from snake-like cruelty to kind repentance, and finding herself shot with Cupid’s arrow when she meets Celia (lovely chemistry there as well).

Nyhuus is a treat as the saucy Touchstone; cocky and always up for a debate, like Celia he’s not thrilled to be away from the comforts of home, but valiantly makes the best of it as he diverts himself with lusty pursuits of his own. And Vand gives us an engaging and entertaining Jaques; a melancholy loner who takes cheer in Touchstone’s shenanigans, her pessimism rings with the air of a realist resigned to the true nature of the world, which can often be a cruel joke.

With big shouts to the design team for their work on creating this magical, industrial meets pastoral world: Ken MacKenzie (set), Shannon Lea Doyle (costumes) and Michelle Ramsay (lighting); and to Simon Fon (fight choreography) and Robert McCollum (dance choreography).

Betrayal and ruin to forgiveness and reunion, with witty, rollicking good times in As You Like It.

As You Like It continues at the Young Centre in the Tank House Theatre until Feb 18; A Midsummer Night’s Dream also runs until Feb 18; click here for ticket and pass info or book by calling the box office at 416-866-8666. It’s a great chance to see emerging acting talent before they head out into their careers.

You can also keep up with George Brown Theatre’s class of 2017 on Twitter and Facebook.