Power, plots & passion in the compelling, intimate & deftly performed Caesar

Kevin Kashani as Marc Antony and Melanie Leon as Julius Caesar in Caesar—photo art by Joseph Hammond

 

Wolf Manor Theatre Collective continues its 2016-17 season of startling, up close and personal theatre with its production of William Shakespeare’s Caesar, directed by Dylan Brenton and opening last night to a packed house in Kensington Hall.

Triumphant Caesar (Melanie Leon) is out of control and turned tyrant, while still managing to maintain support among everyday Romans, who want to crown her as Emperor. Her friend Brutus (Megan Miles) is deeply concerned about the impact her rule could have on Rome, while Cassius (Maddalena Vallecchi Williams) goes one step further and hatches a plan to take Caesar out of the equation. Cognizant of her friend Brutus’s popularity, Cassius recruits Brutus, as well as Casca (Felix Beauchamp) and others, to her cause: assassinate Caesar.

Forewarned by a soothsayer of dark portents on the Ides of March, Caesar is reluctant to make her regular trip to the Senate—and wife Calpurnia (Beauchamp) implores her to stay at home. However, her pride and vanity are stroked by one of the conspirators (Kevin Kashani) and she ventures out despite all warnings. And despite Cassius’s warnings to Brutus about Caesar’s favourite Marc Antony (Kashani), Brutus refuses to shed his blood and even allows him to speak at Caesar’s funeral.

After Caesar is killed, Brutus speaks before her fellow Romans to quell mounting fear, confusion and anger—and they are satisfied. That is, until Antony gives that famous speech at Caesar’s funeral and turns the tide of public opinion, sparking a war—with Antony and Caesar’s son Octavius (Beauchamp) on one side and Brutus, Cassius and their supporters on the other. When all appears lost, both Brutus and Cassius take their own lives, with Brutus’s reputation for pure intentions throughout this endeavour remaining intact.

For those of you who’ve seen earlier Wolf Manor productions, the gender fluid casting will be nothing new. Casting female actors in male roles and vice versa provides interesting new takes on familiar characters—and serves as a reminder that women are just as capable of pride, violence and power brokering; and men of tenderness, caution and introspection. The intimate, in the round staging gives a Coliseum feel to the set; we’re witnesses to these events, but we’re also the citizens of Rome. And the running image of the sands of time—pouring out of letters, wine bottles and even Caesar’s blood—hearkening to a sense of legacy and that, whether emperor or everyman, we are all bound for dust.

Brenton has an especially strong and compact cast for this tale of power and might for right. Miles gives Brutus a nice balance between eloquence and strength. Pensive and fair-minded, Brutus is a reluctant leader driven by a firm resolve to do what’s best for Rome, no matter what the cost—even to herself. Vallecchi Williams tempers Cassius’s blunt boldness with a sharp mind and an intuitive insight into men’s hearts. Her finger on the pulse of public sentiment, her plans go well beyond mere schemes and plots. And her love and friendship with Brutus reveal a gentler, emotional side; great chemistry between Miles’ mild-mannered Brutus and Vallecchi Williams’ fiery Cassius.

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Foreground: Maddalena Vallecchi Williams & Felix Beauchamp; Background: Megan Miles in Caesar—photo art by Joseph Hammond

Leon gives a great turn in two very different roles: the proud, vain and tyrannical Caesar; and Brutus’s fiercely loyal and loving wife Portia, where she plays a lovely two-hander in which Portia, beside herself with worry, begs to know what ails Brutus. Beauchamp also does a marvelous job with multiple roles: as the eerily quiet, menacing Casca; Brutus’s wide-eyed serving boy; Caesar’s wife Calpurnia, who relays a dream of dark portents; and the sturdy young Octavius. Kashani does a great job with the many sides of Antony; ready to spill blood after he’s spilled tears over Caesar’s corpse, he proves himself to be a master manipulator of mob mentality during his sly spin on the conspirators during the funeral speech, as well as a fine warrior—and is greatly underestimated by his enemies.

With shouts to the design team for creating the minimalist, evocative environment and atmosphere: Tessa Hallett (set), Nikolas Nikita (costumes) and Elizabeth Elliott (lighting).

Power, plots and passion in the compelling, intimate and deftly performed Caesar.

Caesar continues at Kensington Hall till May 28; full schedule and advance tix available online. Advance booking strongly recommended; it’s an intimate venue with limited seating and a very strong company.

You can keep up with Wolf Manor Theatre collective on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Looking to support great local indie theatre? Please consider supporting the company’s Fund What You Can campaign.

Family, blood & sins of the father in the compelling, darkly funny Tough Jews

Maaor Ziv, Blue Bigwood-Mallin, Luis Fernandes, Theresa Tova, Anne van Leeuwen, G. Kyle Shields & Stephen Joffe in Tough Jews—photo by John Gundy

Leave the gun. Take the kugel.

Storefront Theatre is back, this time partnering with The Spadina Avenue Gang to mount the world premiere of Michael Ross Albert’s Tough Jews, directed by Storefront founder/co-artistic director Benjamin Blais and running at Kensington Hall in Toronto’s Kensington Market.

Tough Jews was Albert’s graduate project about a family of Toronto Jewish gangsters; and, although it’s set in the late 20s and early 30s, the play speaks to issues of anti-Semitic and anti-immigration/refugee sentiments that are relevant today, especially given the influence of the current administration to the south, and the rise in hate crimes targeting Jews and Muslims on both sides of the border.

Set in the basement speakeasy, downstairs from the family’s shop and home in Kensington Market, Act one opens in 1929 on Yom Kippur, 10 days before the stock market crash. Overseen by the widowed family matriarch Ida (Theresa Tova), brothers Joe (Luis Fernandes) and Ben (Blue Bigwood-Mallin) take care of the family business running booze downstairs, while Teddy (G. Kyle Shields) runs the legit business upstairs. Kid sister Rose (Maaor Ziv) and Ben’s American fiancée Marge (Anne van Leeuwen) watch from the sidelines. Downstairs business with Detroit’s Purple Gang goes south when hothead cousin Ziggie (Stephen Joffe) interrupts negotiations. This prompts Ben to come up with an idea to get Rose’s dope-dealing boyfriend Harry (who we never see), to get in on the action; despite the family’s disapproval of Harry, Ben hopes to placate the Purple Gang with new, hard-to-get product.

Act two jumps ahead four years to 1933, a couple of months after Hitler becomes Chancellor of Germany and shortly after the Christie Pits riot. Joe and Marge have been living in Florida, but his business was hit hard by the Depression, and he’s returned home to Toronto. Ben has also just come home, just released from jail; and Rose has a three-year-old and some serious domestic issues at her house. Teddy has taken over the speakeasy in the interim, but is now using it as a hide-out after his involvement in the Christie Pits riot.

Family secrets emerge throughout; and serious, changing situations prompt some equally drastic decision-making and choices. How far will a marginalized, oppressed and desperate people go in order to survive?

Stellar work from the entire cast in this immersive theatrical experience where the audience has a fly-on-the-wall view of the proceedings. Tova is hard as nails, hilarious and heartbreaking as Ida, who recalls in sharp, painful detail the oppression of her homeland and the hardship of an ocean crossing. The dreams of a better life destroyed by hate and oppression in a new country, Ida takes charge with pragmatism, grit and wry wit; and with a laser focus on turning the family’s fortunes around. Fernandes gives oldest brother Joe a nice balance of calculating professional and protective man of the house. Dog tired and struggling to keep the family business afloat, Joe must also manage the less than friendly relationship between Marge and his family.

Bigwood-Mallin brings a great sense of spark and ambition to Ben; the only one who really wants to be a gangster, Ben is genuinely excited to expand the business, make connections in the U.S. and make more money. Shields does a marvelous job with Teddy’s arc; as the bookish, observant kid brother, Teddy is torn between being a good man and seeing their legitimate family business survive, and the struggle to survive in a harsh, unfair world that leaves his family few options. By Act Two, he’s grown up a lot in those four years; a changed man, he sees what’s going on in Germany—and how prejudice and hate know no boundaries—and it sickens him.

Ziv’s Rose is an irreverent spitfire; an independent-minded and often neglected member of the family, Rose does her best to make a life for herself, but finds new challenges outside the safety of the family nest. Van Leeuwen brings a regal edge to the platinum blond, leggy Marge; a dancer when Joe first met her, she’s now set on becoming a respectable wife and looking forward to enjoying the good things in life. Unable to stomach Joe’s family business, however, she retaliates by putting on airs. Joffe gives Ziggie a menacing, lost boy edge. Taken in by his aunt Ida as a child, Ziggie’s grown up into a dangerous punk with some serious anger and impulse control issues; and his choices make him a liability to the family.

With big shouts to the design team Adam Belanger (set), Melissa Joakim (lighting), Lindsay Dagger Junkin (costumes), Angela McQueen (makeup) and Miquelon Rodriguez (sound) for their work on the evocative, immersive environment; and to fight director Simon Fon, and co-stage managers Justine Cargo and Andrea Miller. Throughout the production, corpses will be played by Kyle Bailey, Daniel Briere, Gabriel Hamilton and David Lapsley. The bartender makes a mean Manhattan, with the good Jack Daniels.

Family, blood and sins of the father in the compelling, darkly funny Tough Jews.

Tough Jews continues at Kensington Hall till April 16 (enter through the back alley—follow the sandwich board sign); full schedule and advance tix available online]. Book in advance for this one, folks; it’s a popular company and there’s a lot of well-deserved buzz about this show—not to mention the intimate venue. Warning: Show contains gun shots and smoking (herbal cigarettes).

In the meantime, check out Brittany Kay’s In the Greenroom blog interview with playwright Michael Ross Albert and actor G. Kyle Shields, with director Benjamin Blais dropping by.

Profound longing & desperate hope in the beautifully melancholy, immersively designed Three Sisters

Left, clockwise from top: Dana Puddicombe, Arinea Hermans & Christina Fox; Right, from top: Nikolas Nikita & Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski—photo by Joseph Hammond

With several highly successful one-off productions under its belt, Wolf Manor Theatre Collective continues its inaugural 2017 season with its second production, Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, directed by Mallory Fisher—opening last night at Kensington Hall in Toronto’s Kensington Market.

Wolf Manor gives the Chekhov classic a contemporary flavour with a gender-fluid take on the story of three sisters struggling with the ennui of living in a dull provincial garrison town as they long to return to their beloved Mosco.

The play opens on youngest sister Irina’s (Christina Fox) name day; it’s also a year to the day since their father died, leaving his four adult children the house. Eldest daughter Olga (Dana Puddicombe) is a teacher and middle daughter Masha (Arinea Hermans) is married to teacher Kulygin (Kaleb Horn); all three women are tired with boredom and long to return to Mosco. Only Irina and their brother Andrey (Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski), who often keeps to his room reading or playing violin, are cheerful. She’s young, and still full of hope and possibility; and he’s in love with Natasha (Nikolas Nikita).

Brief respites from the gloom of ennui emerge, courtesy of a family friend, the entertaining Doctor Chebutykin (Scott McCulloch), and visits from local officers Tuzenbach (Jordin Hall) and Solyony (Nikita). And the arrival of the new commander Vershinin (Meghan Greeley) makes things even more interesting—especially for Masha, who has over the years become repulsed by her bookish and pedantic, but kind, husband and finds herself drawn to the chatty, philosophical newcomer.

Disappointment and disillusionment snowball over the few years that pass. Andrey realizes that marriage isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and escapes into gambling, which puts the whole household into great debt. The Doctor, two years sober, falls off the wagon in a very bad way. Natasha lords it over her sisters-in-law, taking over the house and revealing a vicious side under that elegant demeanour, and creating a growing sense of claustrophobia among those who live there. Olga becomes something she vowed she’d never be: Headmistress. And even Irina’s balloon is popped, as she takes on work that is meaningless and mind-numbingly dull. Things go from bad to worse when a fire destroys a large section of the town, and the news that the battalion is being sent off on a new assignment—a heartbreaking prospect for Vershinin and Masha.

The immersive design places the audience both in and around the action, with a main playing area in the centre, and nooks and spaces around the outer edges (Beth Elliot, technical director/lighting design). Only two characters address us directly, baring their souls: Andrey and Chebutykin. By the end of the play, it’s as if we’re the birch trees surrounding the family home; silent witnesses to the goings-on there.

Beautiful work from the cast on these characters who all long for connection, belonging and understanding; each is grasping for meaning and hope, if not for now then for the future. Fox does a really nice job with Irina’s dissolve into disillusionment; having put her love life on hold with the idea of finding true love in Mosco, Irina settles for Tuzenbach, who is a good man, but not her desire. Hermans is heartbreaking as Masha, whose default is melancholy and whose heart awakens with the arrival of Vershinin; and the news that Vershinin must leave destroys her. Puddicombe brings a great sense of inner conflict to Olga; an ‘old maid’ school teacher and protective big sister to her siblings, Olga has abandoned her own desires to familial duty—a brave soldier who carries on no matter what. Shepherd-Gawinski brings a sharp edge to Andrey, the picture of the adorable, beloved brother who turns to gambling in his distress; outnumbered and put-upon by his sisters and his wife, he is as good-humoured as he can be. Stuck in the middle as he is, he too has put aside dreams in order to fit into his new life as husband and father—and the strain shows.

Greeley gives a moving performance as Vershinin, a military officer with the heart of a lover and philosopher. With an emotionally fragile husband and two daughters at home, Vershinin too finds an escape from the struggles of her life when she meets Masha. And their goodbye is heart wrenchingly sad, but inevitable as Vershinin must do her duty. Nikita does a marvelous job juggling Solyony and Natasha, as well as being the production’s costume designer. While both are classist, vain and irritating, these characters also have their secret hearts; Solyony is in love with Irina and Natasha is anxious to be accepted into Andrey’s family.

McCulloch’s performance as Chebutykin reveals the deep darkness in the Doctor’s heart; a jovial, sharp-witted man of 60-something, Chebutykin’s tendencies towards fatalism, and even nihilism, send him back to the bottle. Horn gives us an adorkably funny and mildly irritating Kulygin, who’s a silly nerd, but with a truly kind and forgiving heart under the dapper suit and glasses. And Hall gives us a lovely idealistic and philosophical Tuzenbach; like the others, he too wonders what the future will bring, but he’s also got his feet planted firmly in the present and wants to make the best of it.

Profound longing and desperate hope in the beautifully melancholy, immersively designed Three Sisters.

Three Sisters continues at Kensington Hall till March 26; full schedule and advance tix available online; advance booking strongly recommended, as it’s an intimate space with limited seating.

You can keep up with Wolf Manor Theatre collective on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Looking to support great local indie theatre? Please consider supporting the company’s Fund What You Can campaign.

Love, loss & the struggle to avoid getting beached in the poignant, funny Paradise Comics

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Sherman Tsang & Maddie Bautista in Paradise Comics – photos by producer Zach Parkhurst

 

Filament Incubator closes its #8playsin8months season with Caitie Graham’s Paradise Comics, directed by Darwin Lyons. Graham developed Paradise Comics at the Tarragon Theatre’s Young Playwrights Unit, where she now acts as Assistant Writing Instructor. I caught the opening last night at Kensington Hall (in Kensington Market at 56C Kensington Ave., Toronto).

What’s eating 13-year-old Beans (Sherman Tsang)? Is it that she didn’t get selected for science camp? The impending destruction of the planet caused by human disregard for the environment? The fact that her dad George (David Ross) has been sleeping in the car in the garage?

From the moment we enter the theatre, hearing the haunting emo soundtrack (sound by Deanna Choi) and seeing a kitchen strewn with boxes (set by Jingjia Zhang), we enter a melancholy world of disruption and chaos.

The world as Beans knows it is coming to an end. Paradise Comics, her dad’s beloved comic book store, is closing. Plus, he’s been acting weird and sad. So what if she spends more time at the shop than at school? She’s an excellent student, but she has her priorities. Her mom Janie (Sarah Naomi Campbell) has a different take on cutting school, though, and is getting on her case. And her BFF Hannah (Maddie Bautista) is being more hyper than normal, dancing as fast as she can to cheer Beans up. And what has Hannah done to their science project diorama?!

Really lovely work from the cast on this story of family, friendship, heartbreak and devastating change. Tsang brings a dark edge to the whip smart, academically serious and sharp-witted Beans; a science nerd who shares her dad’s love of comic books, she’s caught in the middle of her parents’ troubled marriage and her dad’s impending store closure. Ross is a gentle, laid back, cool dad as George; in some ways still a boy himself, having to say goodbye to his store – representing years of his life, work and passion – has set him adrift. Ross also gives a comic turn as Marvin, the affable and awkward storage company guy who arrives to cart off all the boxes; a comic book aficionado himself, he knows George and and the shop, and provides some surprising insight.

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David Ross & Sarah Naomi Campbell in Paradise Comics

Campbell’s Janie is both ferocious and a big warm hug personified; desperately trying to hold it together, she’s fierce in her fight to save her family from despair and eviction, especially in her attempts to connect with her daughter. Bautista is a quirky delight as Hannah; an outrageously positive kid, but no goody two-shoes, Hannah knows stuff. Finding her ongoing efforts to help Beans constantly shot down, she must decide if she wants to keep on trying or give up.

Beans’ mom and dad, and friend Hannah constitute the equivalent of her whale pod. And, like the whales that rally around an injured pod mate, they all need to be careful to not get beached along with it.

Love, loss and the struggle to avoid getting beached in the poignant, funny Paradise Comics.

Paradise Comics continues at Kensington Hall until Dec 3; it’s an intimate space, so you may want to book your tix in advance. If you haven’t seen a Filament Incubator production this season, what the heck are you waiting for? Get on over to Kensington Hall.

Keep up with Filament Incubator on Twitter and Facebook.

Check out the teaser for Paradise Comics:

A boy goes missing & a dark presence reaches out from the forest in lyrical, spooky Tire Swing

 

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Nikki Haggart, Jocelyn Adema & François Macdonald, with Patrick Fowler in the background, in Tire Swing – photo by Jordan Laffrenier

Filament Incubator is back again with its 5th play of its #8playsin8months season, this time in association with Epigraph Collective on a production of Curtis te Brinke’s Tire Swing, directed by Sadie Epstein-Fine and running at Kensington Hall (in Kensington Market at 56C Kensington Ave., Toronto).

Four pre-teen friends playing on the edge of town go deep into the forest as twilight descends – and only three of them come out. Was it a shadow monster or a man they saw? And what happened to Kevin (Patrick Fowler)? Kevin’s sister Ellen (Nikki Haggart), and friends Mark (François Macdonald) and Lauren (Jocelyn Adema), struggle to come to terms with what happened – as well as their own sense of survivor guilt – as a town mourns a lost boy, presumed dead.

As the three friends grow up into high school seniors, they find they can’t deny what they saw in the forest that fateful night. The thing that didn’t make it into the police reports. The thing they’ve spoken of to no one – not even each other. Until now. Mark is convinced that something is after them. And they can all feel something watching them from darkness.

The cast does an awesome job with the storytelling. As the young group’s leader Kevin, Fowler brings a fearless, adventurous, devil-may-care attitude – along with something strange and otherworldly that you can’t quite put your finger on. And he gives their high school classmate David a cocksure but congenial confidence and presence; the school’s golden boy, David is brave on the rugby field, he can’t find the courage to come out and be open about his burgeoning relationship with Mark.

As Mark, Macdonald is the investigator of the group; cynical and not content with taking things at face value, he wants to know the truth – and he questions everything and isn’t afraid to believe the unthinkable. As Mark explores his sexuality, perhaps David reminds him of Kevin; and like their friend Lauren, he had a crush on Kevin when they were kids. Adema’s Lauren is the heart and soul of the group; a dreamy, star-gazing academic, she was the last one to see Kevin – and feels the most guilt for running away that night. As Kevin’s sister Ellen, Haggart is the emotion of their gang, especially the rage. An earthy soul, Ellen’s feelings emerge as physical sensations tied to the land, the trees, even her brother’s bedroom – left untouched in denial of his loss and anticipation of his return.

Part memory play, part ghost story, part coming of age story, Tire Swing scoops you up into a Stand By Me meets X-Files world of mystery and nightmare. The language is rich, even poetic at times; and the staging is atmospheric and spooky.

With shouts to designer Jason Thomson (set, costumes, lighting) for the eerie multi-media environment – featuring some very cool, evocative projection imagery – putting the audience in the middle of the forest, with the three surviving kids’ bedrooms around the edges.

A boy goes missing and a dark presence reaches out from the forest in lyrical, spooky Tire Swing.

Tire Swing continues at Kensington Hall until Oct 22; it’s an intimate space, so you may want to book tix in advance – and please note the 7:30 curtain time.

Up next, Filament Incubator joins forces with Little Black Afro Theatre to produce Filament Incubator producer/playwright Aaron Jan’s Swan, a sister piece to Tire Swing running November 3-13 in the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace.

In the meantime, check out the awesome trailer for Tire Swing by Andrew Pieroni:

 

Preview: June Cleaver goes to hell in hilariously dark, satirical & surreal Hot Kitchen/SECOND SHIFT

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Filament Incubator presents Raw Matter’s production of Hot Kitchen/SECOND SHIFT, written, directed, designed and performed by the Raw Matter ensemble, incorporating the writing of Sylvia Plath, Silvia Federici and Jean Genet. Opening tonight, I caught the preview at Kensington Hall (56A Kensington Ave., Toronto) last night.

When you arrive in the space, you’re immediately aware of all the pink. Up stage right is an enormous pile of laundry; stage left has a lush garden; and up centre is the kitchen, featuring a gas stove and counter. All very pink. Like old-school Barbie threw up all over that shit pink. Five women are already onstage, engaged in various household activities: laundry, baking, scrubbing the floor, beautification and gardening. The sound of a ticking clock. Loud. Merciless. Oh yeah, and there’s a baby doll on your chair; you’ll need that for one of the game shows later on.

Three of the women act as a chorus of house fairy-like beings; dressed in pale pink diaphanous dresses, their faces made up with shiny, metallic colours: Maybelline (Veronika Brylinska), Lysol (Alanna Dunlop) and Betty Crocker (Nicole De Angelis). They are the cheerleaders for traditional, old-school housewifery – the driving force in the nucleus of life, the home. In contrast, we see the growing frustration and irritation of M/Em (Daniela Pagliarello), who speaks with vivid, fierce poetry as she paces the garden like a caged animal. All the while, Powered by (Rebecca Hooton) works away at the laundry, seemingly oblivious to anything else.

This multi-media production draws on political, philosophical, technological and economic frames of reference in its presentation of various points of view on housekeeping, housewifery and womanhood. Throughout the hysterical absurdity of it all are some particularly entertaining and thought-provoking scenes: capitalism vs. communism in the Nixon/Khrushchev kitchen debates, featuring footage from that meetup; game shows, including one with group audience participation and another that sends up Let’s Make A Deal; and a beauty pageant – peppered throughout with variety show-style dance breaks. And things get really interesting when M/Em breaks free from her garden environment and bursts into the world of the house fairies, interrupting their delicate, light, “feminine” reverie. And far from being a passive entity on the sidelines, we see just how much this world relies on the efforts of Powered by.

Shouts to the Raw Matter ensemble for their incredible work on the writing, design and execution of this provocative and thoughtful piece. Brylinska brings a ferocious commitment to the otherwise superficial Maybelline; Dunlop’s Lysol is delightfully sassy; and De Angelis’s Betty Crocker is deliciously vacuous. As M/Em, Pagliarello is a housewife on the verge of a nervous breakdown, the lone voice of dissention that dares to challenge the Christian/capitalist status quo of housewifery. Hooton’s Powered by is silent, uncomplaining and diligent; and, ultimately, she shows us just how committed she is to – and how reliant the rest of the world is on – her work.

June Cleaver goes to hell in Raw Matter’s hilariously dark, satirical & surreal Hot Kitchen/SECOND SHIFT.

Hot Kitchen/SECOND SHIFT continues at Kensington Hall until October 1; it’s an intimate space, so you may want to book in advance. And don’t forget to throw the baby!