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.

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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:

Picasso & Einstein walk into a bar; art, science, women & philosophy ensue in hilarious, surreal Picasso at the Lapin Agile

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Dylan Evans (Picasso) & Will King (Einstein) in Picasso at the Lapin Agile – photo by Erika Downie

Picasso and Einstein walk into a bar.

This is the set-up for Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile and Seven Siblings Theatre’s current production, directed by Seven Siblings co-founder Erika Downie, which opened at Kensington Market bar venue Round last night.

It was my first time at Round, a vintage-inspired cabaret-styled bar space and a perfect immersive venue for this production. The Lapin Agile barkeep Freddie (Dylan Mawson) set the scene as the audience entered and settled, opening the bar on the playing space and jovially interacting with the audience, at least one of whom mistook him for the venue bartender (you can purchase beverages before the show starts).

Set in a bar in 1904, we find the two titans of innovation in their mid-20s and both on the brink of greatness. Einstein (company co-founder and previous production director Will King) is slogging away on his book on the theory of relativity, and Picasso (Dylan Evans) is in his blue period, struggling for instantaneous alignment between his ideas and the act of drawing them. At the top of the play, barkeep Freddie (Mawson), his sweetheart and co-worker Germaine (company co-founder Madryn McCabe) and regular Gaston (Jamie Johnson) are already pondering life, art, women and love when Einstein bursts in; and it’s not long after Picasso’s arrival that the scientist and the artist get into a heated argument that turns into a duel of science versus art.

Add to that mix an assortment of opinionated patrons and friends – a lover, friend and admirer (all played by Erin Burley), an art collector (Erik Helle), an inventor (Andrew Gaunce) and a surprise visitor (Maxwell LeBeuf) – and you have some hilarious, thought-provoking discussion and debate, as well as some predictions about the burgeoning 20th century. There is a restless, anxious and hopeful atmosphere in the bar as these characters adjust to the new century. Sparks of brilliance and absurdity abound – and it’s all big, goofy surreal fun.

Equally big fun is the sharp and engaging ensemble. Portraying the two young men on the edge of great things, King and Evans bring passion, drive and intelligence. King’s Einstein is bubbling with energy and ideas, shifting between stillness and silence and bursts of movement and thought; and Evans’ Picasso is smooth, sexy and charming – an infuriating player, but a talented and sensitive artist you can’t help but feel drawn to. And the upshot of their argument is that both men discover that they have more common ground than they thought – and that art and science are no so different after all.

Mawson’s Freddie is a great combination of affable and irreverent, and clueless with an occasional brilliant observation. Beneath the beautiful barmaid exterior, McCabe’s Germaine is insightful, astute and self-aware; her passions are her own to direct – and she has the most accurate predictions about the new century. As Gaston, Johnson brings a touch of wistful nostalgia to an otherwise grumpy older man. Saying aloud what Germaine already knows, Burley’s Suzanne (one of Picasso’s forgotten lovers) is a bright young woman who ultimately falls for Picasso with her mind, in spite of physical attraction and in spite of herself. Helle’s Sagot is flamboyant and shrewd, with an eye for important art and a mind for marketing – which affords engagement in his own artistry as a photographer. Gaunce’s self-important inventor Schmendiman is hilariously buffoonish, with a Daliesque quality to his verbal outbursts; and LeBeuf’s Visitor is a smooth, cool crooner with an interesting take on the world and its response to greatness.

The play crackles with ideas and conversation, with moments of breaking the fourth wall – even acknowledging that it’s a play – it’s a big ideas party and everyone’s invited.

Picasso and Einstein walk into a bar, and art, science, women and philosophy ensue in Seven Siblings Theatre’s wacky, surreal and immersive production of Picasso at the Lapin Agile.

Picasso at the Lapin Agile continues at Round until Feb 28; please note the 7:30 p.m. curtain time (it’s not cool when the stage manager has to hold the house for audience showing up when the show’s supposed to be starting). You can get advance tix online – strongly recommended.

You can keep up with Seven Siblings on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. In the meantime, check out the show’s trailer:

Holiday Monday walkabout: Art on the Danforth & a new theatre discovered in Kensington Market

Hey all – first day back for the work week for those of us who had Victoria Day weekend off. Feeling like a Monday.

Yesterday, I decided against seeing a movie and ventured out into yet another beautiful sunny day and took the subway to Danforth/Woodbine, where I proceeded to walk west towards Greenwood to take a look at Art of the Danforth, which opened on May 20 and runs till June 10.

It was pretty quiet for the arts festival yesterday – with the wild and wacky opening done on Sunday – and some of the venues were closed for the holiday, but I managed to find LucSculpture  School & Studios open (Zone X hub) and had a look at some drawings, photos and sculpture on exhibit there. Abandonments, photos by Stephanie Avery, is a series of beautiful images of forgotten, abandoned structures and buildings. There are drawings from local kids on display and a really cool photo series consisting of collages of metal objects that have been run over by trains. I spoke with Director Luc Bihan and got a chance to see some of his work as well, in the upstairs clay studio, as well as in the small office-like space on the ground floor. Gorgeous, sensuous clay pieces – some smooth, some rough, all colourful. Check out LucSculpture here: www.lucsculpture.com

For more info on Art on the Danforth, check out the website: www.artofthedanforth.com

Electric Theatre – ground floor
Electric Theatre – second floor

Headed to Kensington Market to have a stroll around some of my fave vintage stores and, as I walked down Augusta, I saw this – in the space where Bread & Circus used to be: The Electric Theatre, painting in progress. Don’t have any info on this, but I’ll keep my eyes and ears open – and if you hear anything, give me a shout.

My new hat

And, as I continued down Augusta, I stopped in a couple of those random hats and sunglasses shops and got this cool navy pinstripe hat.

After a late afternoon appointment, a quiet evening at home – quiet until the neighbourhood fireworks started, that is. Camille was under the bed for a while there.

All in all, a nice way to end a gorgeous long weekend.

What’cha get up to this weekend?