Practising gratitude

As we head into week 17 of public health measures to protect ourselves, others and our health care system during the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s hope for a shift into stage 3, being reunited with loved ones, and looking forward—with both trepidation and excitement—to what the world will be like when we come out of this.

Right now, many of us are also dealing with a prolonged heat wave and dry spell—and, if like me, you don’t have a yard, balcony or air conditioning, it can be particularly oppressive. And my fridge is now on the fritz; luckily, the apartment next to me is vacant, so my super gave me the keys and I’m using that fridge. Building management has been notified, and now I wait to see if it will be repaired or replaced; it’s an older second-hand model, so it will likely be replaced. And I’m grateful that I was able to salvage the contents of my fridge (freezer is still working, thankfully).

With all the recent upheaval and so many things out of our control, it can be hard to stay positive and keep the faith, as it were. And if you struggle with anxiety and depression (I do), times like these can make you feel even more fragile than usual. I’ve been feeling particularly vulnerable this weekend, as I write this post. I’m extra gentle with myself at times like this; I tell myself it will pass. And I remind myself that I have a lot to be grateful for.

Here is my gratitude list:

A cozy, comfortable, safe home

Access to safe, clean water and good, healthy food

Access to cellphone, Internet and cable TV

Access to amenities within a 10 to 20-minute walk from my home

Some work coming in

I’m well, as are my family, chosen family and friends

I have supportive family, chosen family and friends—so I’m in solitude, but not alone

We have a great combined, cooperative federal, provincial and municipal effort on COVID-19 and its impacts

Time for art projects, reading, reflection, playing Scrabble against myself, doing online word search puzzles

My beautiful, playful four-legged friend Camille (cat) to keep me company

Ability to take daily walks, with pedometer to count my steps

Access to stories on Netflix, TV, movie collection, books, Internet, social media, online performances

Being able to see beauty and kindness in the world during these uncertain, heartbreaking times

A neighbour and I helping each other out with groceries, errands, laundry change

It’s a good, insightful exercise: reflections on gratitude. Give it a try and see for yourself.

Reflections of home during COVID-19

When I went on hiatus with the blog in February, it was with the intention of taking some time away, to step back, get some R&R and figure out where the blog was going to go next as I made the move away from reviewing and focusing on my own art. Since then, I’ve posted a few times, with reflections on the early days of COVID-19 stay-at-home and physical distancing measures, and sharing an interview and book launch shout-outs.

Now, I want to share some other reflections and images from my time during the pandemic, starting with these images I took on April 15 (or Week 5, for those who are keeping track), during one of my daily walks. Most of the images are of doors that caught my attention as being both unique and beautiful. Going beyond their appearance, though, I also became mindful that these doors are entrances to multi-million-dollar homes; homes that have at one or more vehicles, ample yards, and lots of living and storage space. Homes that offer the highest level of comfort during these days of staying home and physical distancing; the people in these homes can drive for groceries – with contactless pickup – can afford delivery, and have enough square footage for each resident to take space for themselves, as well as store an abundance of supplies. It is a reminder of the stark differences in circumstance for Toronto residents, where not everyone has the privilege of so much living and storage space or safe, distanced travel – or even a home at all.

There are also a couple of images that give me a sense of hope (the child’s rainbow drawing in the window), whimsy (the Christmas decoration on the leafy tree) and quiet solitude (the open book, left on a bench).

Throughout these weeks of pandemic, early plans for productivity and self-improvement made way for moments of stopping to take a breath and self-care. And that’s okay. There is no “normal” during these uncertain times. The best we can do is take it moment by moment, day by day, week by week. Look after ourselves and each other. Try to be kind and compassionate, to ourselves and others. Reflect on how we can do better as individuals and as a society, as we work toward recovery and reopening. And keep the faith that our collective efforts and sacrifices are working. And that, one day, we’ll be able to see and hug our loved ones again.

SummerWorks: Memory, nostalgia & queer men longing to connect in the quirky, charming, poignant Box 4901

Thirteen letters responding to a 1992 gay personals ad sit in a box unanswered. What does the recipient say to these men 26 years later? Memory, nostalgia, connection and hindsight figure prominently in timeshare productions’ SummerWorks presentation of novelist Brian Francis’ autobiographical Box 4901; directed by Rob Kempson and running on the Theatre Centre’s Incubator stage.

Long before the age of smartphones and Grindr, a 21-year-old Francis—then a student at the University of Western Ontario—posted a personals ad in The London Free Press looking for a connection in the small LGBTQ world of conservative London, Ontario. Of the approximately two dozen letters he received, 13 went unanswered and were discovered years later. Francis narrates and responds as 13 queer actors perform each letter.

Featuring actors Bilal Baig, Hume Baugh, Keith Cole, Izad Etemadi, Daniel Krolik, Michael Hughes, Tsholo Khalema, Eric Morin, G Kyle Shields, Chy Ryan Spain, Jonathan Tan, Chris Tsujiuchi and Geoffrey Whynot, the responses to the ad range from the bashful to the pornographic. Coming from a variety of men—ranging in age from high school senior to father figure—from various walks of life (“regular guy,” teacher, farmer, jock, “straight-acting,” leather community), the letters are sassy, charming, eloquent and humourous. The replies are frank, witty, sharply observational; and tempered with kindness, and the hindsight of age and wisdom.

There are some missed chances and missed bullets. All of these men share the same desire to reach out; longing for connection and a cure for aloneness, there’s a vulnerable authenticity in even the cockiest of responses. And the fear of being outed to family or housemates is as palpable and strong as the excitement and anticipation of a new connection.

Box 4901 has one more SummerWorks performance at the Theatre Centre on Aug 19 at 4:45 p.m.; it’s already sold out, but you can try your luck by arriving early to see if there are any no-shows.

The profound cruelty & kindness of humanity in Coal Mine’s darkly funny, deeply affecting Category E

Diana Bentley, Robert Persichini & Vivien Endicott-Douglas. Set and costume design by Anna Treusch. Lighting design by Gabriel Cropley. Photo by Tim Leyes.

 

Coal Mine Theatre closes its 4th season with the Toronto premiere of Belinda Cornish’s horror comedy Category E, directed by Rae Ellen Bodie—opening last night to a sold out house at their home on 1454 Danforth Ave.

The pre-show soundtrack of retro commercials playing in the lobby (sound design by Keith Thomas) is a kitschy prelude to the dark comedic terror that awaits inside, where we are transported into an eerily familiar futuristic dystopia—familiar because, like the most recent TV incarnation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the future is closer than you think.

Once in the theatre space, the audience sits on either side of a large cage that contains two cots, a wheel chair and a small bookcase (set and costume design by Anna Treusch); the ceiling of the cage is a large light box (lighting design by Gabriel Cropley), and there are large lighting fixtures outside in the hallway, as well as two security cameras mounted to the walls. Set in a testing facility, Category E takes the human trial stage of product testing to the extreme; the human subjects are stripped of identity and even gender—each bearing a number on their beige scrubs and becoming an “it”—and treated with the cold clinical detachment that would be afforded a lab rabbit.

It is here that the chipper and nervous new kid Millet (Vivien Endicott-Douglas) arrives, joining veteran lab subject Corcoran (Robert Persichini), who uses the wheel chair, and Filigree (Diana Bentley), who is either asleep or passed out. The tension and confusion are turned on immediately, as there are now three people occupying this cage and only two cots; this makes for an intense introduction between Millet and Filigree when Filigree wakes up. Not to mention the condition of the cage’s two original occupants, both filthy and looking in ill health—a stark contrast to the newcomer, who although in desperate need of a shower, is wearing clean scrubs and in perfect health. Corcoran wears an eye patch over one eye and his good eye is angry and red, and the dressing on his forearm should have been changed ages ago; he passes the time with a 17-year-old crossword puzzle. Filigree is pale and gaunt, and keeps scratching her lower back against the chair railing on the wall; her hobby is drawing disturbing portraits in crayon.

Meals, delivered in bowls labelled with subjects’ numbers, are signalled by a light and retrieved at one end of the narrow hallway outside the cage; a female version of HAL 9000 summons subjects by number to testing and shower time, accessed at the other end of the hallway. Standing on the bookcase to peer into the vent, Millet discovers the cage next door; like theirs, it also houses three subjects, but they cannot hear her. There are a lot of questions about what’s going on—and, like Millet, we learn the rules of this strange new world as we go.

There are vague references to “passing the eye” (or is it “I”?), which also gives this world a Handmaid’s Tale vibe, and brief moments of revelation—it seems Corcoran is a former scientist and Millet failed the test. And it appears that those who fail this test, or who have committed some kind of crime or corporate sin, are now considered as subhuman and become subjects in this testing facility. That is, with the exception of Filigree, whose odd, primal behaviour comes from the fact that she was born and raised in the facility, without parental nurturing or guidance (Corcoran has taken on this role, for how long is unclear). We get fleeting glimpses into the testing that they’re subjected to—and the lack of clear answers makes the mystery of this place all the more unsettling. Scene changes are accompanied by sexy voice-over ads, touting the various beauty and fragrances manufactured by the unseen corporation; mentions of side effects call us back to the cage.

Compelling, nuanced work from the cast in this harrowing three-hander, where moments of dark comedy barely take the edge off. Endicott-Douglas is a puckish, clever bundle of energy as Millet; the mercurial, chatty new kid in this space, Millet is endearingly awkward, with a can-do attitude and strong desire to fit in and make a contribution. Persichini’s performance as Corcoran goes deep into the calming, Zen-like quiet of a man of great intellect who at first sight appears merely world-weary and taciturn. Corcoran’s acts of kindness bring the much needed balm of tenderness to an otherwise brutal environment; and there’s an underlying sense of atonement in a struggle for redemption. Bentley is a delightfully quirky, at times menacing, wild child as Filigree; an untamed innocent, she operates on instinct, socialized under the care of Corcoran—and there’s a lovely, playful dynamic between them, especially when Corcoran acquiesces to Filigree’s requests tell them a story. What is the nature of that irritation on Filigree’s back? And why does Corcoran keep insisting on trading meals with Millet?

To see what I have seen! Category E is caress on the cheek and a kick in the gut. It is also a stark reminder that how we test product innovation in the name of consumer satisfaction is a choice. Cruelty and kindness are choices. If you’re either pro- or ambivalent toward animal testing, I think this play might just change your mind. A quote from St. Francis of Assisi, included in the program notes, is especially apt here: “If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.”

The profound cruelty and kindness of humanity in Coal Mine’s darkly funny, deeply affecting production of the dystopic macabredy Category E.

Category E continues at Coal Mine Theatre until April 29; get advanced tickets online—advance booking strongly recommended.