Preview: Survival, resilience & resistance in the powerful, raw, timely Four Sisters

Bea Pizano & Company. Production design by Kaitlin Hickey in collaboration with Susanna Fournier. Wardrobe and props design by Patrick Peachey Higdon. Video design by Steph Raposo. Photo by Bernie Fournier.

 

Four Sisters is the final installment of Susanna Fournier’s Empire trilogy; produced by Paradigm Productions and commissioned by Luminato, and running this week at the Theatre Centre. Directed by Fournier and choreographed by Amanda Acorn, this powerful, raw and timely tale takes us to the Empire 259 years after the events of The Scavenger’s Daughter; into a world of plague and social cast-offs, where a 279-year old former madam raises the orphaned children of women who worked for her. A doctor arrives, promising to help as she works to come up with an inexpensive cure for marginalized, low-income populations; and she needs to experiment on the children.

We are in the Skirts, an outlying neighbourhood on the outskirts of the city where society’s marginalized and cast-off people dwell—the poor, mostly women and sex workers. And because this is the Empire, this is a world where only those with money, power and connections can afford to survive and thrive in the toxic, disease-ridden mess left behind after centuries of greed, violence, war and cut-throat capitalism. Former madam Sarah (Bea Pizano) has managed to cheat Death and now finds herself being mother to Abby (Chala Hunter, Krystina Bojanowski, Yolanda Bonnell), Beah (Aria Evans, Ximena Huizi, Jennifer Dahl), Cassie (Claudia Moore) and Dee (Virgilia Griffith)—children of women who worked for her, who all died of plague. When a Doctor (Krystina Bojanowski, Yolanda Bonnell), driven by the desire to find an inexpensive cure that can be used on the low-income population, arrives from the city with the promise of medical help, Sarah must decide if she’s willing to let her girls be Guinea pigs or die of plague.

The story plays out both within and without time and space—on a bare stage, sculpted with light and punctuated with video on a solitary TV screen (designed by Steph Raposo), the chilling atmosphere hauntingly complemented by Christopher Ross-Ewart’s sound design. Time folds and bends in on itself, with the multiple casting for Abby and Beah allowing for both younger and inner selves to speak to these characters, with shades of things to come for an older Beah. And the ongoing role swapping between the actors playing Abby and the Doctor (Bojanowski and Bonnell) shines a light on the choices health care practitioners have when it comes to their practice: to play a role in the male-dominated arenas of capitalism and Big Pharma, promising low-cost health benefits at unknown personal and societal cost, or working on the front lines of health care among those who society has discarded.

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Krystina Bojanowski & Company. Production design by Kaitlin Hickey in collaboration with Susanna Fournier. Wardrobe and props design by Patrick Peachey Higdon. Video design by Steph Raposo. Photo by Bernie Fournier.

Compelling work from this remarkable cast, as the staging incorporates movement, video and voice-over to tell a story that, like the earlier parts of this trilogy, is both visceral and cerebral, past and present, present and future. Pizano nicely balances Sarah’s wry-witted madam pragmatism with the tender-hearted, concern of a good mother. Bojanowski and Bonnell mine the Doctor’s clinical detachment and sense of social responsibility to great effect. Are the Doctor’s later efforts a move toward redemption—or too little, too late?

The four girls grow before our eyes, from children playing in Sarah’s kitchen into conflicted adults struggling to choose a path in a world where paths are being cut off and replaced with walls—literally and figuratively. Hunter, Bojanowski and Bonnell bring sharp focus and inner conflict to Abby, who becomes an apprentice to the Doctor even as she longs to be a mother—and in the painful light of her new-found medical knowledge and expertise. Evans, Huizi and Dahl are loveable and heartbreaking as the energetic, resilient Beah; the dancer sister who longs to study at the academy—her exhausted, battered feet continuing to create despite the unexpected turns her life takes. Griffith brings both profound vulnerability and power to the deeply wounded, angry Dee; self-medicating in an effort to deal with troubling visions, Dee becomes an addict and an outcast among her own marginalized family, setting her on the path toward a surprising evolution. And Moore’s Cassie is adorable and wise; ever a child, Cassie sees and responds to unfolding events with innocent honesty.

Operating both in and out of time and space, we witness what the Empire has come to following centuries of war and social disintegration—leaving us wondering what, if anything, will rise from the ashes. (During intermission, you can view artifacts in the National Museum of the Empire installation in the upper lobby, outside the theatre.) In the end, through pain, grief and loss, there is resilience and resistance. It is apocalypse with a glimmer of hope. And all with the recognition—both disturbing and reassuring—of our own time and place.

Four Sisters continues in the Franco Boni Theatre space at the Theatre Centre until June 16. Post-show talk backs with the artists are scheduled to follow the 8 pm performance on Fri, June 14 (hosted by Ted Witzel); and the 2 pm performance on Sat, June 15 (hosted by Maria Vamvalis). Advance tickets available online; it was a full house at last night’s final preview performance, so advance booking or early arrival is strongly recommended.

If you’re like me and missed the first two installments of the Empire trilogy, or want a refresh before seeing Four Sisters, you can catch up and listen to the podcasts of The Philosopher’s Wife and The Scavenger’s Daughter on The Empire website, co-produced with Expect Theatre’s PlayMe Podcast.

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SummerWorks: A beautiful, bittersweet memory play featuring outstanding, powerful performances in Seams

Seams-400x312Dress forms, a clothing rack, a large basin with wash board and soap, a pile of fabric, a work table. And off stage left, a chair. Old Frosya enters, the ghosts of her former co-workers standing on the catwalk on the upper level of the stage.

And so the stage is set for the Seam Collective’s production of Polly Phokeev’s Seams, directed by Mikaela Davies – running at the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Mainspace as part of SummerWorks. Inspired by an old photo of Phokeev’s grandmother and her seamstress/seamster co-workers, Seams is set in the wardrobe room of a theatre in Moscow, 1939.

Old Frosya (Clare Coulter) is the sole survivor of a group of costume-makers – and her memories turn to their moments together in 1939, in the first months of WWII. In a world where the state owns everything, corruption runs wild, and being broke, cold and hungry is commonplace, it’s everyone for themselves. People are desperate enough to report neighbours, friends and co-workers for any hint of suspicious activity – selling out one family for another to heavy-handed authorities – in order to survive or, in some cases, to get perks like a nicer apartment. Suspicion and mistrust, and guarded thoughts, become a way of life. The love/hate for Russia and the people in their lives is palpable. Everyone has a secret. And this is everyday life.

Part memoir, part confessional, Frosya’s narrative starts with relatively happy times – a workplace family gossiping about the actors and selectively sharing their lives. It’s a microcosm of the larger world outside the wardrobe room; and as conditions deteriorate in Russia – in an already difficult socio-political environment – so too do they begin to crumble in their world.

Seams features moving, nuanced performances from the entire cast. Coulter is haunting as the gruffly matter of fact, wry-witted Old Frosya. As Frosya’s younger self, Caitlin Robson brings a bright warmth and generosity to the brisk and efficient costume room den mother. Ewa Wolniczek brings a strong, stubborn sense of drive and idealism to the passionate young activist Marina.

There’s great chemistry between Krystina Bojanowski (the positive, open-hearted and hopeful Ira) and Jesse La Vercombe (the quiet, pleasant and troubled Anton) – who share some adorably awkward moments as both fumble around their attraction for each other. And there’s an equally lovely dynamic between Sochi Fried’s dark, introspective and mysterious Radya and Elizabeth Stuart-Morris’s irreverent, daring and carefree Shura – their moments together full of aching longing and electric eroticism. Of course, circumstances being what they are, when they are, the good times cannot last – and with the ransacking of the wardrobe in a theatre already on the brink of closure, so too are relationships torn apart as their time together draws to a close.

With shouts to design team Shannon Lea Doyle (design), Steve Vargo (lighting), Jackie McClelland (installation) and Nicholas Potter (sound) for their evocative construction of this world.

Seams is a beautiful, bittersweet memory play – equal parts charming and heartbreaking – featuring outstanding, powerful performances.

Seams has two more performances at the TPM Mainspace: Fri, Aug 14 at 9:30 p.m. and Sun, Aug 16 at 4:15 p.m.The buzz is strong with this show, so book in advance or get to the venue box office early.

In the meantime, check out Bailey Green’s chat with Phokeev, Davies and Stuart-Morris (who does double duty as producer) for In the Greenroom.

Preview: Moving modern LGBT take on classic star-crossed lovers in Romeo and (her) Juliet

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Leslie McBay (Romeo) & Krystina Bojanowski (Juliet)

Headstrong Collective and Urban Bard took us to the Church of Shakespeare at Bloor Street United Church last night – literally and figuratively – in their preview performance of Romeo and (her) Juliet, directed by Urban Bard A.D. Scott Emerson Moyle, and produced by Headstrong Collective co-founders/producers/actors Melanie Hrymak and Leslie McBay.

Outside the sanctuary, on opposite sides of the doors, are tables with photographs of Tybalt (Hrymak) and Mercutio (Max Tepper), with accompanying guest books and condolence cards. Inside, front and centre, there is a poster-sized photograph of Romeo (McBay) and Juliet (Krystina Bojanowski), an image captured at their wedding. The play is set during a memorial service, and in Friar Laurence’s (Lisa Karen Cox) memory of events from the previous week.

This is a moving, modern-day, queer interpretation of Romeo and Juliet; the lovers are both women, as are Benvolio (Clare Blackwood) and Friar Laurence (Cox), while Nurse is Capulet’s male assistant (Shawn Ahmed, who also plays Sgt. Prince, a community liaison officer). Mrs. Capulet (Siobhan Richardson, also doing double duty as fight director) is Capulet’s (Geoffrey Whynot) second wife, with the up and coming Paris (Adrian Shepherd) their prime choice for a son-in-law. The one-line character descriptions in the program read like Facebook status points and the cast reflects the diverse culture of Toronto – and the enmity between the Capulets and Montagues is as much about the one percent vs. the 99 percent as it is about family feud.

McBay and Bojanowski are lovely as the ill-fated teen lovers; McBay’s Romeo is a sensitive romantic, with a melancholy edge and soft butch swagger, and Bojanowski’s Juliet is bright and sweet, unspoiled by her privileged life and looking forward to a sense of independence while away at university. Blackwood and Tepper give strong – and often comic – performances as Romeo’s BFFs: the streetwise and protective Benvolio (Blackwood) and party boy Fool Mercutio (Tepper). Hrymak’s Tybalt is nicely nuanced – haughty and proud, but not without conscience in her drive to defend her family’s reputation. Whynot carries Capulet’s alpha male power well, his angry outbursts hinting at the potential for physical violence; Richardson’s Mrs. Capulet, step-mother to Juliet, is a compelling contradiction of chilly Rosedale matron whose emotions run deep and intense. Cox does a beautiful job as Laurence, the supportive community cleric, as well as mentor and friend to Romeo – caught in the middle of a family war and desperately trying to resolve it. Doing double acting duty, Ahmed is the picture of efficiency and warmth as Nurse, and equally supportive, but at the end of his patience, as Sgt. Prince; and Adrian Shepherd gives us a perfectly coiffed and well-mannered Paris, with a hint of bad boy beneath the golden boy exterior, and a nice turn as the wary street-dwelling drug dealer who begrudgingly sells Romeo the deadly poison.

The site-specific venue works incredibly well for this production of Shakespeare’s timeless classic tale of star-crossed love – and the 90-minute abridged version of the script hits all the important plot points and sweet spots the audience needs to become immersed in the story. In the end, are bereft and grieving – including the audience.

With shouts to composer Stephen Joffe for the moving atmospheric soundtrack; and stage manager Christina Abes for keeping things running smoothly and at a good pace in the complex, multi-level playing space.

Headstrong Collective/Urban Bard production of Romeo and (her) Juliet is a powerful contemporary urban interpretation, beautifully staged and truthfully acted. Go see this.

Romeo and (her) Juliet opens tomorrow night (Fri, Sept 5) and runs until Sept 20 at Bloor Street United Church (300 Bloor Street West at Huron); entrance is on the Bloor St. side, around the middle of the building. You can purchase tickets at the door 30 minutes before the show or online here. Please note the 7:30 p.m. curtain time; the show runs 90 minutes with no intermission.