Mothers, daughters & the nature of power & leadership in the electric, razor-sharp Mother’s Daughter

Shannon Taylor & Fiona Byrne. Set & costume design by Lorenzo Savoini. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Soulpepper brings the Stratford Festival production of the final installment of Kate Hennig’s remarkable trilogy—exploring the Tudor period from the perspectives of its most famous and powerful women—to the Young Centre with the electric, razor-sharp Mother’s Daughter, directed by Alan Dilworth. Mary Tudor (aka Bloody Mary), who become the first female monarch of England, struggles with both inner and outer conflict—living in the shadow of her formidable, beloved mother Catalina (Catherine of Aragon), and up against her popular, cunning sister Bess (Elizabeth I) and young, naive cousin Lady Jane Grey to gain and maintain the crown during a great period of upheaval and uncertainty following her brother Edward’s death. Exploring mother/daughter relationships, and the nature of leadership and power, it’s an intensely compelling portrait of trust, alliance, betrayal and grit.

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Shannon Taylor & Andrea Rankin. Set & costume design by Lorenzo Savoini. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Teenaged King Edward VI has died, and has disinherited his sisters Mary (Shannon Taylor) and Bess (Jessica B. Hill), and—guided by John Dudley—named their 16-year-old cousin Lady Jane Grey (Andrea Rankin) as his successor; Jane just happens to be Dudley’s daughter-in-law and claims to have no desire for the crown. Bess and Mary are having none of it, and a three-way battle for the throne ensues, with nobles and common folk alike taking sides and declaring loyalties. Initially refusing to use violent means to get what she wants, Mary chooses to use her voice and the power of reason as a means to appeal to and win over her adversaries.

With early confrontations going her way, Mary wins the crown—and begins the hard work of strategizing her reign with the assistance of personal advisors Bassett (Beryl Bain) and Susan (Maria Vacratsis), with diplomat Simon (Gordon Patrick White) guiding her through protocol and procedure. Also in Mary’s corner is her deceased mother Catalina (Fiona Byrne), who—through Mary’s memory and inner voice—appears, urging a decisive, iron grip approach, particularly when it comes to dealing with adversaries and restoring the Catholic faith to England. Added to the mix in Mary’s deliberations is Catalina’s nemesis Anne Boleyn (Hill), Bess’s mother, who wielded power in her own visceral way, in direct opposition to Catalina (and Mary’s) more cerebral approach. And throughout all the fireworks and debates between her various advisors, Mary grapples with her own sense of self-doubt and confidence as she strives to come to terms with her newly acquired power and responsibility. All the while, dealing with physical pain, Mary clutches her lower abdomen throughout—highlighting the pressures of producing an heir in her late 30s, and foreshadowing the (likely) ovarian or uterine cancer that contributed to her death at 42 during a flu epidemic.

Stunning performances from this largely female cast. Taylor does an outstanding job with Mary’s complexity and inner conflict; gutsy, determined and ambitious, Mary wants to be a moderate ruler, but finds she must steal herself to best confront personal and national threats. Living in the shadow of her mother Catalina, Mary is also both haunted and dogged by an extremely complicated mother/daughter relationship; both longing for love and approval while fighting Catalina’s harsh judgment, and determined to do things her own way even as she navigates her own second guessing and conflicting advice from counsellors. Byrne is an imposing, regal presence as the imperious Catalina; constantly pushing Mary to be the best monarch she can be, Catalina is laser-focused and brutally honest—holding no punches as she advises her daughter.

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Shannon Taylor & Jessica B. Hill (as Anne). Set & costume design by Lorenzo Savoini. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Hill’s Bess exudes a cock-sure confidence and comfort in her own skin that Mary struggles to possess; exceedingly cunning and at ease with her power, Bess knows without a shadow of a doubt that she was meant to rule. Hill brings a fierce sensuality to the self-possessed Anne, making it easy to see the source of Bess’s passion and fire. Rankin’s sweet, naïve Jane stands in stark contrast to the ambitious Mary and Bess; a seeming innocent who professes no desire for the crown, Jane has been groomed for the throne—by a third mother figure who we don’t see here—and finds she must admit that maybe she does really want it after all.

Bain’s edgy, young spin master Bassett and Vacratsis’ measured, cautious veteran advisor Susan serve as perfect foils for each other—with Bassett representing Mary’s fight response and Susan the flight response. Rounding out Mary’s official council is the prim and proper diplomat Simon, who White infuses with a deadpan, stern schoolteacher-like countenance; the result is sometimes comic, but Simon also stands in for the male perspective here. Downplaying Mary, Bassett and Susan’s debates as “woman’s chatter”, Simon is a most reluctant and skeptical member of Mary’s inner circle. There is no precedent for a female monarch—and, like many men and even some women, Simon highly doubts that a woman is fit to rule.

The action is nicely supported by Lorenzo Savoini’s sharp, minimalistic set and stunning costumes, which combine a sense of the period with that of the 21st century; and complemented by Kimberly Purtell’s startling, edgy lighting design.

Winning hearts and minds, and reconciling the inner struggle between the kind of ruler one wants to be and the kind of ruler one needs to be. Difficult times require difficult decisions—and those in power must also do battle within themselves, even going against their own nature, to be the kind of leader they are required to be.

Mother’s Daughter continues at the Young Centre and must close on February 9; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188. Get on those advance bookings to avoid disappointment.

In the meantime, check out the trailer:

 

 

A gripping contemporary take on a classic in the powerful, chilling, resonant Julius Caesar

Dion Johnstone & Moya O’Connell. Set & lighting design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Ming Wong. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Groundling Theatre Company joins forces with Crow’s Theatre to present a chilling modern-day take on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, directed by Chris Abraham, assisted by Rouvan Silogix, with additional writing by Zack Russell. Grippingly staged and brilliantly performed, this is a Julius Caesar unlike any you’ve ever seen before. The compelling spectacle of power, ambition and resistance opened at Streetcar Crowsnest last night.

Populist Caesar (Jim Mezon) has defeated rival Pompey and returns to Rome in triumph, greeted by throngs of adoring citizens, who—seeing him as a man of the people—celebrate his victory as their own. His closest friends and colleagues are troubled, though; and fear his thirst for power and inability to take good counsel will turn him tyrant as a large proportion of their countrymen thrust a crown upon him. In secret, Cassius (Moya O’Connell) approaches Caesar’s friend Brutus (Dion Johnstone) with an extreme solution. They are joined by like-minded fellow politicos (Sarah Afful, Walter Borden, Ryan Cunningham, Jani Lauzon, Diego Matamoros and André Sills) and the conspiracy is set. At home, Brutus’s ill and worried wife Portia (Michelle Giroux) reaches out to her distant husband for connection; a stranger even to himself, and conflicted and distracted by the wrong he must do for good, Brutus rebuffs her.

Warned by a Soothsayer (Borden) to beware the Ides of March, and entreated by his wife Calpurnia (Afful) to stay home that day, Caesar eschews advice and appears in the Senate chamber—and the conspirators hit their mark. Caesar’s golden boy Mark Antony (Graham Abbey) is spared at Brutus’s order, a decision that proves deadly as the underestimated and vengeful Antony, while not adept at reading people, excels at riling up a crowd. In a brilliantly heartfelt speech at Caesar’s funeral, Antony makes thinly veiled accusations directed at Brutus and his friends.

Civil war ensues, with Antony allying with Caesar’s heir Octavius (Afful) against Brutus, Cassius and their rebel army. Tragedy upon tragedy tries already exhausted spirits among the rebels, and things go badly for them. But Octavius is magnanimous in victory, recognizing that Brutus was a great man who loved and sacrificed for Rome.

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Jim Mezon. Set & lighting design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Ming Wong. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Each and every performance is present, compelling and nuanced. Mezon gives a cool, sly, entitled edge to Caesar; more of a slick politician than a warrior, Caesar knows exactly what to say to win over the common man, whether he means it or not. Johnstone brings a gentle calmness to the fair-minded thinker Brutus; he is nicely complemented by O’Connell’s hot-tempered, manipulative and laser-focused warrior Cassius. Abbey’s Antony is a shrewd performer beneath the boyish jock charm, making Antony’s sharp power to persuade easily overlooked.

The remainder of the cast performs multiple roles, adeptly shifting in tone and character throughout. Afful’s loving, earnest Calpurnia and swaggering young warrior Octavius; Borden’s eerie, voice-modulate Soothsayer and dignified elder statesman; Cunningham’s impassioned young soldier Felix, a big fan of Caesar; Lauzon’s intrepid Trebonius and beautiful mourning vocals at the funeral; Matamoros’s stalwart servant and wry politician; and Sills’ irreverent, edgy Casca and skeptical radio show co-host.

The action is well-supported by the design team: Lorenzo Savoini’s startling set and lighting design; Ming Wong’s present-day costumes, shifting from the suits of politics to the fatigues of soldiers; and Thomas Ryder Payne’s evocative sound design, transporting us from the cheering crowds of Rome to the horrific sounds of destruction in war—and featuring some moving vocal and acoustic moments.

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Jani Lauzon, André Sills & Diego Matamoros. Set & lighting design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Ming Wong. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Nicely bookended with a contemporary talk radio show at the top and a post-mortem interview regarding individual regrets at the end, this production of Julius Caesar is firmly rooted in the present, with historical events held up as a mirror to modern-day leadership. It’s hard not to draw a direct line to the despotic leaders we see on the world stage today—but as director Abraham’s program notes astutely mention, rather than take this as an indictment of individual leaders, we may want to broaden our gaze to include the political systems and societies that make the raising up of such men possible.

We all know how it starts and how it ends. What’s interesting is the meat in the middle, how it gets interpreted and how it resonates today. You may have seen this play before, but never like this. Go see it.

Julius Caesar continues at Streetcar Crowsnest in the Guloien Theatre until February 2; advance tickets available online. Advance booking recommended, as this is already a hot ticket.

Relevant, urgent, hopeful—the powerful, resonant evolution of Bleeders in Lukumi

There is a buzz of excitement and anticipation, a festive feeling. Those of us among the audience who arrived early had been listening in on a final rehearsal, taking in the lush harmonies and powerful lyrics as we waited in the hallway. And when we enter the space, we are welcomed, offered something to drink. It’s like we’re coming into someone’s home—and we are.

We are in Studio 317 at 9 Trinity Street in the Distillery District, home to The Watah Theatre. And we are about to witness the evolution of Part Three of d’bi.young anitafrika’s Orisha Trilogy: Lukumi, a dub opera that began as Bleeders in a workshop production at the Theatre Centre during SummerWorks 2016. The revised, retitled piece has been mounted for three staged readings—and last night was opening night.

Led by playwright/director anitafrika and musical director Waleed Abdulhamid, the Lukumi ensemble is a combination of the original SummerWorks Bleeders cast and Watah Theatre 2016/17 Artists-in-Residence: Saba Akhtar, Angaer Arop, Anne-Audrey, Naomi Bain, Aisha Bentham, Savannah Clark, Raven Dauda, Andrenne Finnikin, Nickeshia Garrick, Mahlet Gebreyohannes, FaithAnn Mendes, muyoti mukonambi, Najla Nubyanluv, Sashoya Shoya Oya, Kamika Peters, Radha Pithadia, Racquel Smith, Alexandra Sproule and Ravyn Wngs.

I saw the 2016 SummerWorks production, back when it was called Bleeders. Anitafrika refers to the piece as an “experiment” that combines dub opera and African traditions of choral work. Emerging actors were paired up with more experienced actors, creating a mentorship bond, and the cast was given space to experiment with characterizations; for the reading workshop, each character is presented in duet, a miniature chorus of two actors. The script was reworked for the reading event, to fill in gaps that would otherwise be covered by staging/action, with anitafrika acting as both narrator and conductor.

Most of the original script is still there: Lukumi is a hero’s journey in a futuristic post-apocalyptic dystopia following a nuclear disaster at the Pickering nuclear plant—an event that has left mankind sterile, but for a special one, the Lukumi. Sent off by a council of black womxn* to seek the Ancestor Tree in the hopes of finding what humans have forgotten about their role in creation, Lukumi embarks on a warrior’s vision quest into the underworld.

Guided by the teachings and principles of eight animal guides, she finds what she is looking for and returns home—but perhaps too late. The One World Army, seeking fertile women to swell their ranks to continue the 1,000-years War, is banging on the door. The situation is dire and many of her friends sacrifice their lives—but, having learned humility and accepting responsibility for mankind’s destruction of the planet, Lukumi has within her the seed of hope.

The most remarkable revision is the prologue, with the addition of an all too familiar voiceover—the “America first” portion of Donald Trump’s inauguration speech—which puts forth an “us first,” isolationist philosophy. It is a chilling foundation for what is to come, seguing into a scene of protest over the rape of the land and the poisoning of the water—and, in particular, the unsafe proximity of nuclear power plants to residential areas. The performance features stand-out vocal solos from Nubyanluv (Ancestor Tree) and Garrick (Elephant); once again, Garrick’s “Rest in Peace, My Friends” brought tears to my eyes—as did the epilogue “Black Lives Matter,” where the entire cast brings us back to 2016 in a stark reminder of ongoing social inequality and the oppressive abuse of power (which animal guide Lion warned Lukumi against).

During the post-reading talkback, as the cast introduced themselves, a common thread for their experience of this work—and working with Watah Theatre—emerged: they felt they were held in a space of mutual respect, and in the spirit of creative experimentation and collaboration. The Artists-in-Residence have been working in relative solitude, each crafting a solo piece, and those who have spent a most of their emerging careers working alone marvelled at the collective experience. There is a deep sense of gratitude, family and ownership in this oasis of creativity and support.

Anitafrika and The Watah Theatre foster a sense of community and outreach, emphasizing the desire to be present, and show up both in life and in the work they undertake. It is an inclusive, embracing space, where artists are invited to come as they are, and learn and stretch. It is a community of creativity, sharing and mentorship that creates artists who are also leaders and activists. Please consider supporting The Watah Theatre by contributing to their GoFundMe campaign.

With shouts to Stage Manager Samson Brown and Artistic Producer Brett Haynes—it does, after all, take a village to mount such an epic work.

Relevant, urgent, hopeful—the powerful, resonant evolution of Bleeders in Lukumi. I look forward to seeing where this production goes next.

The Lukumi workshop reading has two more performances at The Watah Theatre’s space (9 Trinity Street, Studio 317): today (Saturday) at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm; it’s an intimate space and a truly compelling show, so get your tix in advance. In the meantime, check out the trailer for Lukumi:

* This spelling of “woman” is the preference of the playwright.