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.

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SummerWorks: Engaging, poignant & funny storytelling in Graceful Rebellions

Graceful RebellionsSaw another engaging and entertaining solo show at SummerWorks last night: Shaista Latif’s Graceful Rebellions, directed by Evalyn Parry (who also has a show in the fest: To Live in the Age of Melting: The Idea of North 2.0).

Playing across time, space and culture, Latif plays three Afghan women with interwoven lives: a 14-year-old serves tea and candied almonds at her older sister’s engagement party, and dreams of her own wedding day; a young woman lives and works as a boy to support her mother and sisters; a 17-year-old gay Afghan-Canadian girl pleads her case to the school principal. We later see the first young woman, grown up and living in Canada – and planning a surprise engagement party for her gay daughter.

Latif is a delightful performer, using a chest of costumes to make her character transformations, from the sweet, precocious 14-year-old, to the tough, pragmatic young woman/boy, to the extroverted, outspoken and out high school student. Each is searching for identity in the midst of their very different circumstances and environments; each is expected to be lovely and compliant – and each experiences her own version of attraction to women. And each embodies a strong sense of self and of love, resilient and adaptable, even as each faces her own battles, from war-torn Afghanistan to the bully in the hallway of a Canadian high school.

Graceful Rebellions is a charming, poignant and funny piece of storytelling, running at the Theatre Passe Muraille back space until Saturday, August 16. Check here for exact dates and times.

Toronto Fringe: A moving, entertaining & eye-opening look at LGBT life in Salvador

salvador.web_-250x250Living in Canada, it can be easy to take our rights and freedoms for granted, and sometimes we need to be reminded that people in other countries are still struggling and fighting – and this is especially true for the LGBT community.

Salvador, written by Rafael Antonio Renderos and directed by Sam Graham, is one such reminder – on now at Toronto Fringe. A Young Man (Renderos) travels to his family’s homeland, El Salvador, to research gay rights violations. There, he interviews Joaquín Caceres (Jamie Johnson), an HIV+ gay man, human rights/LGBT activist and founder of Asociacíon Entre Amigos, and he learns of the history of horrors and routine rights violations suffered by LGBT people, all the while repressing his exuberant gay self.

Appearing throughout the play is the Spirit (Jaime Hernandez-Lujan), a stunningly beautiful and vivacious drag queen. Through verbatim theatre (the interview), storytelling and drag performance, the journey unfolds as the Young Man corresponds with his lover back home in Toronto. And he ends up learning much more than he expected – mainly, about himself.

Renderos is beautifully idealistic, curious and open-hearted as the Young Man, struggling with his own sexual and gender identity even as he hears about Joaquin’s fight. Johnson gives Joaquin a strong sense of passion and drive, tempered with good-humour and warmth; this is a good man risking his life in the fight for human rights. Hernandez-Lujan (also known as drag performer Lucinda Miu) gives a lovely performance as the Spirit, going from flirtatious, entertaining and whimsical to tender and melancholy throughout her various numbers, as she plays various characters, including Joaquin’s mother. It is as if the Spirit is the Young Man’s true self come to life – and when he puts his own internal repression and fear aside, he lip syncs and dances with such release and joy that I couldn’t help but be brought to tears.

Salvador is a moving, entertaining and eye-opening story of LGBT cultural and self-discovery.

The show continues at the Annex Theatre until July 13 – check here for exact dates/times.

Toronto Fringe: Big wacky fun look at life, love & motherhood in Parallel Play

parallel_play23Caught some seriously funny sketch comedy goodness at Toronto Fringe yesterday – comic revue Parallel Play, written and performed by actors/stand-up comics Elvira Kurt and Megan Fahlenbock, and directed by Linda Kash – on now at the Tarragon Extra Space.

Kurt and Fahlenbock (who Fringe folks may remember from Mum and the Big C a couple of years ago), have created a hilariously frank and true-to-life look at the life of women, told through a series of comic scenes and one very funny song (written by Kash).

Highlights for me include the two grandmothers accompanying their grandchildren plus nannies to the playground; Kurt, the eastern European immigrant, and Fahlenbock, the duck-faced with lip collagen Rosedale matron, find common ground despite their cultural differences. Kurt totally nailed the dyke in the bathroom rant, as did Fahlenbock with the final word. And I really loved the brain (Kurt) and heart (Fahlenbock) scenes, book-ending the show nicely and highlighting life’s moments throughout.

With shouts to Lindsay Jenkins’ minimalist, but extremely effective, design.

Parallel Play is a big wacky fun look at birth, life, love, relationships and motherhood – played out by two very funny gals.

The show runs at the Tarragon Extra Space until July 13 – check here for exact dates/times.

 

A funny & moving journey that entertains & inspires – Alison Wearing’s Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter

Fairy's DaughterPlaywright/actor/author Alison Wearing’s one-woman show Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter: Growing Up with a Gay Dad, expanded and published as a full-length book last year, is currently running at U of T’s George Ignatieff Theatre as part of World Pride 2014 Toronto. And I was so happy to be able to catch it last night!

Co-created by Wearing and director Stuart Cox, Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter has been re-imagined for this Pride run, with the assistance of Calvin B. Grant’s multimedia and sound design – together creating a magical experience of memoir and storytelling.

Taking us on a journey through her ‘normal’ childhood in Peterborough, Wearing shares memories and events around her Dad coming out when she was 12 – and the subsequent emotional fall-out, and reorganization of family and home life when her parents divorced. Each scene is accompanied by projected images of family photos, and a soundtrack of both her and father’s favourite music, creating a sense of familiarity as we get to know Wearing and the world and people she grew up with.

Wearing is a highly engaging storyteller, shifting with ease through each vignette, and moving in and out of the various characters in her story, deftly performing childhood variations of herself and her friend Jessica, as well as both her parents. And as she progresses into young adulthood, we get the sense that this journey has been as much about self-discovery for her as it was for her father.

Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter is a funny, moving journey of revelation and discovery – and ultimately understanding and acceptance – that both entertains and inspires.

You have two more chances to see Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter: today (Sat, June 28) at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Wearing is available after performances for book signings or just to say “hi.” Go see this.

In the meantime, check out Shelagh Rogers’ interview with Wearing and her dad on CBC Radio’s The Next Chapter.

And have a peek at the trailer for Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter:

 

Dawn Patrol Pride brings the big, gay funny @ Comedy Bar

Had some big, gay fun times at Dawn Whitwell’s weekly Dawn Patrol standup show at Comedy Bar last night – this week, the extra spectacular Pride edition.

Last night’s lineup featured an amazing roster of local talent, representing some of the funniest gays in the City (in order of appearance):

Paul Hutcheson

Danz Altvater

Regina the Gentlelady (see also the band The Lightfires)

Marco Bernardi

Carolyn Taylor

Phil Luzi

Catherine McCormick

Ted Morris

Deanne Smith

Here are some pix I took last night:

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A powerful, moving adaptation – The Deliverance of Juliet & Her Romeo

juliet & her romeoI was very lucky to be able to get in to see the closing night performance of Leroy Street Theatre’s/Avant Bard Productions’ adaptation of Romeo and JulietThe Deliverance of Juliet and Her Romeo – at Unit 102 Theatre last night.

Adapted by Harrison Thomas, Ashleigh Kasaboski and Anne van Leeuwen, and directed by Thomas, this version of the classic tale of star-crossed lovers is set in a modern-day religious right dystopia (think Handmaid’s Tale meets Bountiful, B.C.). The Capulets are members of the dominant cult, and Lord Capulet (Scott Walker) is their prophet/leader; Lady Capulet is a trio of sister wives that includes the traditional Nurse role (Michelle Cloutier, Kelly Van der Burg and Michelle D’Alessandro Hatt – with D’Alessandro Hatt playing the Nurse wife, called “Aunt” by Juliet); and Juliet (Kasaboski) is the dutiful, but lively, daughter and prized possession. Romeo (van Leeuwen) is a woman, with only her mother Lady Montague (Emily Nixon) and cousin Benvolio (Cam Sedgwick) to call family – and all are reviled heretics in the eyes of the Capulet cult. Living outside these opposing families are the socially liberal missionary Friar Lawrence (Christopher Mott) and his daughter Mercutio (Lauren Horejda), who is BFFs with Benvolio and Romeo.

In this Romeo and Juliet, the hate between the two families is mostly one-sided, with the more powerful Capulets lording over all – and not above acts of self-righteous violence to keep control and purge their society of undesirables. And, here, the young love between Juliet and her Romeo, cut short by hatred and intolerance, is all the more tragic – you’d think that, by the late 20th centruy, people would know better.

Played out on a starkly furnished, almost Spartan, set of chain link fences and wooden boxes – and backed by a live soundtrack of guitar, banjo and a selection of hymns, including a particularly lovely choral performance of “Down to the River to Pray” – this Verona is physically divided, the Capulet commune more like a prison than a community.

The Deliverance of Juliet and Her Romeo has an excellent cast. Stand-outs include Kasaboski, who brings a youthful passion and energy – and desperate bravery – to Juliet; and van Leeuwen’s Romeo is a lovely combination of sensitive, romantic and melancholy (this production also borrows text from Hamlet), whose courage tends more toward the brash and impetuous compared to her more measured lover. Walker’s performance as Capulet is riveting – his Capulet’s domineering, at times violent, behaviour and ‘my way or the highway’ attitude is all the more disturbing, as it’s all done in the name of God. D’Alessandro Hatt’s Lady Capulet 3/Nurse is compelling and compassionate – surprised to find that the Romeo to whom she delivers Juliet’s message is a woman, but not allowing prejudice to sway her opinion of Romeo’s good character. It is towards this wife that Capulet directs his violence when she attempts to intervene when Juliet refuses to marry Paris – and her eventual support of the match seems to come more from a place of protecting Juliet’s welfare than betrayal. Mott’s Friar Lawrence, who also acts as the Chorus, does an excellent job of juggling the conflicting political and emotional situations he finds himself in; striving to keep the peace and protect his family, his resolve pushed to the breaking point when his daughter is killed and the Capulets plan a mass suicide after Juliet’s ‘death’ (drawn from real-life 1978 Jonestown Massacre). And Horejda is remarkable as Mercutio (also plays the Apothecary) – cocky, irreverent and exceedingly clever, with a tortured soul beneath the wise-cracking antics, and so in love with Romeo.

The Deliverance of Juliet and Her Romeo is a powerful, moving adaptation – and the big deal here is not that the young lovers are women, but that the world in which they live is ruled by the hate and narrow-mindedness of an extreme religious right group that ultimately implodes upon itself. Bad news is, the run is over. Good news is, you can keep an eye out for Leroy Street Theatre and Avant Bard Productions – and this fine cast – to see where they go next.