Toronto Fringe: Two men reach out for each other in times of division & change in the intimate, tender, layered The Seat Next to the King

Tanisha Taitt directs Minmar Gaslight Productions’ run of Steven Elliott Jackson’s beautifully compelling The Seat Next to the King, winner of the 2017 Toronto Fringe Best New Play contest, now running in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Mainspace.

Opening in 1964 in a public washroom in Washington, D.C., The Seat Next to the King presents an imagined relationship that develops between two men who work for two of America’s most important political figures of the time.

Bayard Rustin (Kwaku Okyere) and Walter Jenkins (Conor Ling) meet and interact in a beautiful, intricate dance of desire, race, politics and confronting one’s true self unfolds in the push/pull of their initial meeting as strangers, shifting to brief moments of genuine connection and sharing as they get to know each other. Bookended by another washroom meeting years later, we see how their lives have changed—for the world and for themselves.

Lovely, connected work from Okyere and Ling. Okyere’s Bayard is outspoken, frank and charming, with keen, sharp powers of observation; despite being shunned by family and friends, Bayard is out. His choice has cost him, and while he doesn’t appear to regret it, there is profound pain and loneliness beneath his joyful, extrovert manner. Ling goes deep into the layers of Walter’s inner conflict; an introverted man, full of desire and shame, Walter longs for a man’s touch, but can’t bring himself out of his double life. And the chemistry between these two men makes their encounters both beautiful and heartbreaking to witness.

Two men reach out for each other in times of division and change in the intimate, tender, layered The Seat Next to the King.

The Seat Next to the King continues in the TPM Mainspace until July 16. With a standing ovation in a packed house at last night’s 11:30pm performance, advance booking is a must for this one.

Grit, determination & a love affair with the speed bag in the funny, moving, inspiring Newsgirl

Savoy Howe in Newsgirl—photo by Dahlia Katz

 

Tracey Erin Smith and Soulo Theatre celebrated the 5th anniversary of the Soulo Theatre Festival, opening this year’s fest with an Opening Night Gala presentation of Savoy Howe’s Newsgirl. With direction and dramatury by Soulo Theatre A.D. Smith, Newsgirl ran for one night only at the Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club in front of an enthusiastic, sold out house—and a standing ovation—last night. The fest continues at Red Sandcastle Theatre tonight and throughout the weekend.

When Savoy Howe moved away from her home in New Brunswick in the late 80s to study theatre in Hamilton and later move to Toronto, she had no way of foreseeing what was in store—and the journey that would bring her the sense of strength, determination and empowerment that she would go on to share with women and trans people.

This is the story of Newsgirl, Howe’s autobiographical solo show that takes her from a tomboy growing up on a Canadian Air Force base, to her coming out, to training as a boxer and later passing on her knowledge as a boxing coach, starting the first women’s and trans-friendly boxing gym in Canada: the Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club. And, while it was a photo of a woman wearing boxing gloves that inspired Howe to take up the sport, it was a speed bag that made her fall in love with boxing.

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Savoy Howe in Newsgirl—photo by Dahlia Katz

Combining the physicality, strategy and philosophy of boxing with considerable stand-up and storytelling chops, Howe is an engaging, energetic and endearing performer. With Howe primarily telling her story from inside the boxing ring, the show is dynamically staged, moving her around the gym as she highlights discovery and work on the heavy bag and speed bag; and her rookie first entry into the ring is hilarious!

Newsgirls is a story of struggle, grit and a ‘don’t give up’ attitude that takes some rough, and sometimes violent, turns. Perseverance, a big heart and a curious, open mind—not to mention a hard-working, helping hand way of looking at life—make the wins and losses equal in value. Always learning, never backing down from a challenge, and enduring the deep-seated sexism and male aggression of this world, Howe is an inspiration. Newsgirl is a classic underdog makes good story. And it definitely packs a punch.

Grit, determination and a love affair with the speed bag in the funny, moving, inspiring Newsgirl.

Check out this great interview in VICE Sports with Savoy Howe on how she got into boxing, opened Newsgirls, and how she and the gym are empowering women and trans people. You can also follow the Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club on Facebook.

Howe is in the process of launching a crowdfunding campaign to keep the gym alive and serving the community; stay tuned for details on how you can help.

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Soulo Theatre A.D. Tracey Erin Smith in the ring at Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club—photo by Dahlia Katz

Newsgirl was a one-night only performance, but no worries—there are lots more life-changing, life-affirming true stories to come tonight and this weekend at the fest, which includes solo shows and panel discussions. The Soulo Theatre Festival continues at Red Sandcastle Theatre till May 28; check out the full schedule and purchase advance tickets and get your festival pass.

Department of corrections: The original post for the show mentioned that Howe studied theatre in Toronto; it was actually Hamilton. The error has been corrected.

Identity, community & calling shenanigans on BS in the raw, real, nostalgic Situational Anarchy

 Graham Isador in Situational Anarchy

 

Pressgang Theatre joins forces with Pandemic Theatre to present Graham Isador’s one-man work of creative non-fiction Situational Anarchy, direction/dramaturgy by Tom Arthur Davis and Jivesh Parasram, and opening last night at Stop Drop N Roll.

Autobiographical, with an altered timeline and an amalgamation of several bands that were seminal in Isador’s life, Situational Anarchy is part self-discovery, part confession, and part ‘fuck you’ to betrayal and bullshit.

From the thoughtful, curious 11-year-old whose mind is blown when his mum gets real about his grade 6 music performance, to the awkward, large and bullied kid stumbling onto puberty, Graham is searching for meaning and desperate to belong. Try as he may, he can’t seem to find his place and almost checks out—then he discovers the punk band Against Me and its lead singer Laura Jane Grace, who later transitioned from male to female. Beyond the music, the social activism and humanity of this world resonate strongly.

His joy at discovering the music and the message increases when he finds community in the band’s online chatroom—and the cool, fun, smart Mouse, who lives in LA and steals his heart. Things fall apart when he gets caught up in Mouse’s unhealthy body image lifestyle and Against Me signs with Warner Music—which he views as a sell-out, as Warner also owns CNN—and he loses that online community and Mouse. Things come to a violent head when he drops by a local punk bar. It’s definitely not the community he knows and loves. Drafting a letter to Laura Jane Grace throughout, his correspondence serves as a framework for his story. And he’s calling bullshit on her. Years later, he takes a job interviewing her. So much to say.

Staged with multiple microphones, Situational Anarchy is a punk rock solo theatre piece. Isador’s performance is genuine, raw and personal, revealing a dark, edgy sense of humour and a profound longing to connect and belong. Weaving stories of coming of age, body image, homophobia, music and activism, he opens and closes his heart and mind to us in a funny and heart-breaking, at times violent, misfit’s journey of storytelling—reminding us of the power of music and message to inspire and unite.

With shouts to the design/running team: Ron Kelly (sound), Laura Warren (lighting/projection) and Heather Bellingham (stage manager).

Identity, community and calling shenanigans on bullshit in the raw, real, nostalgic Situational Anarchy.

Situational Anarchy continues at Stop Drop N Roll (300 College St., Toronto—above Rancho Relaxo) until June 3. Tickets at the door are Pay What You Want; advance tickets available online for $15. Heads-up: Seating very limited; only 25 seats per night.

All proceeds from the show (after expenses) will be donated to Trans Lifeline [US: (877) 565-8860 Canada: (877) 330-6366] and Gender is Over.

The closing performance will be followed by a set from Stuck Out Here.

New Ideas Festival: Heart beats, blue feels & the big sleep in trippy, darkly funny Week Three program

Alumnae Theatre Company continues its 2017 edition of the New Ideas Festival (NIF) with a trippy, darkly funny Week Three program, the final week of the fest. The annual festival includes three weeks of short new plays and full-length readings, including four plays and one reading each week, running in the Studio space.

Beat by Dale Sheldrake, directed by Josh Downing. Alone and injured following a near fatal car crash, Evelyn 1 (Jackie Mahoney) is beside herself, as she listens to her heart/inner voice (Evelyn 2: Laurel Schell). Taking stock of her life as she waits for help to arrive, she’s forced to face her inner demons and addictions. Darkly funny, sharp and theatrical; with some lovely spoken word dialogue and strong performances from Mahoney and Schell.

The Ballad of Sadie Wong by Andrew Lee, directed by Cassidy Sadler. Film noir detective story meets modern-day romance when day-dreamy, chipper bookstore clerk Althea (Remi Long) meets volatile, melancholy barista/punk rocker Sadie (Liz Der). Their sharp-witted, fun dynamic goes dark when Althea becomes concerned about how far Sadie will go to reach the top of the marquee. With the help of fictional Detective Ellesmere (Peter McArthur), Althea tries to solve Sadie’s mystery—but is Sadie beyond hope? Nice work from the cast; Long and Der have great chemistry, especially with the punchy dime store detective novel banter.

Who Knocks? by Connie Guccione, directed by David Suszek.  An obituary for a high school classmate gets Rose (Sandra Burley) and Mary (Ruth Miller) thinking about death in this darkly funny look at aging and mortality. Great odd couple chemistry between Miller’s cynical, wise-cracking Mary and Burley’s gentler, good-humoured Rose.

The Hungriest Woman in the World by Shannon Bramer, directed by Claren Grosz. Struggling with ennui and identity, and longing for a way out—it’s through the looking glass for Aimee (Jeanine Thrasher). When her workaholic husband Rob (Armand Antony) refuses to join her for a night at the theatre, she goes off on her own. At the show, she befriends her seatmates, highly extroverted actors Nathan (Jamie Rose) and Julie (Jacqueline Verellen), and stays out all night. Bizarre shenanigans and darkly hilarious times ensue. Shout to the cast; great use of movement and farce-like comedy.

The Week Three program also includes a reading on Mar 25 at noon: Thistlepatch by Catherine Frid, directed by Kelsey Laine Jacobson.

Heart beats, blue feels and the big sleep in trippy, darkly funny Week Three program.

The NIF Week Three program continues until Mar 26 and closes the festival for this year; evening performances at 8p.m. and matinées at 2:30p.m., including talkbacks after the readings and the Saturday matinées. It’s an intimate space and a popular fest, so advance booking online or early arrival (box office opens one hour before show time—cash only) are strongly recommended.

 

 

Profound longing & desperate hope in the beautifully melancholy, immersively designed Three Sisters

Left, clockwise from top: Dana Puddicombe, Arinea Hermans & Christina Fox; Right, from top: Nikolas Nikita & Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski—photo by Joseph Hammond

With several highly successful one-off productions under its belt, Wolf Manor Theatre Collective continues its inaugural 2017 season with its second production, Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, directed by Mallory Fisher—opening last night at Kensington Hall in Toronto’s Kensington Market.

Wolf Manor gives the Chekhov classic a contemporary flavour with a gender-fluid take on the story of three sisters struggling with the ennui of living in a dull provincial garrison town as they long to return to their beloved Mosco.

The play opens on youngest sister Irina’s (Christina Fox) name day; it’s also a year to the day since their father died, leaving his four adult children the house. Eldest daughter Olga (Dana Puddicombe) is a teacher and middle daughter Masha (Arinea Hermans) is married to teacher Kulygin (Kaleb Horn); all three women are tired with boredom and long to return to Mosco. Only Irina and their brother Andrey (Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski), who often keeps to his room reading or playing violin, are cheerful. She’s young, and still full of hope and possibility; and he’s in love with Natasha (Nikolas Nikita).

Brief respites from the gloom of ennui emerge, courtesy of a family friend, the entertaining Doctor Chebutykin (Scott McCulloch), and visits from local officers Tuzenbach (Jordin Hall) and Solyony (Nikita). And the arrival of the new commander Vershinin (Meghan Greeley) makes things even more interesting—especially for Masha, who has over the years become repulsed by her bookish and pedantic, but kind, husband and finds herself drawn to the chatty, philosophical newcomer.

Disappointment and disillusionment snowball over the few years that pass. Andrey realizes that marriage isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and escapes into gambling, which puts the whole household into great debt. The Doctor, two years sober, falls off the wagon in a very bad way. Natasha lords it over her sisters-in-law, taking over the house and revealing a vicious side under that elegant demeanour, and creating a growing sense of claustrophobia among those who live there. Olga becomes something she vowed she’d never be: Headmistress. And even Irina’s balloon is popped, as she takes on work that is meaningless and mind-numbingly dull. Things go from bad to worse when a fire destroys a large section of the town, and the news that the battalion is being sent off on a new assignment—a heartbreaking prospect for Vershinin and Masha.

The immersive design places the audience both in and around the action, with a main playing area in the centre, and nooks and spaces around the outer edges (Beth Elliot, technical director/lighting design). Only two characters address us directly, baring their souls: Andrey and Chebutykin. By the end of the play, it’s as if we’re the birch trees surrounding the family home; silent witnesses to the goings-on there.

Beautiful work from the cast on these characters who all long for connection, belonging and understanding; each is grasping for meaning and hope, if not for now then for the future. Fox does a really nice job with Irina’s dissolve into disillusionment; having put her love life on hold with the idea of finding true love in Mosco, Irina settles for Tuzenbach, who is a good man, but not her desire. Hermans is heartbreaking as Masha, whose default is melancholy and whose heart awakens with the arrival of Vershinin; and the news that Vershinin must leave destroys her. Puddicombe brings a great sense of inner conflict to Olga; an ‘old maid’ school teacher and protective big sister to her siblings, Olga has abandoned her own desires to familial duty—a brave soldier who carries on no matter what. Shepherd-Gawinski brings a sharp edge to Andrey, the picture of the adorable, beloved brother who turns to gambling in his distress; outnumbered and put-upon by his sisters and his wife, he is as good-humoured as he can be. Stuck in the middle as he is, he too has put aside dreams in order to fit into his new life as husband and father—and the strain shows.

Greeley gives a moving performance as Vershinin, a military officer with the heart of a lover and philosopher. With an emotionally fragile husband and two daughters at home, Vershinin too finds an escape from the struggles of her life when she meets Masha. And their goodbye is heart wrenchingly sad, but inevitable as Vershinin must do her duty. Nikita does a marvelous job juggling Solyony and Natasha, as well as being the production’s costume designer. While both are classist, vain and irritating, these characters also have their secret hearts; Solyony is in love with Irina and Natasha is anxious to be accepted into Andrey’s family.

McCulloch’s performance as Chebutykin reveals the deep darkness in the Doctor’s heart; a jovial, sharp-witted man of 60-something, Chebutykin’s tendencies towards fatalism, and even nihilism, send him back to the bottle. Horn gives us an adorkably funny and mildly irritating Kulygin, who’s a silly nerd, but with a truly kind and forgiving heart under the dapper suit and glasses. And Hall gives us a lovely idealistic and philosophical Tuzenbach; like the others, he too wonders what the future will bring, but he’s also got his feet planted firmly in the present and wants to make the best of it.

Profound longing and desperate hope in the beautifully melancholy, immersively designed Three Sisters.

Three Sisters continues at Kensington Hall till March 26; full schedule and advance tix available online; advance booking strongly recommended, as it’s an intimate space with limited seating.

You can keep up with Wolf Manor Theatre collective on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Looking to support great local indie theatre? Please consider supporting the company’s Fund What You Can campaign.

Notorious, tough & clever—the lives of women gangsters in the compelling, edgy The Elephant Girls

Margo MacDonald as Maggie Hale in The Elephant Girls—photo by Andrew Alexander

Red Sandcastle Theatre launched its second Wilde Festival production, partnering with Parry Riposte Productions to mount Margo MacDonald’s The Elephant Girls, directed by Mary Ellis. The Elephant Girls opened at Red Sandcastle’s storefront space at Queen St. East and Logan, Toronto last night to a standing ovation.

Inspired by stories about notorious London girl gang the Forty Elephants, and drawing on research from Brian McDonald’s The Gangs of London (2010, Milo Books Ltd.) and Alice Diamond and the Forty Elephants (2015, Milo Books Ltd.), MacDonald has created a one-woman show featuring Maggie Hale, a character that combines several gang members, most notably Maggie Hill/Hughes.

We join Maggie in a London pub in 1937. Buy her a pint or two, or three, and she’ll regale you with tales of her life in the 1920s with the Forty Elephants (aka the Elephant Girls), sister gang to the Elephant and Castle Boys. We learn how Maggie went from a lone thief, paying out to a local gang, to catching the attention of Alice Diamond, the Queen of the Forty Elephants; and how Alice scooped her up and got her trained up to be the gang’s enforcer. And, perhaps even more importantly, set Maggie on a path of self-discovery by encouraging her to dress in men’s suits and cut her hair.

It’s all shits and giggles, and tall tales of gang shenanigans and politics—including some brutal, darkly funny interrogations—and a revolving door of incarceration, with sentences increasing along with her growing notoriety. Cool as a cucumber, it’s the life—and the life’s a game. But as Maggie gets well into her cups, the tone changes. It’s then that we see flashes of honesty and heartbreak: an abusive father; the psychological and physical hardships of prison; and pangs of desire and internalized homophobia as her professional knack for violence turns itself to personal matters.

Outstanding performance from MacDonald, who is a compelling and entertaining storyteller; going from suave, charming and cocky to progressively darker and more aggressive as Maggie’s rage and frustration emerge. With few options for working class women to make a living and survive, Maggie found herself having to choose between wife, factory worker, thief or whore. Mistrusting the path of love, she struggles with “unnatural” desires, and a huge crush on her boss and mentor Alice.

With shouts to costume designer Vanessa Imeson, for Maggie’s fabulous pinstripe ensemble.

Notorious, tough and clever—the lives of women gangsters in the compelling, edgy The Elephant Girls.

The Elephant Girls continues at Red Sandcastle until Feb 25; it’s a very short run with just four more performances, and in an intimate space, so best to reserve your spot in advance online or by calling 416-845-9411.

The Elephant Girls is prepping for a UK tour this Spring; please consider supporting the production by donating to its Fund What You Can campaign.

In the meantime, check out this excerpt from the show, from CBC News Ottawa.

 

 

 

Women of wit & wisdom debate religion in the compelling, funny, thought-provoking Unholy

Nightwood Theatre continues its 2016-17 season of groundbreaking theatre with Diane Flacks’ Unholy, directed by Nightwood A.D. Kelly Thornton, opening at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre last night.

Given the upcoming presidential inauguration and the accompanying Women’s March events, as well as ongoing changing attitudes towards religion, its treatment of women and LGBTQ people, and its place in our world, Unholy is a timely piece. It asks the question: Should women abandon religion?

Inspired by the 1989 documentary Half the Kingdom, Unholy is set as a TV debate, with host/moderator Richard Morris (Blair Williams) and debate teams of two women. On the pro side of the question are atheist lesbian pundit Liz Feldman-Grant (Diane Flacks) and excommunicated nun Margaret Donaghue (Barbara Gordon); on the con side are Orthodox Jewish spiritual leader Yehudit Kalb (Niki Landau) and progressive Muslim lawyer Maryam Hashemi (Bahareh Yaraghi).

Each woman is allowed two minutes at the podium to present her argument, followed by discussion and debate. This is an unapologetic, gloves off affair as arguments cover religion’s culpability for violence against women, women’s physical separation from male congregants, the niqab, family, sex, LGBTQ and women’s reproductive rights, and justice for pedophile priests. It is a battle of scripture interpretation, points of religious and secular law, wit and conscience—conducted with sharp intelligence and humour.

Woven into the debate scenes are some revealing monologues and tender, intimate two-handers; through these, we get glimpses into the private lives of these four women. Liz rejected Judaism when her now deceased partner Stacey received a terminal diagnosis. Margaret, in her role as a nurse and administrator at a Catholic hospital, made a decision the Catholic Church couldn’t abide. The love of Yehudit’s life married someone else. Maryam found strength in family tragedy, and love and acceptance in her family’s new life in Canada. As private and public lives collide, and the debate heats up, of course all hell breaks loose.

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Diane Flacks & Barbara Gordon in Unholy – all photos by John Lauener

Flacks’ powerful script is matched by an equally strong cast that brings these fully drawn, complex women to life in this nicely staged, multi-media piece. As the atheist Liz, Flacks is a fierce, mercurial and determined debater; seeing the world of organized religion in black and white terms, Liz rejects the notion that religion can be a positive force in the world. Deeply wounded by the loss of her partner, out of her grief she became mad as hell at the state of organized religion and its impact on women—and chose her battle. Gordon brings a lovely, understated quietude to the soft-spoken ex-nun Margaret; beneath the surface, though, is a heart of strength, hope and courage. Not entirely convinced of her official debate argument, she is a disillusioned former soldier of the Catholic Church who disobeyed orders to follow her own conscience.

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Niki Landau & Bahareh Yaraghi in Unholy

As Yehudit, Landau is both comic and poignant; shifting from a willful young woman to dutiful adult, she serves her family and community with strength and stand-up comic good humour. Circumspect in her interpretations of her Orthodox Jewish faith, she sees room for growth and change; this includes space for women to play a significant leadership role. Yaraghi is sharp and passionate as Maryam, and an excellent foil for Flacks’ Liz. Like her debate partner Yehudit, Maryam is hopeful and believes in a progressive Islam as she strives to break the barriers of stereotype and ignorance in a post-9/11 world where extremists are continually making headlines.

Turnabout is fair play for the male moderator. As women are largely relegated to the sidelines in day-to-day life, especially religious life, it is he who stands off to the side as the studio is dominated by the four women. Williams does a nice job with the affable Morris; as the women take the podium, he rides the fine line of refereeing authentic discourse and the desire to create gripping television.

Each of the women is an archetype: the wounded Fighter, the Lover with a patched up heart, the heartbroken Mother and the haunted Healer. Although each is broken-hearted and struggling with a crisis of faith, each is passionate, strong, wise and loving as she strives to stay hopeful and work towards a better world.

Serious issues, but Unholy makes you laugh a lot—and it’s going to stay with you well after you leave the theatre. It may even change your mind.

Women of wit and wisdom debate religion in the compelling, funny, thought-provoking Unholy.

Due to popular demand, Unholy has extended its run at Buddies to February 5; you can book tix in advance online or by phone. The run also includes several scheduled talkbacks:

Friday, January 20 – Gretta Vosper: as an atheist and a minister with the United Church of Canada, Gretta’s self-proclaimed motto is “Irritating the church into the 21st century.” SOLD OUT

Monday, January 23* – Nightwood Theatre Young Innovator Michela Sisti hosts a panel discussion about women in religion as part of Brave New Theatre’s response to Unholy. Joining her will be playwright Diane Flacks, Raheel Raza (journalist and inter-faith consultant) and Andrea Budgey (Humphrys Chaplain, freelance writer and environmental activist).

*Please note: there are no performances of Unholy on Mondays. For more information on Brave New Theatre, please visit their Facebook page.

Wednesday, January 25 – Stay post-show for a Q & A with the stellar cast members of Unholy.

Friday, January 27 – Lynn Harrison: a Reverend with First Toronto Unitarian, an interfaith, non-denominational congregation with its roots in social justice and inclusion.

Thursday, February 2 – Due to popular demand, atheist minister Gretta Vosper will return to share her insights on women in religion and inclusive atheism.

You can keep up with Nightwood Theatre on Twitter and Facebook. In the meantime, check out the trailer for Unholy: