Blinded by science in the darkly funny, compelling, thoughtful Isaac’s Eye

Christo Graham & Brandon Thomas.

 

Unit 102 Actors Co. gives us fact mixed with fiction, exploring Isaac Newton’s sharp ambition and unique vision in its darkly funny, compelling, thoughtful Canadian premiere of Lucas Hnath’s Isaac’s Eye, tightly directed and inventively designed by Adam Belanger, and running at The Assembly Theatre.

With the Actor (Francis Melling) as our guide in this anachronistic look at historical figures—separating fact from fiction as the story unfolds—we become flies on the wall of the attic room where Newton works; writing verses on the walls, and plucking thoughts and theories from his fastidious, imaginative mind.

Ambitious and determined to advance his work and recognition as a scientist—and straining to see the face of God, despite his rejection of traditional religion—a 25-year-old, prematurely white-haired Isaac Newton (Christo Graham) enlists the help of childhood friend and confidant Catherine Storer (Laura Vincent), who runs her father’s apothecary shop, for an introduction to Robert Hooke, Director of Experiments at the Royal Society in London.

Refusing to answer Newton’s letters, Hooke (Brandon Thomas) is finally forced to take notice of this young upstart when he receives documents outlining Newton’s theories—particularly those on the nature of light. Fearing Newton’s work could usurp his own, he sets out to visit Newton; and encounters Sam (Melling), a sick and dying man lying on the side of the road. Sam pleads for help to get to a hospital, but refuses Hooke’s conditions for aid, and is abandoned once again.

When Hooke arrives at Newton’s house, a battle of scientific wits ensues, with Hooke’s attempts at manipulation only serving to solidify Newton’s resolve. Newton believes light=particles; Hooke believes light=waves. Hooke challenges Newton to re-enact his needle in the eye experiment using a disinterested third party as a subject to prove his theory—and he brings Sam in off the streets. Thwarted and increasingly fearful at the thought of being dismissed as a serious scientific mind, Newton resorts to blackmailing Hooke with some personally damaging information gleaned from his diary. Then, it’s Hooke’s turn to reach out to Catherine for assistance; and he fights blackmail with blackmail. And we soon learn that both men are willing to say and do anything to obtain and maintain notoriety in the scientific sphere—and science costs them.

Outstanding work from the cast, playing with fact and fiction, and history with anachronistic language and perspectives. Melling is an affable and engaging narrator to the proceedings; and gives a comic and deeply affecting performance as Sam, who despite his filthy, plague-ridden appearance has wisdom to impart on the nature of life and humanity. Graham does a great job balancing Newton’s naiveté and amorality. Full of youthful energy and enthusiasm, single-minded and driven, Newton’s ambitions are so laser-focused on obtaining professional accolades, he’s unable to really see the woman who loves and supports him. No angel himself, how far will he go to get what he wants? As Hooke, Thomas draws for us a highly intelligent, accomplished and arrogant scientist and architect, living a decidedly libertine lifestyle. Possessing of a deeply jealous yet detached disposition, Hooke can be cruel and sadistic in methodology and manipulative in human interaction. Like Newton, he’s an extremely fucked up and lonely man—but unlike Newton, he knows it. As Catherine, Vincent gives us a shrewd, pragmatic and protectively loyal woman who’s nobody’s fool or doormat. With hopes and desires of her own, Catherine knows she has bad taste in men; and while she’s willing to help, she won’t suffer fools long. Like Sam, Catherine can see that which Newton cannot and Hooke can only grasp at: the grace inherent in everyday life.

What is the cost of ambition? Who and what is important, and who gets to judge? How do we see the world—and what do we miss?

Isaac’s Eye continues at The Assembly Theatre until October 20; get advance tickets online or at the door (cash only)—box office opens half an hour before show time.

 

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Toronto Fringe: Trial by browser history in the razor sharp, darkly funny Featherweight

Kat Letwin, Michael Musi & Amanda Cordner. Photo by John Gundy.

 

Theatre Brouhaha is back at Toronto Fringe with with Tom McGee’s razor sharp, darkly funny look at judgement for the afterlife, Featherweight—inspired by Egyptian mythology and Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What The Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are—directed by McGee and running at The Paddock Tavern.

A customized courtroom of the Egyptian mythology persuasion takes form as The Paddock Tavern; presided over by Anubis (Amanda Cordner) and her servant Thoth (Kat Letwin)—in this case, for the judgement of the recently deceased Jeff (Michael Musi). Traditionally, the heart of the dead is put through the Trial of Osiris: Weighed against a feather to determine whether the soul moves on to the Field of Reeds or is devoured by the demon Ammit (who, in this case, lives in The Paddock’s kitchen).

The bar was an important place in Jeff’s life, hence its appearance as his place of judgement; Anubis appears as his ex-girlfriend and servant Thoth appears as a Downton Abbey-esque Butler. Weary of judging souls for the afterlife, and aggravated by a broken justice system, a suicidal Anubis ups the ante by adding Jeff’s browser history to the scale; and proceeds to summon witnesses from his life that aren’t included on the previously approved list. The fastidious, wry-witted Thoth is to be the channel for these crucial people from Jeff’s life—and she doesn’t like this plan at all.

Faced with the soul of his father—who also faced judgement in The Paddock—we get some insight into Jeff’s dysfunctional childhood, hanging out in the bar without any meaningful guidance from a father figure. And his browser history offers some damning evidence of complicity in several #MeToo incidents; in his case, indirect, as he wasn’t the perpetrator.

Stellar work from the three-hander cast; serving up compelling, entertaining and sharply focused performances in this quirky, edgy and sardonic tale. What does our online footprint say about us, our lives and our relationships with others—and should we be judged accordingly?

Featherweight has three more performances at The Paddock: tonight through Sunday at 8 pm; it’s sold out for the remainder of the run, but you can take your chances at the door for rush seats by arriving early.

Want to check if the show you want to see is sold out? The Toronto Fringe folks have set up a page for sold-out shows, updated daily.

 

Toronto Fringe: Ruminations on love, beauty and aging in the nostalgic, intimate, haunting Cheri

cheri-on-the-run-productions invites us to sit down with a former courtesan as she ruminates on love, beauty and aging in the intimate, haunting Cheri. Inspired by the novels of Colette, and written and directed by Sky Gilbert, with music composed by Dustin Peters, Cheri is currently running in the Al Green Theatre for Toronto Fringe.

A music theatre piece within a theatre piece, Cheri weaves storytelling by way of personal anecdotes and reminiscences, and songs—all presented by our hostess Lea (Theresa Tova), a retired courtesan accompanied by the beautiful pianist/singer we only come to know as Cheri (Dustin Peters). And the farther she wanders down the road of memory and loves past, the more she sees in her accompanist the face of lost love—her Cheri.

Tova gives a powerhouse performance as Lea; her elegance, moxie and nostalgic melancholy hearkens back to the golden age of vaudeville and cabaret. Passionate, playful, petulant, and filled with a lust for life and all that is elegant and lovely, Lea is a hopeless romantic with a penchant for harsh honesty. And her heartbreaking torch songs are delivered with vulnerable candor and rich, resonant vocals. As Cheri, Peters is the perfect foil; fastidious, aloof and having none of Lea’s shenanigans and flirtations, Cheri (we never do learn his real name) bears himself with directness and professionalism. Cheri’s desire for privacy and boundaries could be construed as secretive and stand-offish, but one gets the impression that it’s the armour that protects his soul against the barrage of attention his beauty garners.

The march of Time is inevitable and aging is a natural part of life. We can choose to accept ourselves at each stage of our lives and continue moving forward as we cherish our memories of younger days—or risk getting lost in the past.

Cheri continues in the Al Green Theatre until July 15; check the show page for exact times and dates.

Three generations of women navigate life, love & those feelings “down there” in TIP’s hilarious, poignant, intimate Little Gem

Top to bottom: Rebecca De La Cour, Barbara Taylor & Billie Jean Shannon. Photo by Sean Walsh.

The Toronto Irish Players (TIP) opened their production of Elaine Murphy’s Little Gem, directed by Cliona Kenny, on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage to a packed house last night.

Drawing from the old tradition of the Gaelic storyteller (the Seanachai), Little Gem’s commentator device uses a Trinitarian approach—in this case, the story is told from the perspectives of three women: a granddaughter, a mother and grandmother from the same family.

Set in present-day Dublin, we open on Amber’s (Billie Jean Shannon) tale of the fateful night of her Debs (a city-wide high school prom), and the complex emotional dance of relationships with her boyfriend Paul and school teach-like bff Jo. Then, there’s her mother Lorraine (Rebecca De La Cour), a single mom, husband Ray long gone to who knows where, who works in a department store. She’s been forced to go on leave and see a shrink after she loses it on an extremely annoying and vindictive regular customer. And there’s Kay, Lorraine’s ma (Barbara Taylor), a breast cancer survivor and 24/7 caregiver to her husband Gem, struggling with an itch of her own.

Lovely, compelling—and endearingly comical—work from these three actors; each bringing her own brand of outspoken cheek, feistiness and strength to these characters. Shannon gives us a youthful, impetuous, and keen sense of social awareness and observation to Amber. Mouthy and full of teen sass and mortification, Amber’s a master at projecting an image of giving zero fucks, but there’s a tender, loving heart there that also longs to be loved. De La Cour brings a desperate housewife, poignant sense of resiliency to Lorraine. An anxious, exhausted member of the sandwich generation, Lorraine struggles to communicate with her distant teenage daughter, and worries about the well-being of her aging mother and seriously ill father; and she finds that she can’t stress clean away her own sense of loneliness and lack of a definitive life of her own. Taylor is a laugh riot and a force to be reckoned with as the family matriarch. Now in the winter years of life, there’s heat in that tired 60-something body yet—and Kay’s stubborn sense of resolve overcomes any sense of pride or shame as she actively, and at times hilariously, seeks solutions to her problems. Eschewing spoilers, I’ll have to leave it at that—and you’ll have to go see for yourself.

Life goes on for these three women; and unexpected events change the course of the day-to-day, forcing challenging decisions, personal growth, and acts of strength and courage. And, in the process, the lives of these three women—living separately together—are brought together into new and closer bonds of family and womanhood.

Nicely staged, on an effective and minimalist set featuring beautifully rendered charcoal family portraits (set by Bernadette Hunt and Sean Treacy), each character has her own playing area, with each storyteller staying within her own space until these inextricably intertwined lives gradually come closer together during the final scenes.

Three generations of women navigate life, love and those feelings “down there” in TIP’s hilarious, poignant, intimate Little Gem.

Little Gem continues on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage until March 3; advance tickets available online or by calling 416-440-2888. The Irish Players are an extremely popular local community company, so advance booking strongly recommended.

And no worries about thinking this is a “chick play,” the men were laughing as hard as the women. Having said that, it also struck me that, even though Mother’s Day is some months away, this is the perfect girls’ night out for women, their moms and grandmothers.

The meaning of life, death & the role of a lifetime in the moving, tender & funny Or Not To Be

Andrew Robinson, Shawn DeSouza-Coelho & Karen Scobie in Or Not To Be—photo by Vic Finucci

 

I was back at Red Sandcastle Theatre last night, this time for Glass Hammer Productions’ presentation of Andrew Batten’s Or Not To Be, directed by Julia Haist. I saw the premiere at Alumnae Theatre’s New Ideas Festival last year and was excited to see the evolution of the piece.

Actor Ben (Shawn DeSouza-Coelho) and director Sebastian (Andrew Robinson), also best friends, are working on putting together a production of Hamlet, with Ben playing the tragic hero. It’s the production of a lifetime—and the role of a lifetime for Ben—in more ways than one. Ben is living with a rare cancer, and his life now revolves around post-op treatments, medical appointments and an uncertain future. Rounding out his support team are his family and partner Sarah (Karen Scobie)—all touched in his or her own way by Ben’s illness.

Beneath the brave face Ben puts on for the world is a deep-seated internal conflict about the project and his treatment. As he struggles with side effects, low energy, frustration, and the fear of forgetting his lines and sucking at the role, he begins to wonder who he’s doing all of this for—and he’s faced with some hard choices, the impact of which will ripple out to those he loves.

Really lovely work and great chemistry from this three-hander cast in this intimate and candid production. DeSouza-Coelho’s Ben is a compelling picture of stoicism and determination, his thousand-mile stare and stillness belying the troubled soul beneath the surface; and he gives us nicely drawn Hamlet in a selection of classic soliloquies. Robinson brings the perfect balance of cockiness and warmth to Sebastian; Ben’s best friend since grade school, his theatrical ambitions are put into perspective by his support and care of Ben. Scobie gives Sarah a poignant sense of vulnerability and conflict as Ben’s lovingly supportive and uncomplaining partner; torn between wanting what’s best for Ben and not wanting to let him go, Sarah must confront her own feelings and motives. These relationship dynamics have all the truth, humour and feeling of people who know each other well—and in Ben and Sebastian’s case, a long time. And while the truth may be hard to take, it’s served up with love and honesty.

In the end, it makes you think. How would you react in Ben’s situation? What would your life be? And, as your life is right now, what’s your Hamlet? We are reminded that time is a precious, non-renewable resource—and despite the best intentions of those we love, it is we who must ultimately decide what path our lives will take.

With shouts to Liz Currie, the intrepid stage manager, lighting designer and tech in the booth; and to Wellspring, an organization—noted in the program—that provides programs and services for people living with cancer and their caregivers.

The meaning of life, death and the role of a lifetime in the moving, tender and funny Or Not To Be.

Or Not To Be continues at Red Sandcastle until January 28, Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm, with 2 pm matinees on Jan 20, 21, 27 and 28. Tickets available by calling the box office at 416 845-9411, or online at this link for first seven shows and this link for the final seven shows.

Crazy LOL love & the power of the perfect joke in the quirky, poignant, hilarious The Clean House

Annemieke Wade, Neil Silcox, Andrea Irwin, Lilia Leon & Marina Moreira in The Clean House—photo by Bruce Peters

 

Love isn’t clean… It’s dirty. Like a good joke.

Alumnae Theatre Company closes its 2016-17 season with Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House, directed by Ali Joy Richardson, assisted by Nevada Banks; currently running on the Mainstage.

Still in mourning over her parents’ unusual and unexpected death, Matilde (Marina Moreira) moves from Brazil to Connecticut, where she becomes a live-in maid to doctors Lane (Andrea Irwin) and Charles (Neil Silcox). Thing is, she hates cleaning; it makes her sad. An aspiring comedian, and the child of two very funny people, she’s striving for the perfect joke. Things lighten up for Matilde when Lane’s older sister Virginia (Annemieke Wade) makes an odd request: she wants to clean her sister’s house. Virginia loves to clean and needs something to do, and Matilde hates cleaning and needs more time to make up jokes—so they make a secret arrangement.

When Virginia and Matilde discover women’s underwear in the laundry that can’t possibly be Lane’s, they suspect that Charles is having an affair. Their suspicions are soon validated when it comes out that Charles has fallen in love with Ana (Lilia Leon), who was one of his surgical patients. From there, Charles’ two worlds collide in unexpected—often moving and hilarious—ways.

There’s a great theatricality to The Clean House, with cultures and lives meeting in delightfully wacky and quirky ways. All of Matilde’s jokes are told in Portuguese; and all the characters break the fourth wall at various points to speak to the audience directly. Scenes happening elsewhere play out in and around the pristine, white living room. There’s a space for projected surtitles at the top of the bookshelf, which don’t provide translation of Portuguese, but subtext for the proceedings. On the raised platform playing area down left, we see flashbacks and imagined scenes play out (with Silcox and Leon also playing Matilde’s parents), as well as scenes on Ana’s apartment balcony (shouts to Orly Zebak’s set design).

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Marina Moreira in The Clean House—photo by Bruce Peters

Fantastic work from the ensemble on this journey. Moreira is a treat as Matilde, the maid who longs to be a comedian, and who bears witness to the topsy-turvy events unfolding in her employers’ household. Feisty and determined, and despite her sadness over her parents’ death, Matilde’s mind is laser-focused on concocting the perfect joke—but, knowing the power of such a thing, she fears the impact it may have.

Irwin is hysterically imperious as the uptight Lane; a well-respected doctor in a hospital, her tightly wound fastidiousness isn’t without its own quirks—while she feels entitled to have someone cleaning her house, she’s uncomfortable giving orders about it. Wade is a riot as Lane’s sister Virginia; neurotic and compulsively fixated on cleanliness, housekeeping is her happy place. Though Virginia is sick and tired of Lane’s attitude, she’s nevertheless a loving and supportive sister. It’s family, so you deal.

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Neil Silcox & Lilia Leon in The Clean House—photo by Bruce Peters

Silcox is adorably goofy as Charles; a surgeon with the heart of a poet and a dreamer, he found he couldn’t help but fall in love—Ana is his soulmate, so it’s out of his control. Sweet and loyal in his way, he struggles to make this transition as amicable as possible for everyone involved. Leon has a lovely, almost ethereal quality as Ana; strong-willed and outspoken, Ana has never liked doctors, but couldn’t help herself with Charles. And she’s bound and determined that the path her life takes be of her own choosing.

Crazy LOL love and the power of the perfect joke in the quirky, poignant, hilarious The Clean House.

The Clean House continues in the Alumnae Mainspace until April 22; advance tix available online or available at the box office one hour before show time (cash only). This production features some free pre- and post-show events, including:

Pre-show workshop Thurs, April 20: Laughter and Forgiveness with Lynn Himmelman. Lynn will lead participants through a few fun, simple exercises and share the healing role that laughter has played in her own life. This complimentary pre-show workshop offers audiences the opportunity to further explore The Clean House’s themes of healing and the power of comedy.

Check out the trailer for The Clean House courtesy of Neil Silcox & Ali Joy Richardson:

Coming up for Alumnae Theatre: Look out for Alumnae’s 2017-18 season, when the company will be celebrating its 100th birthday; the oldest women-run theatre in North America and the oldest theatre company in Toronto.

 

 

 

Heart vibrations as the dead weave tales reminding us to live in the inspirational, uplifting Spoon River

Spoon River ensemble—photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

 

Is your soul alive?

As we make our way into the theatre, we find ourselves entering the funeral of Bertie Hume; filing past old family portraits and rows of headstones as we make our way out of the funeral parlor and into the cemetery. We are greeted by funeral home attendants and, possibly, friends and family of the deceased.

This is our introduction to Soulpepper’s immersively staged Spoon River, based on Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology poetry collection, and adapted by Mike Ross and Albert Schultz for the stage, with music composed by Ross. A remount of this beloved, award-winning show is currently running in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre, located in Toronto’s Distillery District.

As Bertie Hume is left to her eternal rest, former citizens of the town—now “asleep” in the cemetery on the hill—emerge to share their stories with us, the passersby. Set in small-town America, the lives, loves, joys and pain of its people are revealed with memories, regrets, confession; at times harrowing (“Fire”), hilarious (“Couples” and “Drinking”) and heartbreaking (“Mothers and Sons”). The quirks, the humanity, the secrets and betrayals—all interwoven with poetry, spoken word, music and song, as we get snapshots of the people they once were.

The remarkable, multitalented ensemble plays and sings, with rousing, foot-stomping sounds and gorgeous, resonant harmonies in a collection of blue grass and gospel-inspired songs. Stand-out soloists include Alana Bridgewater, Hailey Gillis (as Bertie Hume), Miranda Mulholland, Jackie Richardson (“Widow McFarlane”) and Daniel Williston (“Fire”). Soulpepper veterans Oliver Dennis and Diego Matamoros bring stellar character work, as do Raquel Duffy, Stuart Hughes, John Jarvis and Michelle Monteith. Ultimately, Spoon River is a celebration of life (“Soul Alive”)—and a reminder that life, warts and all, is a cherished gift. I dare you to not stomp along.

With big shouts to the design team for their work on this magical, evocative production: Ken MacKenzie (set and lighting), Erika Connor (costumes) and Jason Browning (sound).

Heart vibrations as the dead weave tales reminding us to live in the inspirational, uplifting Spoon River.

Spoon River continues in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre until April 21; booking in advance is strongly recommended to avoid disappointment—the place was packed last night and this show is getting lots of standing ovations. Get your advance tix online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.

Up next: Soulpepper will be taking Spoon River to New York City’s 42nd Street in July as part of its first NYC season at The Pershing Square Signature Center.

The Spoon River soundtrack is available on CD in the lobby of the Young Centre; you can also find it on iTunes. In the meantime, check out the trailer: