Melanie Peterson’s “Christmas Breaks My Heart” a gentle, melodic nod to holiday heartache

Melanie Peterson, live at Free Times Cafe for last night’s “Christmas Breaks My Heart” launch.

 

It was standing room only at Free Times Café last night, as Melanie Peterson celebrated the launch of her new holiday single “Christmas Breaks My Heart”, featuring the talents of fellow Toronto-based singer/songwriter guests Matt Gerber and Angela Saini.

The evening opened with the whimsically playful sounds of Matt Gerber, whose delightful tunes borrow from folk, barber shop and pop—from songs for kids for all ages, to sweet and nostalgic romantic musings. Gerber had us singing along with his acoustic set, accompanying himself on guitar and ukulele, punctuated by kazoo and some impressive harmonica chops. Give Gerber a listen, and check out upcoming dates, on his website.

Shining with positivity and poignant at times, Angela Saini both moved and entertained with genuine, heartfelt, and sometimes cheeky, observations of life, love and self-image in a pop-inspired acoustic set. And I dare you to not smile, sing along and tap your feet to her upbeat, energetic sounds. Keep up with Saini’s music, merch and gig dates on her website.

Main attraction Melanie Peterson more than lived up to her “Mary Poppins with a broken heart” reputation, treating us to a selection of folk-infused songs from her earliest recordings to her new release in an acoustic guitar set accompanied by Peter Collins on bass. The lyrics and vocals are melancholy, but hopeful, resilient and determined through heartbreak; and full of gratitude and joy in love. Combining cheer with heartache—sometimes with hilarious results (the tequila song)—Peterson’s sounds get real with the warmth and gentleness of a good long-time friend; all delivered with her signature sweet, lilting vocals.

“Christmas Breaks My Heart” offers a rarely heard take on the holiday season—not always a joyful time for some—acknowledging the loss, grief and wistful nostalgia of missing that someone special by your side. Check out the lyric video; and wrap your ears around Peterson’s catalogue and videos.

Next up for Peterson: Live at Sauce on the Danforth on Sat, Dec 28 from 4:00-7:00 pm.

Here are some snaps I took at the show last night.

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Literary family snapshots told with unflinching candor & wry humour in Pamela Williams’ Evelyn’s Stories

Cover photo of Evelyn by Pamela Williams.

 

I had the pleasure of attending the launch of Pamela Williams’ new book Evelyn’s Stories at a reading to a packed room on Sunday at the Tranzac Club. Known mostly for her beautiful, haunting black and white photographs of cemetery sculpture, Williams has assembled a collection of brief stories, as told to her by her mother Evelyn—and some handed down to Evelyn by her mother—in a series of short vignettes. Evelyn’s Stories are literary snapshots of family across time and space, ranging from 1900s Glasgow, to 1930s Thornbury and into the 1970s and beyond.

Told with unflinching candor, sharp detail and wry humour, Evelyn’s Stories is a window on moments of personal history and experience; inviting us for brief peeks (the stories are postcard-sized or slightly longer) inside the world of Williams’ family, as told to her by her mother, and to her mother by her grandmother.

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Pamela Williams reads at the launch of Evelyn’s Stories

It’s family biography as comedy and drama, with eyebrow-raising tales of marriage and infidelity (“When Hector Married Stella” and “Keep Toby Out, England, 1907”); charming and funny childhood shenanigans and observations (“Bathtub Visitor” and “Divorce”); memories of brutal and sweet elementary school teachers (“Mrs. Pinch” and “Miss Chalk’s Replacement”); tragic loss (“New Spectacles, Glasgow, 1906”); hilarious social interactions (“That’s Why I Asked You” and “At the Cinema”); and harrowing but comical senior driving mishaps (“Two Motorcycles” and “A Ride on the Wild Side”).

As the family tales shift from poignant, to comic, to tragic, to saucy, Evelyn’s Stories captures the heart, lives, loves and experiences of generations of family who crossed the ocean from Glasgow, Scotland to settle in rural/small-town Ontario, Canada.

Check out Williams’ book collection online, including her photography books; order via email.

 

 

Living with ghosts of crimes past in the haunting, darkly funny, immersive The Good Thief

David Mackett. Photo by Allison Bjerkseth.

 

Fly on the Wall Theatre presents Conor McPherson’s The Good Thief, directed by Rod Ceballos and running at the Dora Keogh Irish Pub (141 Danforth Ave., Toronto, east of Broadview). Featuring an outstanding performance from David Mackett, this haunting, darkly funny, immersive piece of solo storytelling goes to Heaven and Hell and back again before it lands solidly in Purgatory. Part personal anecdote, part confessional, a low-level thief recounts numerous past sins, brief glimpses at redemption and the ghosts that haunt him to this day.

Order a pint, pull up a chair and hear The Narrator (David Mackett), a low-level criminal specializing in thievery and intimidation, tell his tale of life, love, criminal misadventure, narrow misses, crazy good luck and heartbreaking tragedy as a standard scare job goes sideways—and he ends up on the run with the target’s wife and young daughter. Suspecting that he’s been double-crossed by his powerful boss Joe Murphy—now the boyfriend of his ex Greta—and betrayed by his partners in crime, he finds himself being pursued for kidnapping. Trying to keep himself, Mrs. Mitchell and Neve out of harm’s way, he finds sanctuary in the country with the help of his buddy Jeff, the three have a moment of respite. Until all Hell breaks loose again.

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David Mackett. Photo by Allison Bjerkseth.

Mackett gives a compelling, entertaining and poignant performance throughout, playing all the notes between black and white of this deeply flawed, irreverent but sympathetic character. Haunted, torn, conflicted and resourceful, our scrappy thug of a Narrator is a charming rogue of a fellow; recognizing his flaws, he’s candid—sometimes brutally so—circumspect and self-aware. Trying to do the right thing, even as he’s committing a crime, and thwarted by forces beyond his control, he’s faced with the double-sided coin of good luck and bad luck as he savours rare moments of beauty and tranquility, and mourns the senseless moments of violence and loss.

As The Narrator looks back on his life, and his part in these events, he finds he must eventually face up to what he’s done—for better or worse—and find a way to live with the ghosts and regrets, and try to make up for it somehow.  And, to varying degrees, the same could be said of us all.

The Good Thief continues at the Dora Keogh until October 29; advance tickets available online. It’s an intimate venue, so advance booking or early arrival recommended; box office opens a half hour before show time.

The power, magic & malice of words in the fascinating, visceral, philosophical, sensual Knives in Hens

Clockwise from top: Jonathon Young, Diana Bentley & Jim Mezon. Set and lighting design by Kaitlin Hickey. Costume design by Michelle Tracey. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Coal Mine Theatre kicks off its 6th season with David Harrower’s Knives in Hens, directed by Leora Morris. Set in 15th century Scotland in the outskirts of a small, stifling rural village, it’s a fascinating, visceral, philosophical and sensual look at the evolution of words and language—and the power such awareness brings. Knives in Hens opened at the Coal Mine Theatre to a sold-out house last night.

Pony William (Jim Mezon) is a ploughman; growing and harvesting grain on his land with his young wife, simply known as Young Woman (Diana Bentley). He keeps a tight rein on her, her micromanaged days working around their home dutifully reported to him; he even manages her thoughts. She’s not allowed in the barn; he says it’s because the horses don’t know her and she’ll fright them. She has pensive flights of fancy, wondering about what things are called and struggling to describe what she sees out in the small world around her; and he discourages these, especially around their village neighbours.

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Diana Bentley & Jim Mezon. Set and lighting design by Kaitlin Hickey. Costume design by Michelle Tracey. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

When a young mare shows signs of a difficult oncoming labour, and with the grain harvested and needing immediate grinding, William sends his wife to the mill with five sacks of grain, issuing a stern warning about the character of the miller and precise instructions as to how to behave during the transaction. According to William, the miller is universally hated—a widower rumoured to have killed his wife and child.

The Young Woman finds an unexpected kindred spirit in the miller Gilbert Horn (Jonathon Young), who writes his thoughts down using pen and paper—translating his thoughts into words that will last long after the thoughts have dissipated. As she spends time with him, the Young Woman’s curious, fevered attempts at finding the words for moments she witnesses on the land blossom and grow—and with this mastery comes increased power and self-confidence.

Bentley brings a feisty, curious edge to the Young Woman; always searching and questioning—despite her husband’s insistence that she keep her wondering mind to herself. She reaches out into the world and into her mind for the words to express that world. Mezon’s old patriarchal ploughman combines a gruff severity with doting adoration; but William seems to be more enamoured of his horses than his wife. The Young Woman is something he saw and wanted; something to put to work around the house and to warm his bed. That she has no name is telling, for to name something—or someone—is to make it useful and give it power. Young gives Gilbert a somewhat sly, enigmatic vibe; amused and playful regarding the villagers’ gossip about him, Gilbert is a sensitive, introspective and even lonely man. A man who longs to see and know the world outside the mill and the small-minded confines of the village. Like the Young Woman, his mind and heart are too big for this small life—and he needs to get out. And it is he who asks the Young Woman’s name; and though she writes it, we never hear it spoken aloud.

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Jonathon Young. Set and lighting design by Kaitlin Hickey. Costume design by Michelle Tracey. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Kaitlin Hickey’s earthy set, combined with a heavenly lighting design, puts us in mind both of the sun and the light of knowledge, shining down on the Earth and its creatures—highlighting the divine and profane aspects of this story. And if you cross the raised playing area to the seating on the other side, or to use the washroom, you can feel and smell the earth beneath your feet. Christopher Ross-Ewart’s dramatic string-dominated sound design underscores the beating heart of land and its people, and the soaring, magical and menacing power of words. And Michelle Tracey’s period costumes mark when we are and who these people are; simple rural folk in an age of religion and superstition.

Divine and profane, poetic and pragmatic, visceral and cerebral—the journey from thought to word is fraught with religious and societal meaning and repercussions. Thoughts entering the mind are thought to come from God; whereas words and language are a corporeal, human construct. We are reminded of the Creation story—the characters mirroring the three main players of God, Adam and Eve. The word made flesh. And as God named the creatures of the Earth, so too does man name what he sees. Does that make us God?

Knives in Hens continues at Coal Mine Theatre until October 13; advance tickets available online. Please note the 7:30 p.m. curtain time for evening performances; matinees are Sundays at 2:00 p.m.

 

Toronto Fringe: Getting in & out of Scientology in the hilarious, heartbreaking, irreverent Squeeze My Cans

Cathy Schenkelberg. Sound & production design by Victoria (Toy) Deiorio. Photo by Michael C. Daft.

 

Squeeze My Cans presents Squeeze My Cans, the true story of Cathy Schenkelberg’s indoctrination into and exit from Scientology—a multimedia solo show trip that is by turns hilarious, heartbreaking, irreverent, infuriating and terrifying. Written and performed by Schenkelberg, and directed by Shirley Anderson, the show previewed at the St. Vladimir Institute last night and opens tonight.

When Nebraska-born, Chicago/LA-based actor, singer, voice-over artist Cathy Schenkelberg got on board the Scientology ship, she did—as many do—with the aim of self-improvement and spiritual awakening, to balance her life and career. Heart and mind open to a world of wonderful possibilities as she takes us with her on this journey, her eyes become open to the darker side of the organization and its negative impact on her life and relationships. Enthusiastic engagement turns to desperate anxiety as she undergoes audit after audit and takes course after course—even after she gets certified as “clear”. Spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, maxing out credit card after credit card; the constant criticism and monitoring—all under the guise of helping her achieve the next level of clarity and advanced state of being—send her into a spiral of emotional and financial ruin.

Discouraged, dismayed and angered by the hypocrisy of the organization—a hierarchy that favours celebrities, practises victim shaming and psychological manipulation— and heartbroken and ashamed of her detachment from her life and loved ones, participation turns to exit strategy as she makes a quiet exit.

Schenkelberg gives a brave, edgy and entertaining performance; touching hearts, minds and funny bones as she takes us on this deeply personal, harrowing and emotional ride. A compelling and engaging storyteller, the cast of characters she conjures makes for an excellent showcase for her kick-ass voice-over chops. The performance is adeptly complemented by Victoria (Toy) Deiorio’s projection design. And the “cans” in the title take on a double meaning: the portion of the E-meter that audit subjects squeeze as they respond to questions put to them by the auditor—the ultimate goal of the test is to make the needle on the meter “float”. And, as the show poster (design by Brett Newton Design Inc.) suggests—alien hands squeezing a woman’s breasts—there’s a titillating “fuck you” aspect as well; pushing back against the #MeToo element of assault by an entity that feels superior to the subject and entitled to take what it wants.

Scientology may have taken her money and a piece of her life, but it didn’t take Schenkelberg’s spirit. Her love of her daughter and parents, especially her father, bolstered her courage and resolve to get out and take her life back.

Squeeze My Cans continues at St. Vladimir Institute until July 13; check the show page for exact dates/times and advance tickets.

Keep an eye out for Squeeze My Cabaret, a musical cabaret version of Squeeze My Cans.

Toronto Fringe: Heaven calling in the sharply funny, fiercely candid The Commandment

Phil Rickaby. Photo by Phil Rickaby.

 

Have you heard the one about God and the atheist? Simple Truth Theatre present this unlikely match in its sharply funny, fiercely candid Toronto Fringe production of The Commandment; written and performed by Phil Rickaby, directed by Richard Beaune, assisted by Adrianna Prosser, and running in the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace.

Compelled to speak, with an important message to deliver, Thomas (Rickaby) crashes an open mic night. He’s been called upon by God to deliver a new commandment. Thing is, Thomas is a mildly misanthropic atheist whose already shattered life becomes even more so as a result of this heavenly contact. A reluctant prophet hell-bent on sticking it to the Almighty, he finds himself having to come up with non-stop chatter in order to avoid blurting out God’s message.

Part rant, part confession, part personal storytelling, The Commandment is irreverent and intensely candid, with a comic edge; and there’s a lovely balance of vulnerability, rage and tenderness in Rickaby’s performance.

Bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people—and it’s hard to keep the faith when your world has fallen completely apart. So what’s the new commandment? You’ll have to go see for yourself. It just might do your soul some good.

The Commandment continues in the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace until July 14; check the show page for exact dates/times and advance tickets.

Ancestors calling on a hero’s journey through fear to true self in the engaging, powerful 11:11

Samson Bonkeabantu Brown. Set design by d’bi.young anitafrika. Costume design by Samson Bonkeabantu Brown. Lighting design by André du Toit. Photo by Brett Haynes.

 

A.V.O. Collective brings the world premiere of its engaging, powerful production of 11:11, presented as part of Why Not Theatre’s RISER Project 2019, to the Theatre Centre’s Incubator stage. Written/performed by trans-identified artist Samson Bonkeabantu Brown and dramaturged/directed by d’bi.young anitafrika, 11:11 is a bio-mythical monodrama journey, stretching across time, space, and the realms of life and afterlife, as our hero connects with his Portuguese and South African ancestors, and moves through fear to become the man he was meant to be.

In a one-person show that encompasses both broad and immediate personal history, Brown draws out his tale as he gradually constructs a pattern on the floor with white stones. Incorporating storytelling, history, movement, ritual, language and music, he shape shifts in and out of a cast of characters that include the precocious, curious seven-year-old girl he once was and the joyful, prophesying, matter-of-fact South African ancestor he’s about to meet.

Becoming a bridge between past and present, female and male, he connects with the spirit world through dreams and visions—and gradually the messages become clear as the little girl who experiences strange dreams and headaches, and is shunned in the schoolyard, grows up and comes to learn that there’s nothing medically wrong with her. She is a receiver, a prophecy made flesh, a shape shifter.

In a world where white men divided up a continent they claimed as their own, and forced their alphabet onto environment-based African dialects—and, later, Western medicine onto African descendants—how does our hero reconcile his connections to both the colonized and the colonizer? And, through the pain of the struggle for true identity, and the ancestral pain of apartheid and displacement, he comes to realize the complex—and even contradictory—aspects of identity and experience that have combined to create him.

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Samson Bonkeabantu Brown. Set design by d’bi.young anitafrika. Costume design by Samson Bonkeabantu Brown. Lighting design by André du Toit. Photo by Brett Haynes.

Brown, who recently wrote for/performed in the RARE Theatre/Soulpepper production Welcome to my Underworld, is a compelling and entertaining storyteller. Engaging, bold, unashamed and vulnerable, he invites us along on his journey—part autobiography, part personal mythology, part history lesson, part supernatural revelation—as he connects with his roots and finds his true rhythm. From the child-like playfulness of a little girl to the wry-witted wisdom of an elder, the fear, confusion, joy and humour Brown expresses throughout resonate in a deeply profound, intimate way. And I know I wasn’t the only one in tears at the end.

11:11 continues in the Incubator at the Theatre Centre until June 1, with performances on:

Tuesday, May 28 – 6:00PM
Wednesday, May 29 – 9:00PM
Thursday, May 30 – 6:00PM
Friday, May 31 – 9:00PM
Saturday, June 1 – 6:00PM

Tickets available online, in person at the box office, or by calling 416-538-0988.