A journey into the light & dark of self-discovery in the bittersweet, courageous Welcome to my Underworld

Clockwise, from top left: Grace Thompson, Nikoletta Erdelyi, Carolyn Hetherington, Samson Brown, Radha S. Menon, Maddie Bautista & Bilal Baig. Set design by Brett Haynes. Lighting design by Sharmylae Taffe-Fletcher. Photo by Sophia Thompson-Campbell.

 

RARE Theatre Company, in partnership with Soulpepper, presents the world premiere of Welcome to my Underworldwritten by Bilal Baig, Maddie Bautista, Samson Brown, Simone Dalton, Nikoletta Erdelyi, Carolyn Hetherington, Radha S. Menon, Ellen Ringler and Grace Thompson, on stage at the Young Centre. Dramaturged/directed by RARE’s AD Judith Thompson, choreographed by Monica Dottor, and featuring original composition/live accompaniment by Olivia Shortt, a 10-year-old girl’s search for her truest self weaves nine individual stories into one as we follow her into the world of the shadow self.

Anchored by 10-year-old Willow (Grace Thompson), who struggles with her own sense of self, Welcome to my Underworld is part fairy tale, part hero’s journey, part autobiography as each performer presents their own story; a place where light and dark meet, and where spirits are tested and tempered. Possessing of a sharp, curious mind and keenly interested in how others navigate the world, Willow and her imaginary friend Mara invite the other characters in to share their stories.

There are the infuriating stories of a pre-transitioned trans man being confronted in a woman’s washroom, and a Trinidadian lesbian’s connection with an HIV+ gay father figure-told with humour, tenderness and heartbreak by Brown. The harrowing experiences of the elderly surviving a terrifying adverse reaction, apparently common among seniors, to a post-op medication (a feisty, fighter Harrington); and the feelings of family betrayal and confusion as an Indian woman is driven alongside a truck full of cattle to her new home at an assisted living facility (a spirited, poignant performance from Menon). Navigating prejudice regarding competence and attractiveness based on Roma (“gypsy”) ethnicity and physical ability (the candid, suffers no fools Erdelyi, performing from a wheelchair). Childhood innocence and trust lost during a time of burgeoning sexuality (a delightful, heart-wrenching performance from Bautista, a bi, Saudi Arabia-born Filipina).

There are the social castaways dealing with addiction and mental illness (fierce and lyrical performances from Menon and Baig); observed by Willow while in the psych ward. And queer, genderqueer Baig’s sassy, poignant secret party girl persona, fleeing their home and fearing attack from both parents and strangers, shares a narrow escape that hearkens back to the recent tragedy of missing and murdered gay men in the Village. Humourous, heart-breaking and eye-opening, each shares a broad range of lived experience from their own unique perspective—calling upon us to examine who we’ve ignored, shoved aside or disrespected. Who will love or miss the disenfranchised, the social pariahs, those living on the fringes?

Shortt’s live onstage music and pre-show mix blends sound effect with soundtrack, tailored perfectly to each story; and Dottor’s choreography is playful, balletic and emotive as it visually weaves one tale into another. Haynes’s set deftly combines black/white, dark/light; the central image a tree of life, its branches reaching for the sky as its roots dig into the earth.

Playful, poetic and funny—at times harrowing, infuriating and heart-breaking, the storytelling is raw, candid and impossible to ignore. These are stories from those whose voices are seldom heard, let alone given space to speak their truth. While Welcome to my Underworld promises no happy endings, it does bring a sense of hope and resilience. We all need to be seen, be heard, be loved and respected. We all need to feel safe to be ourselves. And we need more theatre like this.

Welcome to my Underworld continues at the Young Centre in the Tankhouse Theatre until May 25; advance tickets available online, or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

ICYMI: Check out Phil Rickaby’s interview with dramaturg/director Judith Thompson on Stageworthy Podcast.

 

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Otherworldly, eerily beautiful & intensely visceral – Shotgun Juliet’s Stealth

StealthCourtyard3You enter the space via the alley off of Sullivan. Dark. Quiet. No signage. And enter through a worn wooden gate into the backyard of 8-11 Gallery. A spooky young woman sitting on a cut bit of tree trunk beckons you to her – she is the gatekeeper hostess and box office, her dead-pan voice offering cryptic responses to queries about the show. She is, however, forthcoming about the location of the bar and washroom indoors: through the back door and up the short flight of stairs to the right. We may sit anywhere we like in the yard, but must not go downstairs.

Sitting on one of the slightly damp wooden slat benches in the early evening darkness, you notice the smell of wet bark, leaves, soil. The overcast sky, visible beyond the nearly bare branches, reveals one bright star – a planet, perhaps. You’re glad it’s not raining now and especially grateful for the unseasonably mild late October night. The backyard fills with others. And soon it begins.

Our hostess alerts us that they’re coming. We can hear them before we see them. Four women dressed in black enter the yard through the gate, moving in music-less – but not soundless – rhythmic time. A ritual. A dance. A communion of community. As they exit into the gallery and down the stairs, suddenly, all is not well with one of the women. Our hostess beckons us to follow her downstairs, where we witness the rest of the action wordlessly play out, the smell of damp woods outdoors exchanged for the smell of damp stone indoors.

This is Shotgun Juliet’s production of Stealth, a physical theatre/dance piece directed/conceived by Matthew Eger; and choreographed/performed by Patricia Allison, Miranda Forbes, Darwin Lyon and Amanda Pye. The production company aptly describes the piece as “four women who have vowed to be silent and hidden together – until one decides she wants out,” framing the story in such a way that piques interest without giving too much away. Much like our mysterious hostess. Out of respect for the production and future audiences, I will also not divulge much here.

I can tell you that these women are closely bound together – physically and emotionally – and the reaction when one of the women leaves is immediate and powerful. The use of light, dark and shadow is extremely effective, as is the haunting soundtrack that plays indoors, industrial music infused with the faint static sounds of radio communication – a white noise of sorts, but also strikingly alien in tone. This production is big on atmosphere: mystery, anticipation, and the experience of heightened senses and imagination.

I can also tell you that the cast does a marvelous job of using their bodies, gestures and expressions to tell this story. Specific relationships are highlighted and challenged, and loyalties are questioned. Vocalizations are all the more intense as they erupt from a largely silent scenario and used sparingly.

And, then, it’s over. As you exit back along the alley – back to the real world – the wet crunch of the pavement beneath your feet seems more distinct.

Stealth is an otherworldly, eerily beautiful and intensely visceral physical theatre/dance hybrid.

Stealth continues its run at 8-11 Gallery (233 Spadina Ave., a bit north of Queen/Spadina – enter through the alley off of Sullivan) until November 1. Dress warmly. Don’t be afraid of the dark. The box office mistress will keep you safe.