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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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.

 

 

 

Head & heart, & two sisters in love in the delightful, youthful Sense & Sensibility

Photo by Dave Fitzpatrick: Conor Ling, Jackie Mahoney & Tamara Freeman

Amicus Productions takes us to the early 1800s England of Jane Austen with Jessica Swale’s adaptation of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, directed by Maureen Lukie, assisted by Ted Powers, and currently running in the Papermill Theatre at Todmorden Mills.

Mrs. Dashwood (Peta Bailey) and her daughters Elinor (Tamara Freeman), Marianne (Jackie Mahoney) and Margaret (Sara Douglas) have just learned that their beloved husband and father has died. Adding insult to injury, their Norland Park estate is being taken over by the Dashwood male heir John (Andrew Horbatuik) and his wife Fanny (Mandi Sunshine), and they must now find a place to live. During the transfer of ownership, Fanny’s brother Edward (Conor Ling) comes to visit, and an attachment forms between him and Elinor. With high and rich family hopes for Edward’s marriage, Fanny blocks the relationship just as the Dashwood women learn of a cottage that’s available on the estate of a relative in Devonshire. And Elinor and Edward barely have a chance to say goodbye.

It’s an extreme downscale for the Dashwoods; they can bring no horses and only one servant (Horbatuik as Thomas). But they find a great, warm welcome from the high-spirited, eccentric Sir John (Rob Candy) and his mother-in-law Mrs. Jennings (Jenn Keay). And their quiet cottage life gets interesting with the appearance of Sir John’s friend Colonel Brandon (Matthew Payne) and a dashing young noble Willoughby (Rouvan Silogix), who rescues Marianne after a fall. Both have eyes for Marianne, but Marianne only has eyes for Willoughby, who returns her attentions with romantic gestures and implications of marriage.

Marianne’s bliss is short-lived, though, as Willoughby gets sent to London by his wealthy aunt. And Brandon has some distressing information about Willoughby’s history, which he confides to Elinor. Meanwhile, in her never-ending crusade to find husbands for the two older Dashwood sisters, Mrs. Jennings plans a trip to London to enjoy the balls and diversions of the season. And things get even more complicated for Elinor when their travel companion Lucy Steele (Riley Nelson) confesses a secret four-year-old engagement with Edward!

Things go from bad to worse in London when the Dashwood sisters have an unpleasant, awkward encounter with Willoughby at a ball, and learn via neighbourhood gossips (Lindsay Bryan and Sharon Kamiel) that he is engaged to the wealthy Miss Grey (Bryan). On their way home, escorted by Brandon, Elinor and Marianne stop at the home of Mrs. Jennings’ daughter Mrs. Palmer (Bryan) and Mr. Palmer (Horbatuik), where Marianne comes down with a life-threatening infection.

But don’t worry, the girls get home safe and new, happier revelations emerge.

There is a youthful edge to this adaptation; full of heart and charm. For those familiar with the book and the film adaptation by Emma Thompson, directed by Ang Lee, Swale has added some scenes that we would previously have only guessed at. One in particular highlights Willoughby’s misery at his reliance on a rich relation, and his regret at choosing money over love.

With shouts to the design team: Arash Eshghpour (set), Karlos Griffith (lighting), Dave Fitzpatrick (sound) and Lindsay Forde (costume); and to choreographer Karen Millyard.

Lovely work from the cast in this nicely staged adaptation; the scenes weaving in and out, shifting in time and space with well-paced precision—shouts to director Lukie and stage manager Cherie Oldenburg.

Stand-out performances include Freeman’s Elinor; a complex, layering of sensible, kind, discreet and accommodating, coupled with deeply felt emotional responses and heroic efforts to keep them in check. Throughout, Elinor is the confessor; hearing many secrets and troubles, but unable to divulge them, including the secrets of her own heart. Mahoney’s Marianne is the polar opposite of Elinor; high-spirited and stubborn, she has a passionate soul and wears her heart on her sleeve. Her romantic tendencies get a harsh dose of reality, but rather than being destroyed, she is tempered and becomes more circumspect. And Douglas’s Margaret is charming; an adorably precocious, whip-smart naturalist in the making, she sees more than the grown-ups think and doesn’t have their internal editor at play.

Ling gives a great turn as the painfully shy, bookish and affable Edward; and he does hilarious double duty as Edward’s buffoonish younger brother Robert. Candy and Keay are a laugh riot as the dynamic duo chatterboxes—the jolly and sociable Sir John and the one-woman OkCupid Mrs. Jennings—always up on the latest gossip and ready for a party. And nice work from Payne as the honourable, wounded and introspective Brandon; Silogix’s cheeky, handsome romantic Willoughby; and Sunshine’s waspish, greedy Fanny.

Head and heart, and two sisters in love in the delightful, youthful Sense and Sensibility.

Sense and Sensibility continues at the Papermill Theatre until Feb 11; check here for ticket purchase/info or call 416-860-6176.

You can keep up with Amicus Productions on Twitter and Facebook.

Happy feet & hopeful hearts in Alumnae Theatre’s delightful, poignant Stepping Out

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Front: Jessica Westermann Back (l to r): Felicia Simone, Mish Tam, Kay Randewich, Alyssa Quart Cartlidge, Rebecca Grenier, Scott Turner & Lisa Kovack in Stepping Out – photo by Bruce Peters

Alumnae Theatre Company’s got its dancing shoes on as it mounts its retrospective production for the 2015-16 season: Richard Harris’s Stepping Out (originally produced by Alumnae in 1989), which opened on the main stage to a packed house last night. Directed by Executive Producer Brenda Darling, assisted by Liz Best, and choreographed by Alyssa Martin and Jessica Westermann (Act I), with support from dance coach Sandra Burley.

Set in 1980s London in a local church hall, Stepping Out takes us on the year and a half-long journey of one of Mavis’s (Jessica Westermann) tap dance classes, accompanied by pianist Mrs. Fraser (Jeanette Dagger). The class includes seven women and one man: Lynne (Mish Tam), a cheerful and sensitive nurse; Dorothy (Kay Randewich), the sweet, mousy, bicycle-riding mensch of a social services worker; Maxine (Lisa Kovack), a vivacious saleswoman; Andy (Rebecca Grenier), introverted and painfully awkward, but committed to learn; Rose (Linette Doherty), the wry-witted Trini wife and mother run ragged looking after everyone but herself; Sylvia (Felicia Simone), the outspoken, genuine and irreverent youngster; Geoffrey (Scott Turner), the quiet, gentle widower; and newcomer Vera (Alyssa Quart Cartlidge), the wealthy, prim Stepford wife meets Martha Stewart housewife who lacks an internal editor.

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Jessica Westermann, Jeanette Dagger & Alyssa Quart Cartlidge – photo by Bruce Peters

The cast does a lovely job telling the stories of this class and these characters. Stand-outs include Westermann (also the cast dance captain), who brings a warm, saint-like patience and nurturing quality to Mavis, a woman struggling to make ends meet and supporting an unemployed boyfriend; she’s an extremely talented hoofer with broken dreams of her own. Dagger is deliciously abrasive as Mrs. Fraser, the dance class’s stern and fastidious accompanist; a mother figure to Mavis who helps with the administration of the classes, there’s more to her piano talents than just tinkling the ivories for dance students. Kovack’s Maxine is an extroverted gal-on-the-go and former child performer with a can-do attitude; struggling at home with an unruly stepson and absent husband, she too is clearly dancing as fast as she can to beat the blues. As for Grenier’s Andy, still waters run deep; the shy, submissive and plain exterior belies a deep inner strength, fierceness and beauty. And beneath the tough-talking cockiness and everyday vanity, Simone’s Sylvia is a tired young wife who wants a break – and to feel beautiful again.

Ultimately, for everyone involved in the class, it’s not just about dancing – it’s about filling an empty place inside, and finding family and a sense of belonging.

With shouts to the design team: Doug Payne (set designer/lead carpenter), Bill Scott (lighting), Bec Brownstone (costumes), Razie Brownstone (props) and Rick Jones (sound assembly).

Happy feet and hopeful hearts in Alumnae Theatre’s delightful, poignant production of Stepping Out.

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Jessica Westermann stepping out solo – photo by Bruce Peters

Stepping Out continues on the Alumnae main stage until Feb 6. You can get advance tickets online or by calling the box office: 416-364-4170; or you can purchase in person (cash only) at the box office one hour before show time. Special events include a pre-show panel discussion on Sun, Jan 24 from 12:30-1:30pm: “Stepping Out Through the Arts” Can the Arts heal? And on Sat, Jan 30 at 8pm: 80s Dress-Up Night – Should blue eye shadow be banned?

Check out this experiential piece by Toronto Star writer Melanie Chambers on auditioning for Stepping Out. And take a look at the Stepping Out trailer (by Nicholas Porteus):