A sneak peek at Heather Babcock’s debut novel Filthy Sugar

Heather Babcock photo by Astrid Monge. Filthy Sugar cover design by Val Fullard.

 

Two years ago, I had the honour and pleasure of getting a sneak peek at Heather Babcock’s debut novel Filthy Sugar after she approached me to give it a read and write a review blurb. Published by Inanna Publications, it’s set to be released on May 26—and was to have its official launch in Toronto at Queen Books the same day; but since brick and mortar book stores have had to move online, and with events cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, authors and book sellers are now relying on virtual shout-outs and online book sales.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Filthy Sugar (and think it would make a great movie); and hope that Babcock will get to celebrate the launch of the book with colleagues and loved ones soon. Here’s my review blurb:

Filthy Sugar takes us to the mid-1930s, from the struggles of a working-class slum, to the hustle and excitement on and off the burlesque stage. Here, we follow redheaded heroine Wanda Whittle’s rise and fall from fame in a journey of self-discovery that reveals desires and reserves of strength she never knew she possessed. Erotic, compelling and full of richly textured characters, Heather Babcock’s storytelling is equal parts moxie and poetry—tinted with the heartbroken nostalgia of memory and lost dreams; and sparkling with striking, evocative imagery. More than a backstage pass into this world, Filthy Sugar shines a light on the challenges faced by working-class women. Dancing as fast as they can in order to survive, they must navigate the unapologetic misogyny and hypocritical social codes that govern their bodies and behaviour as they pursue their hopes, dreams and desires. Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it?

You can pre-order Filthy Sugar online at your favourite book store website (I’m a big fan of indie book stores like Queen Books and Glad Day Bookshop) or on Amazon.ca

It will be some time before we’ll be able to attend readings and book launches in person again; in the meantime, you can get your own sneak peek at Filthy Sugar with Babcock’s excerpt reading on YouTube:

And if you’re a fan of 1920s and 1930s film and pop culture, check out Babcock’s blog Meet Me at the Soda Fountain.

Saying goodbye to the youth of Ireland in the lyrical, hopeful, entertaining Many Young Men of Twenty

Foreground: James Phelan, Tina McCulloch, Emmet Leahy and William Laxamana. Background: Martin McGuane. Set design by Tim O’Connell and Sean Treacy. Costume design by Bernadette Hunt. Lighting design by Karlos Griffith. Photo by Gregory Breen.

 

The Toronto Irish Players take us to a time of desperate hope and dreams, leaving and staying behind, with its lyrical, hopeful and entertaining production of John B. Keane’s Many Young Men of Twenty, directed by Gregory Breen and Tim O’Connell, with musical direction by Donna O’Regan and Dan Schaumann—and running at Alumnae Theatre, where it played to a packed house last night.

It’s Southern Ireland in 1961, as we enter a village pub that serves as a microcosm for the comings and goings of local residents—and a point of departure and return for the wave of young people being sent off to England to find work in order to help support their struggling families back home. Opening with vocalists Gemma Healey-Murphy and Orlaith Ní Chaoinleáin, accompanied by Dan Schaumann on acoustic guitar, then performing a cappella, we’re transported to a time and place with evocative music, sung in both English and Irish.

The intimidating Seelie (Donna O’Regan, in an imperious, dominating turn as the boss) owns and runs the pub with her whiskey-loving brother Tom (Martin McGuane, in a complex combination of childish obstinance and adult frustration). Peg (a wistful, but fierce performance from Aoibhinn Finnegan), a young unwed single mother with a talent for making up songs on the spot—including the catchy titular tune—waits tables, plays peacemaker and nurses a broken, distrusting heart.

The large cast of characters that parade through the pub is impressive, entertaining and revealing. There’s Danger Mullaly (a thoroughly entertaining, poignant Thomas O’Neill), the local scoundrel about town; adept at getting others to spot him a pint of porter gold as he peddles miniature holy pictures, he’s a lovable scallywag with his own tale of woe. Then there’s local farm family the Dins, led by patriarch and matriarch Daheen Timineen and Maynan (played with Irish Gothic severity and resolve by James Phelan and Tina McCulloch), sending a new pair of young adult children off to England. Kevin (Emmet Leahy, as the stand-up, protective elder of the two) and Dinny (William Laxamana, as the soft-spoken, anxious younger lad) have a foreman older brother waiting for them with jobs at a London factory. And as he awaits their train departure, Kevin takes a shine to Peg and promises to write.

A year later, the Din boys return for a visit—and one of them has brought a British wife to meet the family: Dot (played with vivacious flare by Sofie Jarvis). Their parents are preparing to send another pair off; this time, daughters Maggie and Mary (shy and anxious twins Healey-Murphy and Emma Darmody). Also bursting onto the scene are local fortune teller Kitty Curley (Anne Harper, with a larger-than-life jocularity and penchant for the mysterious), with her melodeon player colleague Davy in tow (Schaumann); and local member of Irish Parliament J.J. Houlihan (David Eden, in a pompous, entitled politician turn), who’s just procured a plum position for his underqualified son Johnny (Liam Keenan, quiet and unassuming). And there’s the new schoolteacher Maurice Brown (played with affable, awkward charm by Aaron Walsh), one of the few among the younger generation to stay behind—and who also has his eye on Peg.

Weaving lively and wistful songs with snatches of daily life, we’re in a world that has one foot in the past and the other in the future, as generations-old farming families continue to find themselves forced to give over to ever-changing modern times, sending their children off into the strange world and temptations of the big city in a bid to survive. Hopes and dreams of future prosperity blend with the heart of, and longing for, home; with brave faces and humourous antics masking the pain and heartache beneath.

many young men 20 cast & crew
Cast & crew. Set design by Tim O’Connell and Sean Treacy. Costume design by Bernadette Hunt. Lighting design by Karlos Griffith. 

Melancholy and hopeful, spirited and wistful, Many Young Men of Twenty takes us to a period of youthful immigration—coming in waves that stretched well before the 1960s and onward into today—where young people must grow up quickly as they leave home for new countries to make a new life for themselves, often while tasked with supporting their families back home. Brave, heartbroken and anxious—yet hopeful, aspiring and determined. And universal in its portrayal of the choices and sacrifices that are made in the face of a changing world.

With shouts to the design team: Tim O’Connell and Sean Treacy (set), Bernadette Hunt (costumes), Karlos Griffith (lighting) and Dan Schaumann (sound), and the small army worked behind the scenes, for their fine, evocative work on creating this time and place.

Many Young Men of Twenty continues on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage until February 29; advance tickets available online or by calling 416-440-2888.

A grownup cautionary fairy tale of loyalty, betrayal & love in Shakespeare BASH’d fast-paced, highly entertaining, resonant Cymbeline

Catherine Rainville. Photo by Kyle Purcell.

 

Shakespeare BASH’d invites us to hear a grownup cautionary fairy tale of loyalty, betrayal, ambition, jealousy, love and family. Relationships are put to the test with evil and foolish schemes, and women’s and commoners’ true worth—for better or worse—are grossly underestimated in its fast-paced, highly entertaining, resonant production of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, directed by Julia Nish-Lapidus, assisted by Bailey Green, and on for a short run at Junction City Music Hall.

Incensed at his only daughter Innogen’s (Catherine Rainville, bringing fierce strength and gentle vulnerability to the sharp-witted, independent princess) marriage to his ward Posthumus Leonatus (Jesse Nerenberg, giving an earnest, fiery passion to the popular, good young man), Cymbeline, King of Briton (David Mackett, in a chilly and decisive imperious turn) banishes the youth and puts his daughter under house arrest. Strongly influenced by his new Queen (Mairi Babb, deliciously arch as the cunningly manipulative, two-faced Queen), his second wife and Innogen’s step-mother, Cymbeline had intended Innogen for the Queen’s son Cloten (Emilio Vieira, giving a great comic turn as a quarrelsome, entitled idiot).

Having exchanged tokens with Innogen and fled to Rome, and despite pleas to the contrary from his level-headed host Philario (Kiana Woo, who gives a great multitasking performance, notably as the wily doctor and a saucy, irreverent servant), Posthumus agrees to enter into a foolish wager with Philario’s friend Iachimo (Daniel Briere, in a hilariously edgy turn as a sly, lascivious scoundrel of a Roman lord), whereby Iachimo bets he can prove Innogen false. Obtaining his proof through trickery, Iachimo wins the bet—and, out of his mind with anger and grief, Posthumus charges Innogen’s servant Pisanio (Bailey Green, bright-eyed and energetic as Innogen’s unwaveringly faithful right hand) with killing Innogen. Apprising her mistress of Posthumus’s plan for revenge, Pisanio helps Innogen disguise herself as the boy Fidele and flees the palace.

Meanwhile, in the wilds of Briton, banished noble Belarius (James Wallis, bringing a warm, protective sweetness to the rough seasoned warrior) hunts with his daughters Guiderius (Melanie Leon, suffusing the rough and tumble young woman with a mature wisdom) and Arviragus (Déjah Dixon-Green, bringing gentle, poetic tone to the stalwart younger sister)—and come upon a weary, hungry Innogen in disguise when they return to their cave dwelling.

Back at the palace, the proud Cymbeline—egged on by the Queen—incites war with Rome by refusing to pay tribute; and Cloten has learned of Innogen’s whereabouts and is in hot pursuit, intent on having her under any circumstances. Personal and political clashes ensue, secret plots and identities are revealed, and foolish assumptions and conflicts are set to rights.

When you go to a Shakespeare BASH’d show, the audience is treated like family; and Nish-Lapidus, Wallis and company are the gracious hosts—creating an atmosphere of welcome, warmth and inclusion that adds to its signature storytelling; using minimalist but effective set and costumes, focusing on the text and the relationships to deliver a production that is both accessible and resonant for today. This particular production nicely supported by music from Matt Nish-Lapidus.

And with a script that can easily turn to melodrama, the staging, pacing and direction go big with an edgy, dark sense of humour; huge, beautifully poetic declarations of love and fidelity; and impassioned action-packed narratives of conflict. A cautionary tale on a number of levels, what especially speaks to audiences today is the inherent misogyny; society underestimates and undervalues its women, for better or worse—blinding all, especially men, to women’s capacity for both good and evil. The play also speaks to a strict and accepted code of classism, whereby men and women alike are judged by their station in life as opposed to their character and actions—leaving the rich and powerful to do as they wish, often with little or no consequences. This play could have easily been called Innogen—but Cymbeline suits, as it is his actions and ill-conceived decisions that set these events in motion, causing both personal and national distress and loss.

Cymbeline continues at The Junction City Music Hall until February 9. Advance tickets are sold out, but if you get there early, they’ll do their best to squeeze you in. Please note the early curtain time of 7:00 p.m.; box office opens at 6:30 p.m. ($25 cash only at the door).

Fear, loathing & melancholy at an office party in the razor-sharp, edgy, timely Casimir and Caroline

Hallie Seline, Cameron Laurie & Alexander Crowther. Set & costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

The Howland Company presents the North American premiere of their adaptation of Ödön von Horváth’s Casimir and Caroline, based on the original translation by Holger Syme, and adapted by Paolo Santalucia, Holger Syme and the company. Razor-sharp, edgy and timely, we’re front and centre witnesses to the goings-on at an office summer party, where bigwigs and nobodies alike eat, drink and dance as fast as they can on the rooftop patio while they all still have jobs. Running in parallel collapse are the tensions and crises between the titular engaged couple and the various corporate machinations and relationships that churn among their co-workers. It’s a one percent vs. 99 percent world of “winners” and “losers”, and no one is as they seem. Directed by Paolo Santalucia, assisted by Thom Nyhuus, Casimir and Caroline opened its run in the Scotiabank Community Studio at Streetcar Crowsnest last night.

Caroline (Hallie Seline) is enjoying some fun time with colleagues at their summer office party on a rooftop patio—until fiancé Casimir (Alexander Crowther) shows up in a mood and pisses on her parade. He got fired from his job driving their boss Rankin (James Graham) the day before, he’s broke, his cellphone doesn’t work and he’s pissed that Caroline invited him to the party. With brutally honest friends Frank (Cameron Laurie) and Frank’s girlfriend Liz (Caroline Toal) on his side, Casimir stomps in and out of the party, becoming incensed when he sees Caroline chatting with newly met co-worker, the fashionable Sanders (Michael Ayres), and later witnessing her being hit on by corporate sleazeball Rankin!

Add to the mix the boyish intern Trevor (Michael Chiem), who’s been tasked with minding the popsicle stand; the intimidating boss lady Shira (Kimwun Perehinec), visiting from the Montreal office; the neurotic Mary from HR (Veronica Hortiguela), who worships Shira and wants to rise up the ranks; and her cool, sharp-tongued co-worker pal Ellie (Shruti Kothari)—and you have a lively, fascinating field guide of some favourite office animals.

It’s a one percent vs. 99 percent world of “winners” and “losers” where anyone can lose what they have at any time and without warning. There are those at the top, trying to maintain or grow their position; those who want to be at the top, in some cases by any means necessary; and those who are either stuck at the bottom, or who have fallen from corporate and social grace. Everyone is wearing a mask of some description, and true colours are revealed as the action unfolds. And as the party fun and jocularity among colleagues devolves, so too does Casimir and Caroline’s relationship.

Casimir&Caroline-photobyDahliaKatz-1
Hallie Seline, Caroline Toal, James Graham, Shruti Kothari, Veronica Hortiguela, Cameron Laurie, Alexander Crowther & Michael Ayres. Set & costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Outstanding performances all around. Seline’s Caroline has a strong sense of determination and resilience, edged with lovely sense of vulnerability; and Crowther’s Casimir is a tightly wound combination of bouffon Stanley Kowalski and hurt little boy. Laurie is both intimidating and comic as the ex-con Frank; and there’s great combative chemistry with Toal’s edgy, gruffly candid Liz. Graham’s Rankin is an entitled #MeToo poster boy, but there’s something deep and sensitive there too; and Perehinec gives stylish dragon lady Shira hints of magnanimous warmth and openness.

Ayres brings an affable charm to fashion writer Sanders, keeping us guessing whether Sanders’ smoothness has something to hide. Chiem is adorably cheerful as Millennial intern Trevor, who must decide if he wants to venture into the dark side of corporate life. Hortiguela brings both comedy and pathos as the socially awkward, ambitious Mary; and Kothari’s chill, sharply candid, in-the-know Ellie makes for the perfect foil—though Ellie’s cruelty may not always be meant in kindness.

The storytelling is nicely supported by Jeremy Hutton’s sound design and Evan MacKenzie’s composition, featuring frenetic, whirling retro accordion music in the pre-show (a nod to the 1930s German origins of the play) and some heavier urban music sounds; and Reanne Spitzer’s choreography, wild and flailing, with some synchronized group dancing.

The melancholy is balanced by absurdity—with the old adage about comedy equals tragedy plus timing in high evidence here. And elements of the ridiculous among the characters are ultimately full of poignancy. Disappointment, disillusionment and discouragement abound. The world is a fucked-up place and the ground is shaky for everyone—and that changes how people behave and present themselves. In the end, those who are genuine, sharply candid and able to express what they want are the ones who’ll make out okay.

Casimir and Caroline continues at Streetcar Crowsnest in the Scotiabank Community Studio until February 9; advance tickets available online. This is going to be a hot ticket, so advance booking is strongly recommended.

Navigating the world with OCD in the funny, poignant, enlightening Living with Olivia Cadence Donovan

Conor Ling, Gabriella Circosta, Allison Shea Reed & Tristan Claxton. Photo by Alice Xue Photography.

 

RedWit Theatre invites us into lived experiences of a young woman living with OCD in Allison Shea Reed’s funny, poignant, enlightening Living with Olivia Cadence Donovan, directed by Sean O’Brien and running now in the Tankhouse Theatre at the Young Centre. Emily has lived with Olivia—her OCD personified—since childhood, and struggles daily with what that means for her relationships and her life. She longs to break out of her comfort zone and enter into a relationship, but will Olivia let her?

Emily (Allison Shea Reed) is a warm, smart and funny young woman who’s been living with OCD her entire life, personified by her helicopter protector, hyper-judgemental joined-at-the-hip best friend Olivia (Gabriella Circosta). Olivia is Emily’s personal flight response attendant, her fierce warrior defender, and her nagging inner voice of self-doubt; the one that tells her she’s too much, a burden, that everyone would be better off if she didn’t exist. Emily also has her roommate and friend, the culinarily gifted Rowan (Tristan Claxton); supportive and on her side, he understands, accepts and is respectful of Emily’s relationship with Olivia.

Enter the fun-loving, charming Graham (Conor Ling), who Emily really likes and, despite her hesitation to go with her attraction—and big pushback from Olivia, who prophesizes doom and gloom about any prospective romantic relationship—decides to date him. The added stress and unknowns about having a new person in her life, and sharing her space both physically and emotionally, make for extra tension between Emily and Olivia. Despite her courageous, and even optimistic, attempts to get out into the world and open up to new people, it’s still a struggle for Emily, even as she openly communicates her needs—needs that may seem strange—to those around her.

As their relationship progresses, and after much consideration, Emily decides to divulge her condition to Graham, who responds positively and even shares his own experiences with mental illness. But Olivia wonders if he’s being honest and realistic about life with Emily, and is skeptical about how long this honeymoon period will last. For a while, Emily has her world to herself—until things begin to get tense with Graham, and Olivia returns.

Beautifully drawn, sensitive work from the cast in this peek into a life experience that we don’t often see portrayed on stage. Shea Reed gives a complex, compelling performance as Emily; high-functioning and managing her illness, Emily’s cheery, good-humoured self is constantly bombarded with negative internal messaging and impulses toward repetitive actions, especially during stressful times. Longing for a “normal life”, she tries to stay positive, and does the best she can to navigate the world through her OCD, but struggles daily with creeping negative perceptions and fearful responses. As Olivia, Circosta turns on a dime, going from entertainingly impish to devastatingly cruel; both a protector and a naysayer on Emily’s shoulder, Olivia does whatever she needs to do in order to keep Emily safe and within the confines of her comfort zone—be it through manipulation, cajoling, tantrums or drama. Thing is, Emily wants to break out of that dynamic—leaving Olivia abandoned and unheeded. And that troubles Oliva a great deal.

Claxton gives an endearing performance as Emily’s friend/roommate Rowan—and has great chemistry with Shea Reed. A loving and supportive ally, Rowan rides the line between being protective and concerned, and letting Emily have her space as she ventures into new territory. It is Rowan who reminds Emily that OCD does not define her; and that she is so much more than a mental illness, and so loved. Ling gives Graham a compelling combination of affable charm and changeable loyalties; and, like Emily and Olivia, we’re not sure if we can trust Graham. Navigating his own mental health issues, Graham wants to be with Emily, but—despite his warm feelings and best intentions—needs to work out whether he can be okay with her challenging days and unorthodox needs. And the fact that he doesn’t seem to be as self-aware of his own mental health as Emily is of her own isn’t helping.

Living with Olivia Cadence Donovan gives us a candid and thoughtful look at the inner workings and lived experiences of someone living with OCD. We need more storytelling like this—to break down barriers and stereotypes, and foster awareness and understanding of those living with mental illness. And that an individual’s mental health issue, while part of who they are, does not define them; and they have something to contribute to their loved ones and society.

Living with Olivia Cadence Donovan continues in the Tankhouse Theatre at the Young Centre until January 25; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

 

NSTF: Keep calm & sing along with the timely, funny, moving Pearle Harbour’s Agit-Pop!

Steven Conway & Pearle Harbour. Lighting design by Logan Raju Cracknell. Photo by Michael Cooper.

 

Pearle Harbour pops onto the Factory Theatre Mainspace stage for Next Stage Theatre Festival with her timely, funny and moving pre-apocalyptic multimedia drag cabaret Pearle Harbour’s Agit-Pop! Written by Justin Miller and directed by Rebecca Ballarin, with music direction and live accompaniment by Steven Conway, and video design by Adam Miller, Pearle brings her wartime tragicomedienne song stylings and storytelling to explore our deepest fears.

Climate change is at a crisis point, the Doomsday Clock is at two minutes to midnight, and Australia’s on fire—but keep calm and laugh, sing, and even scream and cry, along with Pearle as she treats audiences to some music gems by the likes of David Bowie, Judy Garland, Tom Waits and more, including a different special guest artist appearance with every performance. Examining our deepest existential fears, the storytelling and song stylings switch between funny and poignant, with Pearle living up to her reputation as a wartime tragicomedienne and including some gentle, consensual audience participation.

The 1950s Bert the Turtle PSA bit on how to protect yourself in the event of a nuclear blast (duck and cover) got a bit too close to home this morning when that Emergency Alert went out to folks across Southern Ontario around 7:30AM. The vague warning, directed to folks living withing 10km of the Pickering nuclear power plant, turned out to be sent in error, but loads of questions remain as I write this.

There’s some truly frightening stuff happening out in the world right now—but, ultimately, Pearle’s message is one of awareness, engagement, hope and love. Let’s do better. Let’s reach out to each other. Let’s turn back that clock.

You have three more chances to catch Pearle Harbour’s Agit-Pop! in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until January 19; check the show page for exact dates, times and advance ticket purchase. The house was packed yesterday, so early arrival or advance booking strongly recommended.

NSTF: Family, community, music & lots of love in the entertaining, heartwarming Tita Jokes

Alia Rasul, Ellie Posadas, Isabel Kanaan, Maricris Rivera, Ann Paula Bautista & Belinda Corpuz. Photo by Martin Nicolas. Cathleen Jayne Calica, stylist.

 

The Tita Collective invites us into Filipin* kitchens, living rooms and lives with its Next Stage Theatre Festival production of its hilariously entertaining sold-out Toronto Fringe 2019 hit Tita Jokes. Created and performed by the Collective and directed by Tricia Hagoriles, the show features music direction and piano accompaniment by Ayaka Kinugawa, choreography by Chantelle Mostacho and animation by Solis Animation. Part Spice Girls-inspired concert, part sketch comedy and all love letter to Titas—aunts in both the familial sense and broader sense of beloved, respected Filipina elders—the ensemble sings, dances gossips and riffs on Filipin* family and community. Tita Jokes is currently running in the Factory Theatre Mainspace.

Playing characters inspired by the Spice Girls (instead of X Spice, it’s Tita X), the Collective—Ann Paula Bautista, Belinda Corpuz, Isabel Kanaan, Ellie Posadas, Alia Rasul and Maricris Rivera—frame the show as a farewell concert. With choreography that incorporates traditional Philippine fan dance, and music that borrows from pop, R&B and musical theatre, the Collective sings, dances and performs hilariously insightful, satirical sketch comedy bits that speak to the heart of Filipin* family and community, with a particular shout-out to the Titas.

The energetic, multi-talented ensemble takes us on and entertaining, often moving, ride as they weave song and dance with sketch comedy bits. Filipin* folks will especially enjoy the in-jokes, but you don’t have to be Filipin* to have a blast and laugh along with this peek into the lives, loves and experiences of the community. Highlights include a kitchen table scene between a mother and her two daughters; church ladies gossip and strut their stuff; navigating queer and gender identity in the Filipin* community; and Tita superheroes come to the rescue in a mystery/action adventure story. And even music director Ayaka Kinugawa, supplying live piano accompaniment, gets in on the act!

Tita Jokes is jam-packed with love, family, community and Tita power—and loaded with LOLs and ‘Now you know’ moments.

Tita Jokes continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until January 19. You have a few more chances to catch the show during this Next Stage run; check the show page for exact dates, times and advance ticket purchase. Yesterday’s show was so packed, they had to open the balcony—so advance booking is strongly recommended.