SummerWorks: Bittersweet, heartbreaking & hopeful true story of mental illness in Bitter Medicine

Bitter-Medicine-dedication1-620x500What happens when your seemingly average, regular family is touched by mental illness and suicide?

Bitter Medicine, a true story written by Clem Martini – based on the graphic novel of the same title by Martini and his brother Oliver – and directed for this SummerWorks production by Patrick Finn, gives a first-person account of the family’s experience, with a particular focus on the relationship between Clem and Oliver (Liv), and told by Clem (played by Brian Smith).

Having lost their youngest brother Ben to schizophrenia and suicide, it is unthinkable that another brother would suddenly find himself living with the condition. And, as Clem tells us at one point in the play, once your family has experienced suicide, it haunts you and results in hyper-vigilance when another family member is diagnosed with mental illness.

Clem and Liv’s story highlights the need for patient advocacy, especially in a society – and even a health care system – that makes assumptions about the mentally ill. And we are also reminded that pharma companies don’t always have patients’ best interests at heart, as illustrated in Clem’s battle to get Liv diagnosed when he became gravely ill; turns out the pharma company that manufactured the meds he was on hadn’t disclosed the possible side effect of diabetes.

Smith is a compelling storyteller, speaking as Clem, as Liv’s illustrations play across the screen behind him (scenography design by Anton de Groot), the family’s loss made poignantly visual when we see one person missing from the original family portrait of six (Ben is gone).

Bitter Medicine is a bittersweet, heartbreaking and hopeful journey of family love and support, and finding a way to live with mental illness.

This was Bitter Medicine’s closing performance in SummerWorks at the Lower Ossington Theatre – but keep an eye out for this show. It’s important that people hear these stories to gain understanding and empathy for the individuals and families living with mental illness – and to not define any person by his/her condition.

SummerWorks: Powerhouse, high-voltage solo cabaret in Do I Have to Do Everything My Fucking Self?

HERO-Regina-Pooltable-2-CopyI was back at the Lower Ossington Theatre last night, this time in the downstairs Cabaret space, for the closing night of the SummerWorks music series performance of the Light Fires/Adam Lazarus production of Do I Have to Do Everything My Fucking Self?

Starring Regina the Gentlelady from the band Light Fires and directed by Lazarus, this one-woman cabaret show is part concert, part stand-up, part memoir. From her rock star entrance through the audience to her final kicks and notes, Regina knows how to grab her audience and hold onto it – and we are more than happy to be along for the ride.

Speaking and singing – and dancing – about live, love and celebrity in this crazy world we live in, from her coming out and getting outta Dodge (in her case, Guelph, Ontario) to her guilt about not donating to Sarah McLachlan’s favourite animal rescue cause, to her fantasy boxing match vs. Miley Cyrus (look out, Robin Thicke, she’s coming for you next), Regina makes you laugh and cheer. This gentlelady’s got chops, with the rockin’ vocals and high-kicking moves to prove it – not to mention an enviable pair of legs.

Do I Have To Do Everything My Fucking Self? is a highly entertaining solo show – and Regina the Gentlelady gives a powerhouse, high-voltage performance, delivered with fierce style and presence.

The brief run of this show is over, but keep an eye out for what Regina and Light Fires will be up to next. In the meantime, check out the band’s Bandcamp page.

p.s.: Berlin, you can’t fucking have her. Regina is ours!

SummerWorks: Delightful, magical story time with Unintentionally Depressing Children’s Tales

children's talesThis year’s SummerWorks has been full of opportunities to see and hear some imaginative, unique pieces of storytelling – and Erin Fleck’s Unintentionally Depressing Children’s Tales, directed by Maya Rabinovitch, is a brilliant example.

A young man brings light to his darkened town. A very cranky pony named Heathcliff falls in love with the mistress of the household at his new home. A man named Sam is fascinated by the post. The ghost of a murdered young woman haunts an opulent underwater ballroom.

The audience is enveloped in the atmosphere of story time; the Studio of the Lower Ossington Theatre has been transformed into a large tent made from bed sheets, with quilts, blankets and cushions creating part of the audience seating space on the floor, and a small table with a lamp and various curios. An overhead projector presents several images, with multiple transparencies causing images to morph: three stag heads become three stag skulls; a clock appears and dissolves; and a cuckoo clock materializes, followed by framed pictures, a window and a table in a quiet room.

Then, using transparencies and overhead projection, and paper articulated shadow puppets, four tellers retrieve a sheaf of paper from various places in the room and read the stories. And they are marvelous – the stories and the storytellers. With shouts to puppeteers/tellers Talia DelCogliano, Erin Fleck, Michelle Urbano and Brian Webber. The cast also includes a roster of guest narrators: Glyn Bowerman, Sascha Cole, Marcus Jamin and Jordi Mand (I believe Jamin was the guest last night).

With shouts to the design team: Sarah Fairlie, Fleck and Daniel Briere (puppets), Roxanne Ignatius (set) and Pip Bradford (lighting); and to Fairlie for video art direction and Brad Casey for music direction.

Unintentionally Depressing Children’s Tales is a delightful, magical piece of storytelling fun – quirky, darkly funny and thoroughly enjoyable.

There’s one more performance: tonight (Sun, Aug 17) at 7 p.m.

SummerWorks: Beautifully layered exploration of relationships, class, the struggle for order & mental illness in Complex

complexBumped into actor Tim Walker at the Lower Ossington Theatre on the weekend and found out about Complex, written by Rebecca Applebaum and directed for SummerWorks by Christopher Stanton in partnership with the Koffler Centre of the Arts – and I’m really glad I did.

Set in modern-day Toronto, the title makes multiple references: the Chalkfarm apartment that Darren (Mazin Elsadig) shares with his mother Althea (Beryl Bain); complex number theory, which Darren is playing catch-up on with tutor Sarah (Emily Piggford); and the relationships between Sarah and her live-in boyfriend Jonah (Tim Walker), who’s living with OCD, as well as Darren and his mother, who is suffering from severe depression after the death of her mother – and, as the play unfolds, between Darren and Sarah.

The story in Complex features stark contrasts of class divide, illustrated by the assumptions Sarah makes about Darren’s neighbourhood, activities and relationship with his mother, and about mental illness – both Sarah and Darren struggle to understand the conditions of their respective loved ones. While Sarah and Darren long for order in their lives, Jonah and Althea occupy a different world, grappling with their own inner demons and realities.

Excellent work from this cast! Bain is heartbreaking as the bereft Althea, lost in her grief and confused by her son’s anger and frustration at her debilitating desolation; and Elsadig does a lovely job balancing Darren’s youthful energy with the more adult burdens of looking after his mother – and the conflicting emotions therein. Piggford’s Sarah, like Darren, is frustrated with her loved one’s mental condition, even as she struggles to be supportive and understanding; and she does a great – at times comic – job of capturing the behaviours of an educated, privileged young adult trying to be chill with a low-income teen from a troubled neighbourhood. Walker’s Jonah is a good guy with an infuriating condition, obsessed with the apartment’s locks and fully aware of Sarah’s frustration, and trying to stay positive as he embarks on a group therapy program at CAMH.

Shouts to the design team: set (Laura Gardner), lighting (Siobhán Sleath) and sound (Lyon Smith) for creating the high-energy – at times overwhelmingly busy – urban atmosphere for Complex; the scrim-covered flats, built on PVC pipe frames and sprayed with graffiti, are particularly clever, delivering visual impact and creating cool shadow effects, as well as doubling as set pieces.

Complex is a beautifully layered exploration of relationships, class, the struggle for order, math theory and mental illness.

The show continues at the Lower Ossington Theatre until Sun, Aug 17 – check here for dates/times.

SummerWorks: Erotic, poetic & mytholgical journey in The Bull, the Moon and the Coronet of Stars

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Ron Pederson & Daniela Vlaskalic

Sexual tension unfolds between two museum co-workers, as a strange, frightening and powerful presence stalks the museum halls. This is how the SummerWorks production of Van Badham’s The Bull, the Moon and the Coronet of Stars, directed by Vikki Anderson, begins.

Marion (Daniela Vlaskalic) is drawn to attractive men who are wrong for her – much to her chagrin – but she can’t help herself. When things don’t work out with co-worker Michael (Ron Pederson), she retreats into herself and off to Wales to teach drawing to a group of elderly ladies. And another man comes into her life (also played by Pederson).

Shifting from second-person narrative of their actions and feelings – through fantasy, dream imagery and mythology – to direct interaction, Vlaskalic and Pederson weave and wind out this tale of desire, betrayal and redemption. It is a lyrical, sexy, irreverently funny – and incredibly intelligent – good time.

Vlaskalic does a lovely job with Marion and her journey; smart, sensuous, vulnerable and courageous, following her heart into frightening, unknown territory. Pederson gives great performances as co-worker Michael, aloof and disinterested on the surface, masking a quiet life of desperation and surging passion; and as the randy sommelier Mark, a cheeky, womanizing party boy with a kind heart.

With shouts to Monica Dottor’s captivating, breathlessly heart-pounding choreography.

The Bull, the Moon and the Coronet of Stars is an erotic, poetic, primal piece of modern-day mythology.

The show continues its run at the Lower Ossington Theatre until Sun, Aug 17; see date/time details here.

More theatre in T.O. – on right now & upcoming

So much out there to see and still no clones on hand to help me make it out to everything. Here are some shows that are continuing and upcoming:

The Village Players’ production of Les Liasons Dangereuses, by Christopher Hampton, directed by Anne Harper – running now until October 5 at the Village Playhouse.

Next To Normal at Lower Ossington Theatre, book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, music by Tom Kitt – running now until September 29. Check out In the Green Room’s interview with director Heather Braaten.

The second annual Gay Play Day returns to the Alumnae Theatre studio space for a two-day run September 27 & 28. Here’s the line-up for this year:

September 27 & 28 @ 8 p.m.: Sherlock & Watson: Behind Closed Doors by Darren Stewart-Jones; Let’s Spend Our Lives Together, Maybe by Tina McCulloch; Couples by Bruce Harrott; Men In Kilts by Niall O’Reilly; Hush by Megan Hutton; The Rice Queen of Cabbagetown (excerpt) by Charles Hayter

New this year – a series of matinée solo shows on September 28 @ 3 p.m.: Hossam and Joel by Lorenzo Pagnotta; Obscuring Jude by Dorianne Emmerton; Why I’m Not A Star by Philip Cairns; Fairy Tale Confidential by Marcy Rogers
Enjoy!

Hope in a planet – Utopia

utopia-620x437
Sam Kamras & Rebekah Chassé

Got out to one final SummerWorks show yesterday – this time, it was Theatre Free Radical’s production of playwright/director Len Falkenstein’s Utopia at the Lower Ossington Theatre mainspace.

Karen (Rebekah Chassé), a single mother struggling to keep the family Christmas tree farm afloat, witnesses a bizarre and wondrous moment when a planet drops anchor – a bridge, a stairway to the sky – in her backyard. The event brings further tension to Karen’s already strained relationship with her daughter Jess (Sam Kamras), who in turn now has a more complicated relationship with farm hand Zach (Jake Martin, who does double duty as Karen’s doctor) after a wild night that some believe is their last on Earth. Family-connected lawyer Connor (Michael Holmes-Lauder, who also plays The President) is invited to assist with the situation, and this arrangement brings complications of its own. Visits to the planet yield vastly differing reports of what the visitor finds there, including the observations of a group of scientists, but all experiences are extremely positive. As the story unfolds, legal, corporate, government and scientific interests – not to mention a media circus – come into play as people strive to understand the nature of the planet, dubbed “Utopia,” what it means for mankind and what how they can benefit from it. Meanwhile, Karen has been ill since the planet’s arrival. Is she connected to the planet. If so, how, why and what does it mean?

There are some lovely images and moments in Utopia, with projection on a three-panel fabric screen used to show both space and place (designed by Holmes-Lauder). The play has an intimate, storytelling feel to it, and the ensemble cast does a nice job of capturing the wonder, confusion and trepidation of the situation with urgency and pathos. “Utopia” becomes a symbol of hope – and hope is very much in the eye of the beholder.

SummerWorks wrapped up last night. Check out Theatre Free Radical – they’re based in Fredericton, New Brunswick and focus on topical, thought-provoking material.