A journey into the wasteland of a serial killer’s mind & the possibility of forgiveness in Seven Siblings’ chilling, heartbreaking Frozen

Scott McCulloch, Nancy McAlear & Madryn McCabe. 

 

Is it possible to forgive a man who has murdered a child? The stuff of every parent’s nightmare becomes an opportunity for reconciliation and forgiveness as a forensic psychologist offers her thesis on the minds serial killers in Seven Siblings Theatre’s compelling, moving production of Bryony Lavery’s Frozen. Directed by Will King, Frozen opened last night at the b current Studio Theatre at Artscape Wychwood Barns.

American forensic psychologist Agnetha (Madryn McCabe)—who has a fear of flying and some emotional turmoil of her own to deal with—is on her way to London, England to give a lecture on her thesis and interview a new subject: serial killer Ralph (Scott McCulloch). We also meet Nancy (Nancy McAlear), a mother whose 10-year-old daughter Rhona went missing on her way to her grandmother’s over 20 years ago.

Shifting into the past and returning to the present, we learn the details of Rhona’s disappearance. Nancy’s sullen teenage daughter Ingrid refuses to go to her grandmother’s, as it involves gardening work, so Nancy sends Rhona instead. Ralph sees an opportunity and takes it. As these flashbacks include both Nancy and Ralph’s points of view, we get devastating and alarming accounts of the events that led to the loss of this loved girl.

Agnetha, along with neuroscientist colleague David (voice-over by Jim Armstrong), has collected evidence that suggests abuse, neglect and brain trauma permanently alter the brain structures of serial killers, rendering them unable to control their actions. And, as these people—mostly men—are ill, and not evil monsters, can we not therefore forgive them?

In the early years following Rhona’s disappearance, Nancy throws herself into activism work with an organization dedicated to finding missing children and reuniting them with their families. Living in hope and denial, she believes in her heart that Rhona is still alive. Her hopes are dashed when she learns that police have taken Ralph into custody for the attempted abduction of a girl; his tattoos betray his whereabouts on the dates and locations of other missing girls. Rhona’s remains are found, along with those of other victims and his collection of child porn videos, in his shed—in Nancy’s neighbourhood, close to home. Bringing Nancy, Agnetha and Ralph together, the tragedy of Rhona’s abduction and murder becomes a catalyst for personal journey and self-discovery—with unexpected and startling results.

Cerebral, visceral and spiritual, it’s a challenging piece for the ensemble, to say the least—and this cast rises to the occasion with layered, nuanced and compelling performances. McCabe is strikingly professional, deeply vulnerable and tender as Agnetha. Struggling to keep it together as she continues the work that she and David started, Agnetha must keep her own internal conflicts under control as she interviews Ralph and assesses whether it’s wise to allow Nancy to visit him. McAlear is a heartbreaking, determined warrior mother as Nancy. The glue that keeps her family together, Nancy must not only come to terms with the fact that Rhona isn’t coming back, but accept the long-term impacts on her family as each member grows up and even apart from her. And as something shifts in her own heart and mind, what will she say when she sees Ralph? McCulloch is both chilling and gruffly charming as Ralph; a master manipulator and liar, Ralph is disturbingly nonchalant about his proclivities and hunting habits. Forced to turn inward during his meetings with Agnetha, who’s told him that he can’t help himself due to his traumatic childhood and brain injury, what will he find?

Frozen in time, with only her bones left behind, Rhona reaches out to each of these characters. Can Agnetha and Nancy move on from their devastating losses? Frozen in a mind that dictates deviant desires and behaviour, can Ralph understand the hurtful impact of, and feel remorse for, what he’s done? Can we distinguish evil from illness—and what will we do with that understanding?

Heartbreaking, chilling and peppered with dark humour—and provocative in Agnetha’s thesis of the possibility of forgiveness for a serial killer—Frozen is an emotionally and intellectually turbulent ride. Staged with minimal set pieces—cubes that are stacked and moved with precision to create the space—with live sound by director King, Seven Siblings’ Frozen is both uncomfortable and revealing in its intimacy. Try as we may, we can’t look away.

Frozen continues in the b current Studio Theatre until June 3; advance tickets available online—a good idea given the limited seating in this intimate venue.

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Toronto Fringe: Mom goes on the run to keep her daughter safe in chilling sci-fi thriller Recall

Seven Siblings Theatre takes us to a grim world in the not so distant future with their Toronto Fringe production of Eliza Clark’s Recall, directed by Will King, assisted by Erik Helle, and running at the Theatre Centre.

The play opens with Justine (Genevieve Adam) laughing at a reality TV show about morbidly obese people and their bizarre weight loss experience, while her teenage daughter Lucy (Kyla Young) scrubs what appears to be blood off a white towel. And then they’re off—on the run (again) to a safe house hosted by David (Luis Fernandes). Lucy finds a friend in fellow social misfit Quinn (Warren Kang) at her new school, where she’s now using the name Tiffany. Meanwhile, scientist Charlotte (Madryn McCabe) has been monitoring David and “list kid” Quinn.

As the play unfolds, we learn that this is a world in which science and medicine conduct pre-emptive profiling to weed out violent offenders and criminals. What really goes on at the facility where Charlotte works? And are Lucy and Quinn dangerous?

Strong, compelling work from the entire cast. Adam is delightfully crass and sassy as the outspoken Justine; and there’s great mother/daughter chemistry between her and Young’s sullen feisty Lucy, who tends to have an unsettling gaze. Fernandes is very still waters run deep as the soft-spoken David, who’s struggling with demons of his own; and McCabe is adorably quirky as the chipper science geek Charlotte. And Kang brings a genuine, awkward and sharp-witted vibe to Quinn. There’s more than meets the eye to all of these characters; and the ensemble does a lovely job mining those layers.

In a world of pre-emptive profiling, a mother goes on the run to keep her daughter safe in the chilling sci-fi thriller Recall.

Recall continues at the Theatre Centre until July 16; you can book advance tix on its show page.

Picasso & Einstein walk into a bar; art, science, women & philosophy ensue in hilarious, surreal Picasso at the Lapin Agile

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Dylan Evans (Picasso) & Will King (Einstein) in Picasso at the Lapin Agile – photo by Erika Downie

Picasso and Einstein walk into a bar.

This is the set-up for Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile and Seven Siblings Theatre’s current production, directed by Seven Siblings co-founder Erika Downie, which opened at Kensington Market bar venue Round last night.

It was my first time at Round, a vintage-inspired cabaret-styled bar space and a perfect immersive venue for this production. The Lapin Agile barkeep Freddie (Dylan Mawson) set the scene as the audience entered and settled, opening the bar on the playing space and jovially interacting with the audience, at least one of whom mistook him for the venue bartender (you can purchase beverages before the show starts).

Set in a bar in 1904, we find the two titans of innovation in their mid-20s and both on the brink of greatness. Einstein (company co-founder and previous production director Will King) is slogging away on his book on the theory of relativity, and Picasso (Dylan Evans) is in his blue period, struggling for instantaneous alignment between his ideas and the act of drawing them. At the top of the play, barkeep Freddie (Mawson), his sweetheart and co-worker Germaine (company co-founder Madryn McCabe) and regular Gaston (Jamie Johnson) are already pondering life, art, women and love when Einstein bursts in; and it’s not long after Picasso’s arrival that the scientist and the artist get into a heated argument that turns into a duel of science versus art.

Add to that mix an assortment of opinionated patrons and friends – a lover, friend and admirer (all played by Erin Burley), an art collector (Erik Helle), an inventor (Andrew Gaunce) and a surprise visitor (Maxwell LeBeuf) – and you have some hilarious, thought-provoking discussion and debate, as well as some predictions about the burgeoning 20th century. There is a restless, anxious and hopeful atmosphere in the bar as these characters adjust to the new century. Sparks of brilliance and absurdity abound – and it’s all big, goofy surreal fun.

Equally big fun is the sharp and engaging ensemble. Portraying the two young men on the edge of great things, King and Evans bring passion, drive and intelligence. King’s Einstein is bubbling with energy and ideas, shifting between stillness and silence and bursts of movement and thought; and Evans’ Picasso is smooth, sexy and charming – an infuriating player, but a talented and sensitive artist you can’t help but feel drawn to. And the upshot of their argument is that both men discover that they have more common ground than they thought – and that art and science are no so different after all.

Mawson’s Freddie is a great combination of affable and irreverent, and clueless with an occasional brilliant observation. Beneath the beautiful barmaid exterior, McCabe’s Germaine is insightful, astute and self-aware; her passions are her own to direct – and she has the most accurate predictions about the new century. As Gaston, Johnson brings a touch of wistful nostalgia to an otherwise grumpy older man. Saying aloud what Germaine already knows, Burley’s Suzanne (one of Picasso’s forgotten lovers) is a bright young woman who ultimately falls for Picasso with her mind, in spite of physical attraction and in spite of herself. Helle’s Sagot is flamboyant and shrewd, with an eye for important art and a mind for marketing – which affords engagement in his own artistry as a photographer. Gaunce’s self-important inventor Schmendiman is hilariously buffoonish, with a Daliesque quality to his verbal outbursts; and LeBeuf’s Visitor is a smooth, cool crooner with an interesting take on the world and its response to greatness.

The play crackles with ideas and conversation, with moments of breaking the fourth wall – even acknowledging that it’s a play – it’s a big ideas party and everyone’s invited.

Picasso and Einstein walk into a bar, and art, science, women and philosophy ensue in Seven Siblings Theatre’s wacky, surreal and immersive production of Picasso at the Lapin Agile.

Picasso at the Lapin Agile continues at Round until Feb 28; please note the 7:30 p.m. curtain time (it’s not cool when the stage manager has to hold the house for audience showing up when the show’s supposed to be starting). You can get advance tix online – strongly recommended.

You can keep up with Seven Siblings on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. In the meantime, check out the show’s trailer:

A topsy-turvy look at the bizarre dynamics of the corporate world in entertaining Fever/Dream

Full Cast Promo PhotoOut at the theatre one more time last night – this time, to The Jumblies Ground Floor for Seven Siblings Theatre’s Canadian premiere of Sheila Callaghan’s Fever/Dream, directed by Will King, assisted by Madryn McCabe. I saw Seven Siblings’ dramatic, violent and compelling production of Mercury Fur last year – and this exciting young company goes for the edge while venturing into the comic side of a surreal world in Fever/Dream.

An adaptation of Pedro Calderón’s Life Is a Dream, Callaghan set Fever/Dream in present-day America, where the king is President Bill Basil (Mladen Obradovic), the head of a corporate empire in his 77-foot tall office tower palace.

It is in the bowels of the tower that we first see Segis, our young protagonist (Trevor Ketcheson), seated and unconscious at his desk. His hair and beard long and unkempt, his clothing torn and filthy, he resembles a castaway more than an office worker. Prisoner, more like it. The phone receiver seems permanently attached to his hand and he is chained to the desk, his daily food rations dispensed from a trap door in the wall near the ceiling. The only words he can seem to speak are the scripted lines of apology and transfer action – he is a customer service rep. His lack of human contact becomes apparent with the arrival of Rose (Olivia Orton) and Claire (Alexandra Simpson), who’ve become lost in the building. The two girls are soon busted by the office manager Fred (Dylan Mawson) and are sentenced to working in the office.

President Bill Basil is seriously ill and has decided to retire; but instead of passing the reins to his two top managers Stella (Geneviève Trottier) and Aston (Peter Jarvis), he has decided to pass the job along to his secret son, with Stella and Aston as Plan B. Guess who the secret son is. Add to the mix a chorus of multitasking actors playing security guards, accountants and vlogging associates (Karina Bradfield, Zenna Davis-Jones and Courtney Keir), and you have a recipe for a wacky tale of chain reaction events and secrets revealed in a crazy, satirical look at corporate culture.

King and McCabe have a sharp, engaging cast for this underdog trip down the rabbit hole – or, in this case, up the office tower. Ketcheson does a marvelous job as Segis, going from a feverish grasping for language and meaning to rising up as he discovers love and purpose; lost and disoriented, he struggles to find his way even as he grapples with his own emotions in a strange new world. And is it all even real? Orton gives Rose a sharp sense a drive and commitment; wry-witted and resourceful, she too has a secret agenda and is forced to deal with a surprise discovery of her own. As Rose’s chirpy roommate Claire, Simpson does a bang-up job as the super positive and loyal sidekick, transferring these skills to her job as the perfect office temp; but when she realizes that hers is a Sisyphean task, that bubbly personality boils over. Jarvis is a slick piece of work as Aston, the classic all sizzle and no steak equation, but with people skills that complement Stella, who is more qualified but short on soft skills. Trottier shines as Stella, a brilliant but icy dragon lady, a Harvard and Wharton grad frustrated by corporate sexism, and finding herself melting into her warm feelings for the new boss. Obradovic brings a regal ruthlessness to Basil, moved by vengeance to disown and banish his own son to the basement, only to promote the unprepared Segis in an act of hubris in order to continue his bloodline. As Basil’s right-hand man Fred, Mawson is a chilling master of corporate speak, executing Basil’s every whim and cleaning up messes with clock-like precision and accuracy; but, like Stella, he is not without a soft spot.

Chorus members Bradfield, Davis-Jones and Keir are multitasking machines, executing set changes in character and shifting from security detail to accountants to vlogging 20-something associates and back again with skill and style; they may be representing the lowly drones of the business – but work doesn’t get done without worker bees. And their daily workday lives of white noise get turned up to 11 when they find inspiration in Segis.

Whether peasant or king – worker drone or president – we all must come to grips with our own mortality. Absolute power corrupts absolutely – so aptly illustrated in Segis’s caricature behaviour in his brief time as president, becoming a tyrant despite his good intentions.

With shouts to some excellent staging and design. The white, sterile set with its secret doors (Stephen King); the back scrim projections (Will King) of skyline and industrial cogs add to the surreal, industrial atmosphere; and the hopeful sound of water burbles up through white noise, and office machine lights, beeps and squeals (Parker Nowlan). The slow, romantic ocean fantasy sequences (choreographer Rosslyn King) and retirement party pandemonium (fight choreographer Annemieke Wade) are highly evocative and entertaining, moving and dream-like.

Fever/Dream is a topsy-turvy look at the bizarre dynamics of the corporate world, fueled by a fine, high-energy cast.

Fever/Dream continues at The Jumblies Ground Floor until May 31. NOTE: Jumblies is located at 132 Fort York Blvd., a bit east of Bathurst – Google searches may direct you to the Scarborough location and Google Maps shows the address as west of Bathurst (don’t go there!). You can purchase advance tix online here.

The power of words, destiny management & three rawkin’ witches in stage adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters

Wyrd Sisters Crown
Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters – photo by Heather Corner

An iron tea pot sits atop a small wooden stool, placed in the centre of an upside down wooden table. Jolly Elizabethan music fills the space as the audience assembles. This is the stage set at Red Sandcastle Theatre, a minimalist design about to contain a world of magic, plots and Shakespearean homage in Socratic Theatre Collective’s production of Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters, adapted by Stephen Briggs and directed by Socratic Theatre founder/A.D. Liz Bragg.

The play Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters is an adaptation of the sixth novel of Pratchett’s Discworld series; Socratic Theatre has previously produced adaptations of Terry Pratchett’s Mort and Terry Pratchett’s Monstrous Regiment. Sadly, Pratchett died on March 12 – and his work has had a profound effect on the company, so Socratic Theatre is dedicating this production of Wyrd Sisters in his memory. And if the audience’s delighted reaction is any indication, they’ve done him proud.

Scheming nobles. Travelling players. Three witches. Regicide. A secret foundling whisked away to safety. A professionally frustrated and ethically conflicted Fool. Love. This play has it all. Drawing inspiration from Shakespeare’s work, particularly the Scottish play, with shades of Hamlet, Wyrd Sisters is a good fun adventure with a great comic sensibility – and a very fine cast.

The three witches are a treat: S.R. Kriger as the wry-witted, resourceful (often outside the box) Granny Weatherwax; Amanda O’Halloran as the small of stature, but scrappy and irreverent, Nanny Ogg; and Madryn McCabe as Magrat Garlick, the bright and lovely young rookie who’s big on theory, but green on experience of both witchcraft and the world in general. The three men in the cast play multiple roles, male and female, to great effect. Daniel Cristofori is hilarious as the grasping, but ineffectual and neurotic Duke, as well as the less than evil demon WxrtHlt-jwlpklz. Basel Daoud does an excellent job juggling such varied characters as the plotting, power hungry Duchess and the dim-witted, shifty-eyed Sergeant. And Michael Lake is particularly adorable as the awkward and conflicted young Fool, torn between his duty to the usurping Duke and doing what’s right (and his love of a certain young lady).

Among all the scheming, magic and Shakespearean shenanigans, Wyrd Sisters highlights the power of words and reminds us of the importance of taking an active role in one’s destiny.

Fantastic use of mask (for the players’ play within the play) and mask-based puppetry (demon, ghost of the King), which capture the fun, imagination and wonder of this story – with shouts to the design team of Bragg, David Galvin Heppenstall, Jennifer Jakob, Kriger and O’Halloran. Shouts also to make-up artist Liz Davies and Chris Warrilow/Fantastic Creations for the props.

It’s wicked big fun playing with Shakespeare and three good witches that rawk in Socratic Theatre Collective’s production of Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters. So get yourselves out to Red Sandcastle Theatre to see this.

Wyrd Sisters runs until March 29. You can purchase tickets at the door or in advance online. You can also keep up with Socratic Theatre on Facebook and Twitter.

Department of Corrections: The previous version of this post credited the photo to Amanda Irwin/Elemental Photography. The promotional photo included in this post is by Heather Corner; this has been corrected. Amanda Irwin did the production photography.

Love & violence in a world gone to hell in Mercury Fur

MFUR-10Seven Siblings Theatre Company’s opened its Canadian premiere of Philip Ridley’s Mercury Fur, directed by Will King and assistant director Madryn McCabe (two of the three co-founders of Seven Siblings, along with Erika Downie), at Unit 102 Theatre last night.

Set in a post-apocalyptic city in a time very close to present day – too close for comfort – Mercury Fur reveals a world turned savage and lawless, where everyday people are forced go to extreme measures to survive roving gangs, riots and looting. Brothers Elliot (Cameron Laurie) and Darren (Andrew Markowiak) work for Spinx (Mishka Thébaud), dealing in hallucinogenic – and sometimes dangerous – drugs in the form of butterflies, sometimes purchased with stolen antiquities. For some, the virtual fantasies that play out in the mind under the influence of butterflies aren’t enough – and so Spinx and his crew also arrange “parties” for clients who play top dollar to have their deepest, darkest fantasies realized, in real time with real people.

The story that unfolds is brutal and beautiful, cruel and tender – violence and love weave in and out between the characters, some struggling to recall more decent, peaceful times while others long to forget. The language is both lyrical and extremely violent; words are both weapons and tools of seduction. Violence and sex intermingle into fetishism, and anecdotes of horrific memories are told with emotional detachment or adventure story excitement. The sharing of good memories offers a brief emotional oasis from past and present terrors.

The directing team has a very strong cast for this often intensely dark theatrical journey. As older brother Elliot, the brains and head of his fractured, broken family, Laurie does a lovely job with the complex range of emotions – by turns harsh and tender, sharply focused and hopelessly lost. Andrew Markowiak’s Darren is both comic and heartbreaking; a simple, child-like youth, broken both physically and psychologically by events and butterfly consumption. Like Darren, the brothers’ new friend and co-worker Naz is drug-addled but sweet, longing for connection and a new family to replace the one he’s lost to violence – a nicely well-rounded performance from Adrian Beattie. Eric Rich is both fiercely streetwise and warmly kind-hearted as Lola. Thébaud is compelling as the gang leader, cold and cruel, but protective of his pack – especially the Duchess. Annemieke Wade’s Duchess is beautifully fragile and damaged, struggling to hold onto some sense of gentility and grace in the wild carelessness of this horrific new world. As the Party Piece, Kenneth Collins is delicately vulnerable in the boy’s stoned and sick state. And D. Gingerich does a really nice job as the Party Guest, a repugnant and callous sociopath with friends in high places, caught between his desire for blood and the fear of a rat on a sinking ship.

Stephen King’s set, a boarded up, abandoned flat in an apartment block – with its deep red outer walls, stone centre wall with a fireplace mantle, deep brown leather furniture, and lack of electricity and hot water – shows us what urban life has come to, but also acts as a reminder of a more civilized world. A world many of us take for granted. Parker Nowlan (lighting and sound) sets the scene with an eerie, industrial soundscape and gives us a gradual sundown throughout the play, the darkening of the sky running parallel with the increasingly dark action onstage.

Seven Siblings’ production of Mercury Fur is a deeply disturbing, moving and darkly funny look at violence and love in a world gone to hell.

You can also follow Seven Siblings Theatre Company on Facebook and Twitter. Keep an eye out for this dynamic young company. Mercury Fur continues its run at Unit 102 Theatre until September 6 – click here for advance tix.