The profound cruelty & kindness of humanity in Coal Mine’s darkly funny, deeply affecting Category E

Diana Bentley, Robert Persichini & Vivien Endicott-Douglas. Set and costume design by Anna Treusch. Lighting design by Gabriel Cropley. Photo by Tim Leyes.

 

Coal Mine Theatre closes its 4th season with the Toronto premiere of Belinda Cornish’s horror comedy Category E, directed by Rae Ellen Bodie—opening last night to a sold out house at their home on 1454 Danforth Ave.

The pre-show soundtrack of retro commercials playing in the lobby (sound design by Keith Thomas) is a kitschy prelude to the dark comedic terror that awaits inside, where we are transported into an eerily familiar futuristic dystopia—familiar because, like the most recent TV incarnation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the future is closer than you think.

Once in the theatre space, the audience sits on either side of a large cage that contains two cots, a wheel chair and a small bookcase (set and costume design by Anna Treusch); the ceiling of the cage is a large light box (lighting design by Gabriel Cropley), and there are large lighting fixtures outside in the hallway, as well as two security cameras mounted to the walls. Set in a testing facility, Category E takes the human trial stage of product testing to the extreme; the human subjects are stripped of identity and even gender—each bearing a number on their beige scrubs and becoming an “it”—and treated with the cold clinical detachment that would be afforded a lab rabbit.

It is here that the chipper and nervous new kid Millet (Vivien Endicott-Douglas) arrives, joining veteran lab subject Corcoran (Robert Persichini), who uses the wheel chair, and Filigree (Diana Bentley), who is either asleep or passed out. The tension and confusion are turned on immediately, as there are now three people occupying this cage and only two cots; this makes for an intense introduction between Millet and Filigree when Filigree wakes up. Not to mention the condition of the cage’s two original occupants, both filthy and looking in ill health—a stark contrast to the newcomer, who although in desperate need of a shower, is wearing clean scrubs and in perfect health. Corcoran wears an eye patch over one eye and his good eye is angry and red, and the dressing on his forearm should have been changed ages ago; he passes the time with a 17-year-old crossword puzzle. Filigree is pale and gaunt, and keeps scratching her lower back against the chair railing on the wall; her hobby is drawing disturbing portraits in crayon.

Meals, delivered in bowls labelled with subjects’ numbers, are signalled by a light and retrieved at one end of the narrow hallway outside the cage; a female version of HAL 9000 summons subjects by number to testing and shower time, accessed at the other end of the hallway. Standing on the bookcase to peer into the vent, Millet discovers the cage next door; like theirs, it also houses three subjects, but they cannot hear her. There are a lot of questions about what’s going on—and, like Millet, we learn the rules of this strange new world as we go.

There are vague references to “passing the eye” (or is it “I”?), which also gives this world a Handmaid’s Tale vibe, and brief moments of revelation—it seems Corcoran is a former scientist and Millet failed the test. And it appears that those who fail this test, or who have committed some kind of crime or corporate sin, are now considered as subhuman and become subjects in this testing facility. That is, with the exception of Filigree, whose odd, primal behaviour comes from the fact that she was born and raised in the facility, without parental nurturing or guidance (Corcoran has taken on this role, for how long is unclear). We get fleeting glimpses into the testing that they’re subjected to—and the lack of clear answers makes the mystery of this place all the more unsettling. Scene changes are accompanied by sexy voice-over ads, touting the various beauty and fragrances manufactured by the unseen corporation; mentions of side effects call us back to the cage.

Compelling, nuanced work from the cast in this harrowing three-hander, where moments of dark comedy barely take the edge off. Endicott-Douglas is a puckish, clever bundle of energy as Millet; the mercurial, chatty new kid in this space, Millet is endearingly awkward, with a can-do attitude and strong desire to fit in and make a contribution. Persichini’s performance as Corcoran goes deep into the calming, Zen-like quiet of a man of great intellect who at first sight appears merely world-weary and taciturn. Corcoran’s acts of kindness bring the much needed balm of tenderness to an otherwise brutal environment; and there’s an underlying sense of atonement in a struggle for redemption. Bentley is a delightfully quirky, at times menacing, wild child as Filigree; an untamed innocent, she operates on instinct, socialized under the care of Corcoran—and there’s a lovely, playful dynamic between them, especially when Corcoran acquiesces to Filigree’s requests tell them a story. What is the nature of that irritation on Filigree’s back? And why does Corcoran keep insisting on trading meals with Millet?

To see what I have seen! Category E is caress on the cheek and a kick in the gut. It is also a stark reminder that how we test product innovation in the name of consumer satisfaction is a choice. Cruelty and kindness are choices. If you’re either pro- or ambivalent toward animal testing, I think this play might just change your mind. A quote from St. Francis of Assisi, included in the program notes, is especially apt here: “If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.”

The profound cruelty and kindness of humanity in Coal Mine’s darkly funny, deeply affecting production of the dystopic macabredy Category E.

Category E continues at Coal Mine Theatre until April 29; get advanced tickets online—advance booking strongly recommended.

Advertisements

Giving a voice to the brave, resourceful women of The Odyssey in the engaging, theatrical The Penelopiad

The ensemble in The Penelopiad—photo courtesy of George Brown College

The George Brown Theatre School class of 2017 closes its 2016-17 season with Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad (directed by Sue Minor) and David Ives’ new version of Georges Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear (directed by Todd Hammond and Jordan Pettle) in the Michael Young Theatre at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, located in Toronto’s Distillery District. I caught The Penelopiad last night.

The Penelopiad is a retelling of The Odyssey from Penelope’s point of view, told with an all-female cast. Featuring the overlooked, abandoned and condemned women usually relegated to the background while Odysseus and his band of brothers are off for 20 years, fighting in the Trojan War, and having scrapes and adventures with various gods and monsters, it also provides a perspective of the 12 maids, executed for their licentious behaviour with Penelope’s would-be suitors.

Speaking to us from the Underworld after her death, Penelope (Kyrah Harder) starts her tale with the foot race for her hand, won by the short-legged Odysseus (Gabriella Albino), who thwarts his opponents by getting them drunk before the event. Brought into his parents’ household, she finds herself ruled by his disapproving mother Queen Anticlera (Emily Cully) and fastidious nursemaid Eurycleia (Lucy Meanwell). With the running of the house—and even the raising of her child Telemachus (Kayla Farris)—taken over by others, she resorts to weaving to pass the time.

Penelope’s role changes when Odysseus’s time away grows longer, his mother dies and his father King Laertes (Morgan St. Onge) wanders off, losing his mind; and finds herself forced to take over the running of the kingdom and Odysseus’s business affairs as she patiently awaits his return. When 10 years turns to 20, various suitors appear on her doorstep, circling like vultures and making themselves at home without invitation. Taking the 12 youngest maids into her confidence, she hatches a plan to keep the aggressive young men at bay. She tells the men she will choose a husband once she’s finished her father-in-law’s burial shroud. Each day, she and her 12 maids weave; each night, they undo their day’s work. The maids distract the suitors with attention and flirting; and when the suitors take out their frustrations by raping the maids, Penelope entreats them to hold fast—buying time until Odysseus returns.

Not apprised of Penelope’s plan, Telemachus and Eurycleia are mortified at the goings-on in the palace. And when Odysseus returns, he takes his revenge on the suitors; also unaware of what Penelope and the maids have been doing out of loyalty to him and to keep his kingdom safe, he punishes the maids. It is only through Eurycleia’s entreaty that he doesn’t execute all the maids—but just the 12 closest to Penelope.

While Penelope and her 12 maids prove themselves as cunning and steadfast as any man, in the end they are subject to the will and whims of men, who ultimately hold the balance of power.

A masterful piece of storytelling from a feminist perspective, the ensemble captures the edgy humour and despairing tragedy of this journey. Harder does a lovely job with the wry wit, desperate longing and firm resolve of Penelope. Haunted by her failure to protect them, she is shunned by the maids even after death. Lovely chemistry with Albino’s charming, wily and adventurous Odysseus; it is a complex relationship, for while Odysseus treats her with tender respect, he can’t help but succumb to the wanderlust that draws him away from her—even after death.

Stand-outs include Caroline Bell’s vain and flirty Helen (yes, that Helen and Penelope’s cousin) and Justine Christensen’s watery, ethereal Naiad (Penelope’s mother). Emily Cully brings in icy imperiousness to Queen Anticlera (Odysseus’s mother) and Tymika McKenzie-Clunis gives a hilarious turn as her pet goat. Lucy Meanwell also brings some comedy as Odysseus’s doting, gossiping and well-meaning but bossy nursemaid.

With shouts to the design team for bringing this otherworldly environment to life: Jackie Chau (set), Erin Gerofsky (costumes) and Nick Blais (lighting); and to the ensemble for arranging the music to Atwood’s words, in song and soundscape.

Giving a voice to the brave, resourceful women of The Odyssey in the engaging, theatrical The Penelopiad.

The Penelopiad continues at the Young Centre in the Michael Young Theatre until April 22; click here for ticket and pass info or book by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.  A Flea in Her Ear also runs until April 22; online tix available. It’s a great chance to see emerging acting talent before they head out into their careers.

You can also keep up with George Brown Theatre’s class of 2017 on Twitter and Facebook.

And check out the trailer for The Penelopiad here:

Women’s words inspire @ WordSpell

I was back at Free Times Café last night for WordSpell – a bi-monthly women’s poetry/spoken word event, featuring an established poet, an emerging poet and open mic performances.

Features Vanessa McGowan and Jill Battson wove magic with their words for a packed room – and the positive, engaged energy was palpable throughout the evening.

I’d heard Vanessa McGowan perform her work before – and I’m always amazed at the powerful combination of sharp frankness, vulnerability and heart – and sly humour – that she brings to her pieces. Speaking of the marginalized in society – the homeless, the disabled, LGBTQ – McGowan’s words weave the personal into the political, the individual into the universal. I can’t recall the title of the piece, but it starts with a verse and chorus from “Angel from Montgomery” – the line “And remember that our deepest human desire is to matter” resonates in a big way. Her published works appear in a recently reprint run of Divine Cock-eyed Genius. Check out this vid of “On Other Chunks”, performed in front of the Toronto AIDS memorial in Cawthra Park.

Jill Battson wordsmiths with visceral, evocative language – observational and sometimes irreverently funny – from treasures stolen from a storage locker to being unwittingly hooked on Martha Stewart Living to the subtly erotic, a pleasure to hear and see perform.

I wasn’t able to stay for the open mic performances, but I will definitely be back. The sense of community and support among the audience and artists makes for a lovely, casual and comfortable space – and I especially love how we all shared in a reading of Margaret Atwood’s “Spelling” at the beginning of the evening, the inspiration for WordSpell’s name.

Look out for next WordSpell event in November.

2013-09-04 20.43.12
Vanessa McGowan
2013-09-04 21.17.58
Jill Battson

The Penelopiad is back!

Nightwood Theatre’s much lauded production of Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, directed by Kelly Thornton, is back for a remount starting tonight (Jan 8) and runs until February 10 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. The remarkable all-female cast includes Megan Follows, Maev Beaty, Neema Bickersteth, Fiona Byrne, Sarah Dodd, Monica Dottor, Audrey Dwyer, Nicole Joy-Fraser, Kelli Fox, Cara Gee, Patricia Hamilton, Pamela Sinha and Sophia Walker.

If you didn’t catch the run last year, get out and see this – or come out and see it again.

Here’s the trailer for the 2013 production:

Strikingly beautiful Penelopiad

In just under a week, I got a second taste of the power of women in theatre when I saw Nightwood Theatre’s strikingly beautiful production of Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre last night. And best of all, I got to see it with a bunch of my Alumnae Theatre pals, all women who work in theatre in one way or another, who I bumped into by chance on the way over.

Kelly Thornton directs a fierce ensemble of 13 women, telling (Odysseus’s wife) Penelope’s – played by Megan Follows – side of The Odyssey. The ensemble of maids, who also double as various other characters – exploring masculine and feminine power in this time and place – includes Maev Beaty, Christine Brubaker, Raven Dauda, Sarah Dodd, Monica Dottor, Kelli Fox, Cara Gee, Pat Hamilton, Tara Rosling, Pamela Sinha, Sophia Walker and Bahia Watson. Stand-outs for me were Follows, who takes Penelope from a 15-year-old innocent to a queen fighting for her missing husband’s kingdom, and Fox, whose Odysseus was wonderfully cunning and charming, not to mention studly. Sinha was an alluring tease as the bomb shell Helen – referred to by Penelope as “that septic bitch” – while Watson played the young prince Telemachus with a lovely combination of passion, pain and brashness.

Like Alumnae Theatre’s current production of The Trojan Women (which shows the other side of this war story), the design is also a star of The Penelopiad – in this case, by Denyse Karn (set/costumes), Kimberly Purtell (lights) and Suba Sankaran (composer/sound). Minimalist, modular and beautiful, block and stair units transform into palaces, dining halls and bed chambers, while the trains of gowns become kimonos, table cloths and bed covers. And the ominous nooses that portend the execution of the maids are used in the weaving scene, the movement of the maids beautifully choreographed by Monica Dottor. The chorus of maids also sing and create soundscapes together, from lullaby to the haunting spiritual-inspired mourning after they are raped by Penelope’s suitors.

And to top the excitement of the evening, playwright Margaret Atwood was in attendance – and the house was packed.

A thoroughly powerful and magical evening of storytelling. With only a few performances left and, given the production’s massive popularity, you’d best contact the box office: http://buddiesinbadtimes.com/show.cfm?id=774

And Alumnae pal Tina McCulloch was right – The Penelopiad and The Trojan Women (the latter now playing at Alumnae Theatre) make a nice pair of shows to see. At the end of the Trojan war, whether on the victorious side or that of the defeated, the women never really win – but, man are they resilient.