Secrets & dark suspicions in the eerie, Gothic family drama Gripless

GriplessCastBWStanding: David Huband & Amber Mackereth. Seated: Margaret Lamarre.

 

Green Garden Equity Artist Collective gives us a disturbing tale of family secrets and dark suspicions in Deborah Ann Frankel’s eerie family drama Gripless; directed by Frankel and on now for a short run at Red Sandcastle Theatre.

On a stormy night in a small town, brother Ben (David Huband) and sister April (Amber Mackereth) bring their mother Elaine (Margaret Lamarre) home from a birthday celebration dinner in honour of their deceased father Daniel. Uncomfortable and anxious to leave, intimidating younger sister April appears to be the alpha to her more easy going older brother. But try as they might to leave their family home, something Elaine says keeps drawing them away from the door and back into the living room.

As the action unfolds, we learn that Elaine remarried about a year after Daniel’s death; an abusive brute of a man named Tim, who recently had a stroke. We get the sense that there are some uncomfortable unsaid truths in the closet of this family’s history; and memories shift from nostalgic reverie and childhood shenanigans to disturbing discoveries and suspicions—hinting at a troubling and violent dynamic.

Compelling work from the cast in this unsettling, spooky story of family dysfunction and conflicting perspectives. Lamarre’s Elaine is damaged, adrift and also manipulative; poignant yet unsettling, Elaine’s selective memory targets only the happy moments and she seems oddly disconnected from what’s happening right in front of her. As April, Mackereth’s tough-talking, bully exterior masks a deeply hurt, vulnerable child; unforgiving with her mother, April has tender feelings for her big brother, the only one who’s ever been on her side. Huband’s Ben is the perfect foil for Mackereth’s April; wry-witted, quiet and introspective, Ben is clearly the peacemaker in the family—but even his easy-going demeanour gives way to moments of haunted reflection.

Writer/director Frankel, who folks will recognize as Red Sandcastle’s intrepid SM, will be taking over as General Manager when AD Rosemary Doyle heads to Kingston in August as the new AD of Theatre Kingston; multitasking in this production, she’s also juggling box office and SM duty in booth—and created one heck of a dark, atmospheric set and soundtrack.

Gripless has two more performances at Red Sandcastle Theatre: tonight (July 22) and tomorrow (July 23) at 8 p.m.; book tickets in advance at deborahannfrankel@gmail.com or pay cash at the door.

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Pirates! Genies! Fishing! Wacky meta panto fun with A Ladd’n His Cat!

Red Sandcastle Theatre’s Panto Players have cooked up their most meta holiday panto ever! Written by Jane A. Shields and Red Sandcastle A.D. Rosemary Doyle, A Ladd’n His Cat! opened to an enthusiastic audience at Red Sandcastle’s storefront space at Queen St. East and Logan, Toronto last night.

Played out as a story within a story within a story, there’s a Thousand and One Nights quality to this year’s panto (the company’s 6th), with storytellers spinning tales for their lives.

It all starts on the high seas, where a pirate named Russell (Doyle, who also did the set and costumes) has taken a Lad (Ada Balon) and his Cat (Jackie English) under his wing among his band of pirates. When the Pirate King (Kristopher Bowman) becomes displeased with the Cat, the wily critter strikes a bargain to enthrall him with a story—where he must be the hero.

In the Cat’s tale, we find a hard-working, fastidious Fisherman (Brenda Somers), his wife (Susan Finlayson) and daughter Gesundheit (Jennifer Lloyd) toiling away on the water, where the Fisherman casts precisely three times a day. Catching a rusty old bottle on the third cast, Gesundheit unlocks a Genie (Kristen Foote). Extremely irate after years of captivity and thirsty for vengeance, the Genie threatens the family with death—but the quick-thinking Gesundheit makes a deal to entertain and divert her with a story in exchange for her family’s life.

And Gesundheit’s story brings us to the classic tale of Aladdin and the Magic Lamp—with a twist, of course, as this is the Panto Players, after all.

Aladdin’s mother the Widow Twankey (Adam Bonney) is beside herself with worry. She works her fingers to the bone at the family’s laundry business, but her teenaged son Aladdin (Bowman) is a lazy brat. Forced out of the house to find a job, Aladdin catches a glimpse of the fair Princess (Foote) as she takes a stroll through the market with her mother the Queen (Somers) and the court Magician (Bernie Henry), who has an upcoming marriage in the works with Handsome Prince (Balon).

Looking for big money and an easy job, Aladdin accompanies the Magician to a cave, where he finds precious jewels (Lloyd, Balon and Foote), a bat (Finlayson) and a magic lamp. Re-enter the Cat, this time as the Genie of the Lamp.

Plot upon plot upon plot later (with plots uncovered along the way), we finish where we started. And it all works out in its own implausibly plausible way.

Incorporating popular songs—from Gilbert and Sullivan to Beyoncé—and including some fabulous choreography, stunning costumes and magical set pieces, plus audience participation, A Ladd’n His Cat! is a whole lotta panto fun for kids of all ages.

Great work from the entire cast, with nearly all playing two or more roles throughout. Stand-outs include English, as everyone’s favourite pink Cat; surly and cheeky, but always lending a hand, this Cat is one smart cookie. Bowman gives great comic turns as the proud, narcissistic Pirate King (and look out for him at the Shaw Festival this coming season); and the petulant, lazy-ass Aladdin, who winds up being a hero in spite of himself.

Bonney is a riot as Widow Twankey, Aladdin’s put-upon, stressed out mother; and as a tattooed, sensitive pirate. Foote is hilarious as the fetching and enraged Genie of the Bottle; and as the self-absorbed, selfie-taking Princess. Henry is delightfully sly and manipulative as the Magician; and Balon deftly runs the gamut from the lovable, innocent Lad to the stand-offish oaf Handsome Prince.

With big shouts to stage manager Deborah Ann Frankel, keeping it all going from the booth; and Panto Players alumna Margaret Lamarre, who assisted Doyle with sewing the costumes—even on her birthday!

Pirates! Genies! Fishing! Plus our favourite pink Cat. Wacky meta panto fun with A Ladd’n His Cat!

A Ladd’n His Cat! continues at Red Sandcastle until Dec 31; reserve your spot in advance by emailing redsandcastletheatre@gmail.com or by calling 416-845-9411.

Photo: (top) Adam Bonney, Ada Balon, Jennifer Lloyd, Kristopher Bowman & Kristen Foote; (middle) Susan Finlayson & Brenda Somers; (bottom) Bernie Henry, Jackie English, Deborah Ann Frankel & Rosemary Doyle. Photo by Burke Campbell.

Noel Coward classic gets digital age makeover – & a dog – in Red Sandcastle Theatre’s delightful iBlithe

© Burke Campbell 002
David Huband, Margaret Lamarre, Maria Syrgiannis, Robert Keller & Adrian Proszowski – photo by Burke Campbell

A Noel Coward favourite is getting a modern-day, multimedia twist for the iPhone age at Red Sandcastle Theatre in Rosemary Doyle’s iBlithe, directed by David Huband. The opening got bumped to last night after one of the actors got a gig on Thursday, resulting in an additional show being added on Wed, Mar 31.

A few changes from Blithe Spirit: iBlithe’s running time is shorter, the Bradmans are now a gay couple, and Edith the maid is now Edith the dog. The record player becomes an iPhone, and projection is used to great effect for the emergence of otherworldly visitation.

When Charles (Huband) and Ruth (Maria Syrgiannis) Condomine invite psychic Mme. Arcati (Margaret Lamarre) to their country home for a séance, only their friends Dr. George (Adrian Proszowski) and Victor (Robert Keller) Bradman know that Charles is out to get some background research on a book he’s working on – he’s not a true believer in the occult. And the resulting appearance of the ghost of his first wife Elvira (Doyle) gives Charles way more than he bargained for.

The cast takes us on a wacky, hilariously funny trip of British manners, Coward wit and supernatural shenanigans – and the packed house loved it! Huband’s multilayered performance of Charles finds all the sweet spots; a likeable if not somewhat smug, henpecked husband, his witty life of contentment and country home insulation is turned topsy-turvy when he finds himself living with two wives – and his conflicted loyalties and emotions show. Syrgiannis brings a lovely, sharp-witted edge to Ruth, a feisty force to be reckoned with that turns jealous and desperate at Elvira’s appearance – and she finds herself at wit’s end as a result. Lamarre is spellbinding as the eccentric Arcati; a deeply committed, if not batty, medium who finds herself torn between the seriousness of the Condomines’ situation and sheer delight at the thrill of a complex and challenging case. Doyle is a bratty treat as Elvira; playfully coquettish and frolicking in the grey area of moral hygiene, there’s a spoiled child beneath that slinky exterior – and she’s got more on that ghostly mind than one might think. The Bradmans are an adorable, sophisticated couple: Proszowski’s Dr. George is an affable and sympathetic, with a dry wit and an efficient, take charge manner; and Keller brings a charming, indiscreet and irreverent air of humour to the slapdash Robert. And Edith may be a stuffed terrier, but she is abarkably sweet.

Deborah Frankel photo, iBlithe
Margaret Lamarre & Rosemary Doyle – photo by Deborah Ann Framkel

With big shouts to spooktacular stage manager Deborah Ann Frankel for all the multitasking, including running sound and lighting cues, and SFX (with the cast). And the recording used in this modern-day production for the séance scenes is both unique and fabulous.

Noel Coward classic gets a digital age makeover – and a dog – in Red Sandcastle Theatre’s delightful iBlithe.

iBlithe continues at Red Sandcastle today and runs till April 2; check the website for dates, times and ticket info. It’s an intimate space, so advance booking recommended.

 

A powerful exploration of violence & justice – 16Endean Collective’s all-female Julius Caesar

Julius-PosterThe 16Endean Collective opened their all-female production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar last night, to a packed house that quickly became a rapt audience. Directed by Jennifer Parr, the production is running now at Red Sandcastle Theatre.

Staged on a minimalist – but extremely effective – black and red t-shaped playing area (designed by Rosemary Doyle), with spare but beautiful costumes (Jan Venus) and few props (also by Doyle – and this is a swordless Julius Caesar – more on that later in the post), this production also features live percussion music by Morgan O’Leary. This Julius Caesar focuses on the power of Shakespeare’s words, and the actions and relationships of the characters. As Parr states in her director’s notes: At the centre of Julius Caesar is the question “When is it lawful to kill a tyrant; and what happens when you do?” And, so the characters and audience are taken on a gripping journey of violence and justice – and the consequences that emerge from those actions.

Julius Caesar features an excellent ensemble of female talent, including: (in alphabetical order): Françoise Balthazar, Catherine Bruce, Rosemary Doyle, Toni Ellwand, Ellie Ellwand, Elva Mai Hoover, Marcia Johnson, Llyandra Jones, Margaret Lamarre, Lise Maher, Maria Syrgiannis, Deborah Verginella, Andrea Verginella-Paina and Trudy Weiss.

Weiss is imperious and commanding as Julius Caesar, an arrogant, vain man threatened by the younger, more physically fit nobles and warriors around him. Toni Ellwand is compelling as Brutus – stalwart, wise and measured, with a strength of character and firm sense of fair play. Françoise Balthazar’s Cassius is the perfect complement in this friendship of brothers-in-arms, brash – at times impulsive – ambitious and driven; the former spurred by love of his country and the latter enraged at the disposal of undeserved power. Llyandra Jones gives us a young lion of a Marc Antony, as cunning a warrior as he is an orator – he would be a present-day king of spin. There are also a few women playing women: Deborah Verginella brings a Portia (Brutus’s wife) who is passionate, loyal and hard-pressed to learn what keeps her husband awake at night. Catherine Bruce’s Calpurnia (Caesar’s wife) is equally strong; possessed of visions and fiercely protective of her husband – as is Rosemary Doyle’s mysterious and insistent Soothsayer, warning Caesar of the Ides of March at the beginning of the play. All in all, a very fine cast – and excellent work all around; and judging from the surnames, we have a couple of related actors too (Brutus’s young servant Lucius is played by Toni Ellwand’s daughter Ellie, for instance).

As I mentioned earlier, there are no swords – or weapons of any kind – in this production; and I must admit, when I saw the assassination scene coming, I wondered how they were going to pull it off. Very convincingly, it turns out. Through some beautifully – and powerfully – choreographed action (by director Parr), the assassins mime their stabs, and the scene is bathed in red light as the act proceeds in slow motion, each player’s strike highlighted until the final, most startling in its poignancy, stab from Brutus. And so all the scenes of killing and suicide go – all through the strength of movement and a dramatic shift in lighting. And, given the intimacy of the space, no matter where you’re sitting, this all happens close to the audience. Nicely done!

The 16Endean Collective’s powerful production of Julius Caesar runs at Red Sandcastle Theatre until June 22, so you’d best get your tickets early – and be sure to note the 7:30 p.m. start time for evening performances. This is a production you won’t want to miss.

In the meantime, take a gander at my recent interview with actor Françoise Balthazar.

 

Interview with actor Françoise Balthazar – upcoming all-female Julius Caesar

Francoise headshot 1Françoise Balthazar is a Toronto-based actor who took on the role of Richard III in the Toronto Fringe (2006) all-female production Richard 3, Queens 4 (The Deadly Game), directed by Jennifer Parr. Now, in collaboration with Parr and many of the same cast members, Balthazar is playing Cassius in the 16Endean Collective’s all-female production of Julius Caesar, running for 11 performances at Red Sandcastle Theatre from June 11 – 22. I had the chance to interview Françoise Balthazar over email about the production – and doing these intense, violent plays with an all-female cast.

LWMC: Hi, Françoise. Thanks for taking the time to talk about Julius Caesar. You, Jennifer Parr and most of the cast worked together in an all-female version of Richard III in a Toronto Fringe 2006 production. What made you decide to tackle Julius Caesar – and when did the idea take root?

FB: Toni Ellwand, our producer/actor, who is portraying the role of Brutus, saw a production of an all-female Julius Caesar in England that greatly impressed her and which received outstanding reviews. Toni then met our director Jennifer Parr at a theatre gathering just before Christmas, and she shared her interest about mounting a Toronto production of Julius Caesar. Jennifer Parr, a Shakespearean director and scholar, was very keen on the idea and offered to direct the show. It has been an unusually fast process from concept to production.

LWMC: The thing that strikes me about all-female productions like this is that they balance out our perspective of human nature and behaviour – and we see that human beings, no matter what their sex, gender, etc., are capable of a wide range of action and reaction, including violence. Richard 3, Queens 4 explored violence as a means to gain power and position. How did the company go about exploring the relationship between violence and retribution in Julius Caesar?

FB: As actors, we had to explore the personal motivations behind every conspirator’s reasons for wanting to assassinate Caesar, which ranged from pure justice for the good of Rome, to vengeance against Caesar’s tyranny and, as in Cassius’ case, a mixture of personal envy and hatred for Caesar and tyranny itself to wanting to reestablish the legitimacy of the Roman Republic. One of the methods the conspirators used to explore all these issues was a short series of workshops in the Michael Chekhov technique given by Rena Polley, who is an actor and certified teacher in the Chekhov technique, exploring group dynamics and high stakes situation.

LWMC: And it’s all mixed with ambition and a desire to do what’s right, so it’s all very grey in Julius Caesar, and many of the characters who are acting with a righteous sense of retribution don’t have entirely pure motives. How did the company navigate those grey areas, along with the layers of deceit and betrayal?

FB: We began by delineating every character from a historical point of view, both as individuals and as members of Roman society at this specific moment in time. Then, as a company, we explored all the interconnecting personal relationships and the stakes involved in the revolutionary choices that so many of the characters make.

LWMC: Brutus is Caesar’s friend and a respected Roman – and Cassius believes his participation in the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar will add credibility to their cause and garner good public opinion. Cassius engineers Brutus’s involvement, to the point of fabricating notes of support from the public. And, even though he’s using Brutus, it’s clear that Cassius loves and values him a great deal. How did you approach these contrasting – and contradictory – sides of Cassius?

FB: Cassius is a very ambitious extremist, and his primary driving force is to make sure that Caesar is eliminated at any cost, including forging notes of support to ensure that Brutus commits to the conspiracy. Cassius also has a deep abiding love for Brutus because he is virtuous, just and a noble Roman. Cassius’ worth is recognized and validated by Brutus, which makes him all the more precious to him. Having a deep understanding of Cassius’ psychological drives and creating a backstory of this character, along with the insights drawn from the Michael Chekhov workshop that the company attended, allowed me to integrate these contrasting elements of Cassius.

LWMC: When someone commits an act of violence, even for a good cause, they are forever changed. Did that factor into the exploration of the play in this production?

FB: Yes, absolutely. From the beginning of our process, Jennifer Parr our director urged us to explore the question we see at the heart of the play and our production: Is it ever lawful to kill a Tyrant? And what happens if you do?

And, specifically, from Cassius’ perspective, the murder of Caesar liberates him and his fellow conspirators to become heroic figures in the fight against tyranny.

LWMC: Did the ensemble discover anything new about Julius Caesar throughout the process?

FB: Yes, the incredible amount of love and loyalty between characters, whether husband and wives, friends and fellow revolutionaries, and also the unexpected amount of comedy and humour in a play about such a serious topic.

LWMC: I imagine some personal discoveries also emerged. What can you tell us about that experience?

FB: Yes, it’s the first time that I’ve worked with Shakespeare’s First Folio text to such a degree, and I fully realize now how invaluable the clues that Shakespeare presents are incredibly useful to the actor. And, amazingly, speaking this empowering visceral dialogue that is usually reserved for men is a thrilling experience, and makes me feel more bold, expansive and powerful as a performer.

LWMC: What do you hope audiences will take away from this production of Julius Caesar?

FB: We hope they come away feeling that this play speaks to us now, as urgently as it did to Shakespeare’s audience, and that the question of how to change our society in extreme times is never an easy one.

Experiencing the play with an all-female cast, on a thrust stage surrounded by the audience, also brings a new perspective and fresh take on the story, the characters, and the ideas.

LWMC: What’s up next for you?

FB: At the present moment, I’m pouring my heart and soul into this production. Ask me again in three weeks’ time!

LWMC: Anything else you’d like to share?

FB: I’m hoping to take away the learning I experience in playing the complex, powerful and commanding role of Cassius into my future work as an actor. Also, I work as a voice-over artist and am very passionate about creating characters solely through the use of the voice. The virtue of playing Cassius potentially contributes to my work in animation voice-over, which calls for the ability of treating with a broad range of characters, the sophisticated use of breath control, and possessing a great vocal range.

LWMC: Thanks, Françoise!

The 16Endean Collective production of Julius Caesar ensemble includes (in alphabetical order): Françoise Balthazar, Catherine Bruce, Rosemary Doyle, Toni Ellwand, Ellie Ellwand, Elva Mai Hoover, Marcia Johnson, Llyandra Jones, Margaret Lamarre, Lise Maher, Maria Syrgiannis, Deborah Verginella, Andrea Verginella-Paina and Trudy Weiss. Julius Caesar runs at the Red Sandcastle Theatre June 11-22 (preview on June 11 and opening on June 12).