Toronto Fringe: Family, sacrifice & hope in the timely, heart-wrenching Seeking Refuge: A Musical Tragedy

Trisha Talreja, Jennifer Walls & Liana Bdewi in Seeking Refuge: A Musical Tragedy—photo by Dahlia Katz

Thick and Thin Theatre Productions presents Rick Jones’ timely and poignant musical Seeking Refuge: A Musical Tragedy. Directed by Barbara Larose, assisted by Ellen Green, with music direction/accompaniment by Robert Graham and stage management by Margot “Mom” Devlin, the Paul O’Sullivan Prize-winning show is running at the Randolph Theatre for Toronto Fringe.

Opening not with music but with the sounds of gunfire and bombs, we are thrown into a horrific world of civil war, where sisters Mara (Liana Bdewi) and Saleet (Trisha Talreja) have lost everything—except each other. In search of a safe place away from the bullets and collapsing buildings, they accept the help of family friend Tobim (Nabil Ayoub), a soldier fighting for the government who has connections with a man who can get them passage across the sea. Only able to afford one passage, Mara insists that her younger sister Saleet go, and plans to reunite with her sister when Saleet has settled somewhere safe. Their mother’s jewellery proves insufficient payment to the pirate Zaydal (Milton Dover, in multiple roles, including the Judge), and Tobim pledges to work security for him for a month.

During the sea voyage, Saleet meets Manu (Noah Beemer); he has papers, money and a lawyer aunt sponsoring him, while she has nothing. In a bargain that will benefit them both, she accepts his “on paper” marriage proposal, as it will be better for them both to be travelling as man and wife. Meanwhile, Tobim is taking out his displeasure at having to work for Zaydal on Mara, who is forced to become his slave in order to survive in the refugee camp. Raped and beaten, she never gives up hope that Saleet has made it to safety.

By the time Saleet and Manu get to his aunt’s (Jennifer Walls, in multiple roles), they have fallen in love; and with a baby on the way, they are granted refugee status and set about sponsoring Mara. Unfortunately, Mara’s application is denied; she’s been associated with Tobim, who’s been labelled a terrorist. They must find another way to bring Mara over—but will it work?

The music has a Western Asian flavour; and there are some particularly beautiful duets, especially between the sisters, and Saleet and Manu, with stand-out vocals from Talreja, Beemer and Walls (who also plays a UN refugee worker). News headlines come into an up-close and personal focus as we see the human stories behind the statistics. As this is a musical tragedy, there is heartache and grief—and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one with tears in my eyes.

Family, sacrifice and hope as separated sisters struggle for safety and reunion in the timely, heart-wrenching Seeking Refuge: A Musical Tragedy.

Seeking Refuge: A Musical Tragedy continues at the Randolph Theatre until July 16; see dates/times and get advance tickets online.

Facing death with dignity, humour & love in the thoughtful, sharply funny, moving A Better Place

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Rachel Cairns, Catherine Gardner, Ian Ronningen & Kris Langille in A Better Place – photo by Bruce Peters

LilyRose Productions opened Ramona Baillie’s A Better Place, directed by Barbara Larose, with assistant director Ellen Green, in the Factory Theatre Studio last night. Based on a true story, A Better Place takes us on the 14-month journey of a woman faced with a devastating medical diagnosis.

Stella Russo (Kris Langille) is an active 55-year-old who loves singing in her Catholic church choir and bowling in the community league. Then she learns that she has ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease)—a rapid degenerative neurological disease that attacks the nerves that control voluntary muscles—and her life, and perspective on death, changes drastically. There is no cure and she doesn’t have long to live.

As Stella works to cope with the side effects of chemo treatments and a body that’s no longer working properly, never knowing what’s going to go next and terrified of finding herself unable to breathe, her BFF Dee (Catherine Gardner), boyfriend Bill (Edward Heeley) and doctor daughter Kate (Rachel Cairns) must also come to terms with her ultimately fatal condition. Meanwhile, Kate is struggling with personal issues of her own; her focus on her work at the hospital has come at the expense of her marriage, leaving her musician husband Zack (Ian Ronningen) feeling abandoned.

When Stella decides she wants to die on her own terms, she encounters resistance from her neurologist Dr. Green (Jillian Rees-Brown), who insists she join a support group; and dogma from parish priest Father Perez (Isai Rivera Blas), who will withhold last rites and warns that she’ll forfeit her place in heaven. Her close friends and family have mixed feelings, and her young streetwise choir friend Chris (Ngabo Nabea) is willing to offer assistance, but even he’s only willing to go so far.

Nice work from the cast on this thought-provoking and poignant piece that doesn’t get too down on itself, with a script that’s infused with cheeky, at times dark, humour. Beyond various cast members merely schlepping furniture and props about, the staging has the ensemble gathering to assist in Stella’s transformation from health to disability.

Langille gives a marathon performance as Stella. Navigating the physical and emotional challenges of this devastating disease, Stella is a fighter who makes that final choice in the spirit of living with purpose and dying on her own terms.

Other stand-outs include Gardner’s wise-cracking Dee; a dear, loyal friend when times are tough, even the super positive, supportive Dee must come to terms with a sense of loss as Stella’s condition deteriorates. Cairns gives Kate a great sense of inner conflict; a surgeon who relies on logic and reason, she finds herself forced to feel tumultuous emotion as she braces herself for the inevitable death of her mother and works her way back into her marriage.

Ronningen brings a sweet, open-heartedness to Zack; supportive of Kate’s career, he’s troubled to find himself alone in their marriage—and he can only take so much isolation. And Nabea does a great job in two very different roles; as Chris, in a lovely two-hander scene with Stella as he realizes what she’s intending; and as the cynical bartender Rick, advising Zack to look long and hard at how Kate’s treating him.

With shouts to Rick Jones’ sound design, which features snippets of popular love songs played during the scene changes, with the song selections getting progressively more introspective and melancholy as the play progresses. And to stage manager Margot “Mom” Devlin for keeping it all together and moving along from the booth.

Facing death with dignity, humour and love in the thoughtful, sharply funny and moving A Better Place.

A Better Place continues in the Factory Theatre Studio until Dec 11; get your advance tix online or by calling 416-504-9971.

The run includes three special post-performance presentations:

Thurs, Dec 1: A panel discussion with lawyer Shelley Birenbaum and Dr. Fred Besik, moderated by Mardi Tindal, on the legality and morality of compassionate deaths.

Sun, Dec 4: Don Valley West MP Rob Oliphant, who is also Co-Chair of the House of Commons and Senate Special Joint Committee on Physician-Assisted Dying, joins the director, playwright and cast for a talkback.

Wed, Dec 7: Q&A with the director, playwright and cast.

Delightful comedy ensues as scandal & chaos erupt in a good English country home in Mr. Pim Passes By

Madeleine Kane & Steve Ness in Mr. Pim Passes By - photo by Jennifer Etches
Madeleine Kane & Steve Ness in Mr. Pim Passes By – photo by Jennifer Etches

Was out at the Village Playhouse last night to see the Village Players’ production of Mr. Pim Passes By, by A.A. Milne (yep, the one who wrote the Winnie the Pooh stories), directed by Barbara Larose, assisted by Ellen Green.

In her director’s notes, Larose describes the play as “a comic charmer filled with innocence and irony” – and she and a fine cast deliver on this assertion big time as the relative peace and quiet of George Marden’s (Rob Candy) country home in Buckinghamshire is set at sixes and sevens after some disturbing news from a visitor. The visitor, Mr. Pim (Steve Ness), passes along some news that could have a disastrous impact on George and Olive’s (Kathleen Jackson Allamby) marriage. Meanwhile, all George’s niece and ward Dinah (Madeleine Kane) wants to do is marry socialist artist Brian Strange (Daniel Carter), but George forbids it on the grounds of their youth, as well as Brian’s occupation and politics – and the young couple has joined forces with Olive to get George to reconsider.

Ness gives the unassuming Mr. Pim a nice befuddled and affable quality, not unlike Milne’s most beloved character Pooh. Kane is an adorably precocious and energetic chatterbox as Dinah, and has a sweet, playful chemistry with Carter’s charming and passionate abstract painter Brian. Candy’s George is comically stubborn, proper and set in his ways – not a bad or particularly harsh man, just an old-fashioned patriarch struggling with progress. Jackson Allamby is lovely as the modern, forward-thinking and infinitely patient Olive, who is artful but not conniving in her dealings with George’s obstinacy. And Barbara Salsberg’s Lady Julia Marden is the perfect picture of an imperious older aunt, commanding both respect and familial fear, but essentially sensible and pragmatic in action.

Rob Candy & Kathleen Jackson Allamby in Mr. Pim Passes By - photo by Jennifer Etches
Rob Candy & Kathleen Jackson Allamby in Mr. Pim Passes By – photo by Jennifer Etches

Add to that some good fun comic turns by the two maids – Shobha Hatte’s prim, stern and all-seeing Anne, and ASM Laura Conway as the younger, cheeky maid – and you have an all-around good time.

With shouts to the design team for their work in creating this idyllic 1919 morning-room world in the English countryside: Steve Minnie (set), Theresa Arneaud (costumes), John Cabanela (lighting) and Rick Jones (sound), with the talents of Kyra Millan on piano. And, as always, to Margot “Mom” Devlin, the intrepid SM/lighting op who keeps it all together and running smoothly.

Delightful comedy ensues as scandal and chaos erupt in a good English country home in Mr. Pim Passes By.

Mr. Pim Passes By continues its run at the Village Playhouse until October 3 – check here for scheduling and tickets.

An erotic, moving & sharply funny piece of storytelling in Aromas

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Andy Fraser in Aromas – photo by Tim Leyes

It was back to Alumnae Theatre last night, in the Studio this time for the world premiere of the Junes Company’s production of Aromas, written/directed by Andrew Faiz, and starring Andy Fraser. I saw this compelling one-person show when an earlier draft of the play was produced at Red Sandcastle Theatre in September 2014.

Aromas is a solo show that features an ensemble cast of characters, mainly Katalin and her alter-ego Chanel. Ice skater, dancer and party girl Katalin grows bored of her dream job performing with a Swan Lake touring company and stumbles upon the opportunity for a career change – and her working persona Chanel, a professional sex worker, is born.

Throughout her world travels and encounters with diverse people – some of whom have come from extremely harsh and horrific situations, including her Eastern European immigrant parents – Katalin finds herself able to see the world as it is while maintaining a sense of optimism and an ability to see beauty wherever she goes, and finding joy, connection and empathy in the people, flavours and scents she encounters. With the heart of an artist and the mind of a philosopher, not to mention a collection of readily available dialects and several languages, her work as Chanel goes beyond the mere exchange of sexual services for money. Sex is never just about sex. Chanel is a priest, a psychologist, a counsellor – not a girlfriend, but a girlfriend experience – with a strong commitment to being present physically, mentally and emotionally. And as Katalin struggles with her own sense of identity and longs for a story of her own, she finds that – far from being a means of avoiding herself and her world – Chanel is a way into herself. Into her own story.

Fraser’s performance is sexy, provocative, vivacious, deftly funny and wise. As we watch her character transitions – from Katalin, to her parents, to childhood friend Angela, to skating and dancing colleagues, to Chanel – the acting is truthful, engaging, immediate, present. Adult content aside, there is a lovely raw quality to Fraser’s work here in that it requires an incredible amount of emotional frankness and openness, not to mention guts.

With shouts to the design team: Richard Jones’ upbeat, cosmopolitan soundtrack; Brandon Kleiman’s sharp set (featuring a gorgeous backdrop wall of hotel room keys) and costumes designed for all Katalin’s/Chanel’s moods and styles; and Ed Rosing’s lighting design, which serves to move the scene, time and space transitions on an otherwise stationary space. And to the production’s intrepid stage manager Margot “Mom” Devlin, who’s running lights and sound, as well as the box office, for the run.

Aromas is an erotic, moving, sharply funny and thoughtful piece of storytelling – performed with heart, smarts and chutzpah by actor Andy Fraser.

Aromas continues at the Alumnae Studio until May 2. It’s a short run, so get your butts out there to see it. You can purchase advance tix through T.O. Tix; otherwise, it’s cash only at the door. You can also follow Aromas on Facebook.

You can check out production videos here. Here’s the promo vid:

A darkly funny & eerie look into the mind of Lizzie Borden in Blood Relations

Blood RelationsSo, first, a confession: I’d never read or seen Sharon Pollack’s Blood Relations. Not until last night, that is, at Alumnae Theatre Company’s opening night, directed by Barbara Larose, assisted by Ellen Green.

We are in the Borden home in Fall River, Massachusetts, 10 years after Lizzie Borden’s acquittal of the brutal double murder of her stepmother and father. Ragtime music fills the theatre and, in the dim pre-show lighting onstage, you can make out the main floor of the home: dining room and parlour, separated by a dark wood finish staircase. Down stage right is a pigeon coop; down left is a garden with a stone bench.

The ever present question: “Did you, Lizzie? Lizzie, did you?” sets the scene for a memory game of storytelling, played by Lizzie (Marisa King) and her friend/lover The Actress (Andrea Brown), taking the audience back in time to the circumstances leading up to the murder and trial. Adding to the ghoulish fun and intrigue, The Actress plays Lizzie in the flashback scenes, with Lizzie taking on the role of Bridget, the family’s maid.

We see Lizzie Borden as an unconventional woman out of place in a conventional household and society, her feelings of entrapment aptly illustrated – with shades of the macabre to come – by the empty red wire bird cage in the corner of the parlour. That trapped feeling comes to a boiling point for Lizzie when her stepmother’s brother Harry (Rob Candy) arrives to bargain with her father (Thomas Gough) over the family farm, a move that would see the farm willed to stepmother Abigail (Sheila Russell). And Lizzie’s older sister Emma (Kathleen Jackson Allamby) is more interested in absenting herself from the family strife than in saving their inheritance.

Larose has an excellent cast for this exploration of the famously accused and acquitted suspected murderess. King brings a quiet, slow burning intensity to Lizzie, and a sassy, firey mischief to the Irish maid Bridget. Brown is seductive and playfully dramatic as the beautiful extrovert Actress; and gives a sharp-witted, modern-thinking edge to her portrayal of the caged and frustrated Lizzie. Gough’s Andrew Borden is a disturbing, paradoxical combination of serious patriarch and doting father, capable of both extreme kindness and cruelty. Russell’s Abigail is a sturdy, practical and self-righteous housewife, but perhaps not above using her own family connections to gain power within her new family; and Candy brings a lovely ick factor to her snake-like brother Harry, a cunning man driven by avarice and giving no thought to his nieces’ futures beyond marrying them off. Jackson Allamby gives us an Emma who struggles to keep the family peace, but is terribly worn down by constantly being caught in the middle – put upon and wanting out as much as Lizzie, but lacking the rage to rouse herself to action. And Steven Burley does a nice job with his dual roles as the Defense and Dr. Patrick, the latter a particular delight as Lizzie’s charming and flirtatious friend and playmate, a married Irishman grappling with their complex relationship.

With shouts to the design and creative team: Margaret “The Costumator” Spence’s gorgeous period costume design, featuring Lizzie in hunter green and the Actress in deep purple; Ed Rosing’s magnificent set design, with its deep wood and sea foam green tones, and highlights of red throughout – realized by master carpenter Sandy Thorburn, with painting crew led by scenic artist Mark Cope – and lighting by Gabriel Cropley, especially effective in the carousel fantasy scene. With Razie Brownstone’s props selection, everyday household items like a silver tea service becoming projectile weapons – the civilized trappings of society covering darker emotions that lie just beneath the surface. And, of course, the ax. Speaking of, who doesn’t like a little Ragtime with their ax murder (thanks to Rick Jones’ sound design)? And to SM Margot “Mom” Devlin, who ran the lighting board and kept things moving along smoothly.

Did she? Alumnae Theatre’s Blood Relations is a sharply drawn, darkly funny and eerie look into the mind of Lizzie Borden – and the assumptions others have about her.

Blood Relations continues its run on the Alumnae mainstage until February 7. Alumnae usually does a talkback with the director, cast and creative team following the second matinée performance, so keep an eye out for that on Sunday, January 31. For ticket info and reservations, click here. Go see this.

A heartbreaking, erotic & darkly funny journey of identity & intimacy in Aromas

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Andy Fraser – photo by Tim Leyes

“Sex is never just about sex, it’s about so much more.”

The Junes Company* production of Aromas, written and directed by Andrew Faiz, and starring Andy Fraser, opened at Red Sandcastle Theatre last night.

Shifting between time, space and – possibly – reality, Aromas is a one-woman show, featuring two main characters (ice dancer Katalin and professional escort Chanel) and two supporting characters (Katalin’s immigrant mother and former schoolmate Angela), among others. Katalin resides in the past, recounting stories of the people, places and parties she’s experienced on tour. A traumatic childhood encounter with Angela and an ecstatic first time seeing Swan Lake with her mother were defining moments for her, flipping on a switch inside, directing her future path. Chanel talks about her life in the present; straightforward and professionally detached, her body is a commodity and its commercial activity allows her the experience of physical intimacy without the underlying baggage that accompanies romantic relationships. A grown-up Angela, still dealing with ongoing anger management issues, sees Katalin’s life as exciting and glamourous – and can’t help but take credit for being a catalyst for it.

The question of identity arises: are Katalin and Chanel the same person? Is Chanel a fantasy for Katalin – or an evolution of spirit? Katalin wonders herself, who is she – is she merely a product of her experiences, set on certain paths by critical life events? One of the most touching – and telling – lines from the play comes from Chanel: “The Kama Sutra is a book of prayers you do with your body. Even a broken body wants to pray.” Here, this reference touches on the true physical intimacy – and spirituality – of being totally present, as well as making reference to a severely disabled young client – and possibly even regarding Katalin. In the end, we see that, while Katalin is damaged, she is not broken; drifting and in need of closure, but not without hope.

Fraser gives a stunning performance. As Katalin, she is vibrant, vulnerable, irreverently funny and flirtatiously sexy, seizing the day and acting on instinct and, in some cases, impulse. Chanel is wry-witted and sophisticated, approaching her work in a detached and professional manner – but not without sensuality, empathy and compassion. Or is that Katalin? The performance is compelling in its character and time shifts – and the storytelling is gut-wrenching and deeply poignant, with hints of edgy humour.

Brandon Kleiman’s set, with boxed rows of hotel room keys as a backdrop, provides an visually appealing and versatile playing area for this production, the story unfolding nowhere and anywhere, past and present; and his costuming both distinguishes and describes the characters. Ed Rosing’s lighting provided atmosphere for the action, most notably some warm, sensual ambers, as well as cues to the shifts in time and scene. Sound designer Richard Jones built a soundtrack around contemporary pop and snatches from Swan Lake, and original composition, from incidental to industrial synth, nicely underscoring the storytelling. The sense of smell, a highly evocative key to memory, and what it perceives – hence, the play’s title – while not physically present, is highlighted in the text.

All of this is held together and kept running by the production’s intrepid stage manager Margot “Mom” Devlin (a name that Alumnae Theatre Company fans will recognize from countless shows there), who was multitasking as sound and lighting operator, as well as box office for the opening performance.

Aromas is a heartbreaking, erotic and darkly funny journey of identity and intimacy, a moving piece of non-linear storytelling, compellingly told.

Aromas runs at Red Sandcastle until October 4. You can purchase advance tickets online or at the door (cash only). And you can follow Aromas on Facebook.

*The Junes Company is “a flexible collective of comprised of professional theatre/film/TV performers, creators and producers.” Past shows include A Damn Fine Nite of Actors, an evening of short plays written, directed and performed by the “Monday Niters.” The company will be mounting a production of The Lion in Winter at Alumnae Theatre next year, directed by David Ferry, and featuring Shawn Lawrence and Rosemary Dunsmore.

A world on a stage – scenic work on The Lady’s Not For Burning @ Alumnae Theatre

Hey all –

As promised, here’s the slideshow extravaganza of the work for my recent scenic artist gig on Alumnae Theatre’s production of The Lady’s Not For Burning (designed by Ed Rosing).

Shouts to:

Building crew: Master carpenter Mike Peck, with additional construction by Cody Boyd, Paul Cotton, Gord Peck, Ed Rosing and Mike Vitorovitch.

Painting crew: Scenic artist (me), with Cody Boyd, Razie Brownstone, Joan Burrows, Margot Devlin, Ed Rosing and Dorothy Wilson.

The Lady’s Not For Burning is in its final week on the Alumnae mainstage, running tonight (Wed, Feb 5) through Saturday, February 8 at 8:00 p.m.

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