Mothers, daughters & the nature of power & leadership in the electric, razor-sharp Mother’s Daughter

Shannon Taylor & Fiona Byrne. Set & costume design by Lorenzo Savoini. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Soulpepper brings the Stratford Festival production of the final installment of Kate Hennig’s remarkable trilogy—exploring the Tudor period from the perspectives of its most famous and powerful women—to the Young Centre with the electric, razor-sharp Mother’s Daughter, directed by Alan Dilworth. Mary Tudor (aka Bloody Mary), who become the first female monarch of England, struggles with both inner and outer conflict—living in the shadow of her formidable, beloved mother Catalina (Catherine of Aragon), and up against her popular, cunning sister Bess (Elizabeth I) and young, naive cousin Lady Jane Grey to gain and maintain the crown during a great period of upheaval and uncertainty following her brother Edward’s death. Exploring mother/daughter relationships, and the nature of leadership and power, it’s an intensely compelling portrait of trust, alliance, betrayal and grit.

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Shannon Taylor & Andrea Rankin. Set & costume design by Lorenzo Savoini. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Teenaged King Edward VI has died, and has disinherited his sisters Mary (Shannon Taylor) and Bess (Jessica B. Hill), and—guided by John Dudley—named their 16-year-old cousin Lady Jane Grey (Andrea Rankin) as his successor; Jane just happens to be Dudley’s daughter-in-law and claims to have no desire for the crown. Bess and Mary are having none of it, and a three-way battle for the throne ensues, with nobles and common folk alike taking sides and declaring loyalties. Initially refusing to use violent means to get what she wants, Mary chooses to use her voice and the power of reason as a means to appeal to and win over her adversaries.

With early confrontations going her way, Mary wins the crown—and begins the hard work of strategizing her reign with the assistance of personal advisors Bassett (Beryl Bain) and Susan (Maria Vacratsis), with diplomat Simon (Gordon Patrick White) guiding her through protocol and procedure. Also in Mary’s corner is her deceased mother Catalina (Fiona Byrne), who—through Mary’s memory and inner voice—appears, urging a decisive, iron grip approach, particularly when it comes to dealing with adversaries and restoring the Catholic faith to England. Added to the mix in Mary’s deliberations is Catalina’s nemesis Anne Boleyn (Hill), Bess’s mother, who wielded power in her own visceral way, in direct opposition to Catalina (and Mary’s) more cerebral approach. And throughout all the fireworks and debates between her various advisors, Mary grapples with her own sense of self-doubt and confidence as she strives to come to terms with her newly acquired power and responsibility. All the while, dealing with physical pain, Mary clutches her lower abdomen throughout—highlighting the pressures of producing an heir in her late 30s, and foreshadowing the (likely) ovarian or uterine cancer that contributed to her death at 42 during a flu epidemic.

Stunning performances from this largely female cast. Taylor does an outstanding job with Mary’s complexity and inner conflict; gutsy, determined and ambitious, Mary wants to be a moderate ruler, but finds she must steal herself to best confront personal and national threats. Living in the shadow of her mother Catalina, Mary is also both haunted and dogged by an extremely complicated mother/daughter relationship; both longing for love and approval while fighting Catalina’s harsh judgment, and determined to do things her own way even as she navigates her own second guessing and conflicting advice from counsellors. Byrne is an imposing, regal presence as the imperious Catalina; constantly pushing Mary to be the best monarch she can be, Catalina is laser-focused and brutally honest—holding no punches as she advises her daughter.

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Shannon Taylor & Jessica B. Hill (as Anne). Set & costume design by Lorenzo Savoini. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Hill’s Bess exudes a cock-sure confidence and comfort in her own skin that Mary struggles to possess; exceedingly cunning and at ease with her power, Bess knows without a shadow of a doubt that she was meant to rule. Hill brings a fierce sensuality to the self-possessed Anne, making it easy to see the source of Bess’s passion and fire. Rankin’s sweet, naïve Jane stands in stark contrast to the ambitious Mary and Bess; a seeming innocent who professes no desire for the crown, Jane has been groomed for the throne—by a third mother figure who we don’t see here—and finds she must admit that maybe she does really want it after all.

Bain’s edgy, young spin master Bassett and Vacratsis’ measured, cautious veteran advisor Susan serve as perfect foils for each other—with Bassett representing Mary’s fight response and Susan the flight response. Rounding out Mary’s official council is the prim and proper diplomat Simon, who White infuses with a deadpan, stern schoolteacher-like countenance; the result is sometimes comic, but Simon also stands in for the male perspective here. Downplaying Mary, Bassett and Susan’s debates as “woman’s chatter”, Simon is a most reluctant and skeptical member of Mary’s inner circle. There is no precedent for a female monarch—and, like many men and even some women, Simon highly doubts that a woman is fit to rule.

The action is nicely supported by Lorenzo Savoini’s sharp, minimalistic set and stunning costumes, which combine a sense of the period with that of the 21st century; and complemented by Kimberly Purtell’s startling, edgy lighting design.

Winning hearts and minds, and reconciling the inner struggle between the kind of ruler one wants to be and the kind of ruler one needs to be. Difficult times require difficult decisions—and those in power must also do battle within themselves, even going against their own nature, to be the kind of leader they are required to be.

Mother’s Daughter continues at the Young Centre and must close on February 9; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188. Get on those advance bookings to avoid disappointment.

In the meantime, check out the trailer:

 

 

Tea time at the end of the world in the surreal, intimate, unsettling Escaped Alone

Clockwise, from bottom left: Brenda Robins, Clare Coulter, Maria Vacratsis & Kyra Harper. Set & costume design by Teresa Przybylski. Lighting design by Jennifer Lennon. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper and Necessary Angel, with an all-female cast and production team, take us to the edge of calamity—in a suburban backyard where four 70-something neighbours chat over tea before the impending apocalypse—with the Canadian premiere of Caryl Churchill’s surreal, intimate and unsettling Escaped Alone, directed by Jennifer Tarver and running at the Young Centre.

Gathered in a backyard, Mrs. Jarrett (Clare Coulter), Vi (Brenda Robins), Lena (Kyra Harper) and Sally (Maria Vacratsis) share gossip, memories and catch up. There are children and grandchildren to update about, and changes to the landscape of local shops to recall and relay—especially for Vi, who’s been away for six years. And amidst the candid and intimate conversation, where one can finish another’s sentence and the short-hand is such that sentences sometimes don’t even need to be finished, each woman breaks out to share her inner world. Her fears, her regrets, her reminiscences.

It is in these moments that we see another side of these otherwise sociable, animated women. Mrs. Jarrett is a walking, talking 21st century Book of Revelations, in which the everyday and the terrifying combine in an absurd, horrific and dark-humoured alchemy. Vi, a hairdresser by trade, may or may not have killed her husband in self-defence; and, while Sally acknowledges the complexity of their situation, she has a different take on that fateful moment. Sally struggles with her own demons: her efficacy in her career as a health care professional and her fear of cats. And the sensitive Lena looks back on her life as an office worker with mixed feelings of vague, wistful regret and amazement at time flown by.

Told through a collage of conversation, memory, musings and peaks into these women’s interior lives, the mundanity and complexity of everyday life—juxtaposed with the absurdity of meeting over tea in the face of impending catastrophe—is both darkly funny and chilling. The uncertainty of what comes next—whether it’s impending calamity threatening the world at large or the aging mind in a life of transition—while these four women are gathered together in friendship, each faces her mortality alone.

Compelling, sharply drawn work from the ensemble, from Coulter’s grouchy, pragmatic Mrs. Jarrett; to Robins’ edgy, irreverent Vi; Harper’s nervous, child-like Lena; and Vacratsis’ earnest, uneasy Sally. Teresa Przybylski’s minimalist set combines four ordinary, but different, chairs with hundreds of white paper birds, frozen in murmuration, suspended above; and is nicely complemented by Verne Good’s understated, haunting sound design. The effect is magical, disturbing and ultimately theatrical.

Escaped Alone continues at the Young Centre until November 25. Get advance tickets online or call the box office: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

Check out the production teaser:

And have a look at this great Intermission piece by actor Maria Vacratsis, as told to Bailey Green.

Hamlet as you’ve never seen it in the haunting, beautiful ASL/English adaptation Prince Hamlet

Christine Horne as Hamlet in Prince Hamlet—photo by Bronwen Sharp

 

Why Not Theatre mounts Ravi Jain’s exciting bilingual (ASL and English) adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet with its production of Prince Hamlet, directed by Jain; and currently running at the Theatre Centre.

This production has already been garnering some well-deserved buzz. Not only does Prince Hamlet make the Shakespeare classic accessible for Deaf audiences, it addresses issues of diversity and inclusion in casting, particularly for the largely white, male, Eurocentric, and hearing, classics. Jain’s text adeptly shifts scenes (Horatio’s speech to Fortinbras, usually seen at the end of the play, is used as an introduction, with Horatio addressing the audience), and effectively interweaves scenes of action with those of corresponding exposition (Horatio and the guards encountering/reporting of the ghost, as well as moments/reports of Hamlet’s erratic behaviour) in an engaging and theatrical way. We also see scenes from different perspectives—and it’s all performed by an outstanding ensemble of actors, with female actors taking on a number of male roles and a male actor playing Ophelia.

The program provides a handy synopsis of the play, which I will not replay here; if you need a refresher or you’re new to Hamlet, you can also check out the Wikipedia page. What is remarkable about this production is that Horatio (played by Deaf actor Dawn Jani Birley) is featured prominently; our narrator, he is both witness to and interpreter of (signing much of the text) Hamlet’s (Christine Horne) story. ASL is incorporated into the dialogue in a seamless, inclusive way that reveals relationships, in that Horatio is understood by Hamlet when he signs, and Hamlet communicates with him in both English and ASL. In many respects, the story is told from Horatio’s point of view—culminating in that fateful final scene where the dead outnumber the living and, one of the few still standing, Horatio bids a tearful farewell to his friend.

Joining Birley and Horne for this journey of revenge, reflections on mortality and tragedy are Miriam Fernandes (Rosencrantz, Player King, Gravedigger), Jeff Ho (Ophelia), Hannah Miller (Guildenstern, Player Queen), Rick Roberts (Claudius), Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah (Laertes), Karen Robinson (Gertrude) and Maria Vacratsis (Polonius); all actors play their respective characters as originally written and all introduce themselves in ASL at the top of the show. These are actors playing characters, and regardless of gender casting, each brings a grounded, genuine and unique interpretation of the person they’re playing. And this cast looks like the people we see every day in our city.

Horne gives us a compelling and moving Hamlet, bringing a fragile edge to his melancholy, countered by a sharp, wry sense of humour. This adaptation has Horne also playing the ghost of Hamlet’s father, an interesting choice that evokes dark moments of possession. A bashful and cheeky romantic in love with Ophelia, playful and candid with his bosom friend Horatio, and poetic in his philosophical inner debates on revenge and mortality, this is a Hamlet for the 21st century.

PRINCE HAMLET-Dawn Jani Birley as Horatio-photo Bronwen Sharp
Dawn Jani Birley as Horatio—photo by Bronwen Sharp

Birley’s complex, conflicted Horatio is both a part of and witness to the tragedy that unfolds. Also acting as our host and guide, Horatio signs his dialogue and translates the text into ASL throughout, including some brilliant comic relief during one of Hamlet’s encounters with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. She gives a gripping interpretation of the fight scene between Hamlet and Laertes, and her “Goodnight, sweet Prince” is both beautiful and heart-breaking.

As Gertrude, Robinson brings a sharply drawn evolution to the relationship with Claudius, from giddy in love to devastated and horrified. Concerned for the welfare her son throughout, Gertrude finds herself faced with a choice between her new husband and her son. Roberts gives us a big, lusty Claudius; living the dream until he’s called out by Hamlet’s carefully crafted play presentation. In a moving and tortured prayer scene, dejected and unable to repent, Claudius realizes he’s unwilling to give up the spoils of his crime, resorting to further treachery and cover-ups.

PRINCE HAMLET-(standing) Karen Robinson as Gertrude, Rick Roberts as Claudius, (kneeling) Jeff Ho as Ophelia, Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah as Laertes-photo Bronwen Sharp
Foreground: Jeff Ho as Ophelia & Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah as Laertes; Background: Karen Robinson as Gertrude & Rick Roberts as Claudius—photo by Bronwen Sharp

Ho is lovely as the playful, but delicate Ophelia, whose descent into madness is both heartbreaking and disturbing. Vacratsis is hilariously wordy and sharply academic as Polonius; decidedly not a man of few words, he nevertheless has wisdom to impart, as evidenced in his famous advice to Laertes. And Roberts-Abdullah gives Laertes a fierce edge under that affable, good son exterior; belly full of fire, he’s hell-bent on revenge for his father and sister, but never loses his sense of fairness.

Fernandes and Miller do a great job juggling multiple roles; Fernandes is great fun as the impudent, philosophical Gravedigger and Miller brings a sense of sass to Hamlet’s pal Guildenstern.

With big shouts to the design team for their rich, evocative work on this production: Lorenzo Savoini (set and costumes), André du Toit (lighting) and Thomas Ryder Payne (sound).

Hamlet as you’ve never seen it in the haunting, beautiful ASL/English adaptation Prince Hamlet.

Prince Hamlet continues at the Theatre Centre until April 29; get advance tickets online.

Check out this conversation (in ASL and English, with subtitles and interpreter voice-over) between director Ravi Jain and actor Dawn Jani Birley for Intermission Magazine.

Funny as hell & sh*t gets real in the socially sharp, outrageously funny Late Night

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Kat Letwin & Alon Nashman in Late Night – photos by John Gundy

Moses Znaimer and Kat Sandler have teamed up for Zoomer LIVE Theatre’s inaugural production, the debut of Sandler’s Late Night (winner of Toronto Fringe 24-hour playwriting contest), currently running in ZoomerHall – a new space that will serve as a launch pad for intimate, multi-media indie productions. Located in a Liberty Village complex that’s also home to ZoomerMedia, ZoomerHall is part of ZoomerPlex (70 Jefferson Ave., Toronto), a multi-media production and event space.

Directed by Sandler, and produced in partnership with Theatre Brouhaha, Late Night opened on Thanksgiving weekend; I caught the show last night. As we enter the space, we’re greeted by the painfully shy intern Davey (Michael Misu), and a couple of audience members are invited to ask Marty some pre-programmed questions.

After 22 years hosting The Early Late Show, Marty O’Malley (Alon Nashman) is leaving the chair to young, fresh comic talent Sarah Goldberg (Kat Letwin), with a surprise reveal planned in his final show, broadcast live for the first time in the show’s history.

When the running order of the guests has to be changed, the reveal comes early. And when Sarah makes a joke about her and Marty, all hell breaks loose, exploding on social media and forcing longstanding exec producer Alanna (Maria Vacratsis) into emergency measures to appease a titillated and scandalized audience, and a confused bunch of network execs, pushing Sarah into a co-host position for the remainder of the show.

And when Sarah and Marty crack open Marty’s retirement present and begin chatting with guest Kevin Lee Hicks (Nigel Downer), things get really crazy – and the crazy gets turned up to 11 when Marty’s actress wife Vivienne Lawrence (Rachel Jones) shows up.

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Michael Misu, Maria Vacratsis & Rachel Jones in Late Night

Sandler’s script goes for the jugular, hitting all the nasty facets of show business: ageism, sexism, racism, sizeism, homophobia and the myth of heteronormative, traditional relationships; not to mention sex scandals and the exploitation of disease-battling kids turned celebrities. The main event here is Boomer versus Millennial, and she’s got an outstanding, kick-ass ensemble for this wild and wacky ride – all nicely balancing the funny with the real.

Nashman hits all the notes as Marty; classic inappropriate Boomer white guy, in the tradition of Letterman, O’Malley is magnanimous an even a bit verklempt on camera as he bids farewell to a job he loves. Nashman provides some nice layers of hurt and bitter, as O’Malley’s external calm collapses into rage. As Millennial comic Sarah, Letwin is a natural-born smart-ass; she does a really nice job mining the conflicting emotions of this moment for Sarah, who’s thrilled to be taking over the show and scared to death at the same time. She’s made a name for herself as an unashamed and out there comedienne, and masks her discomfort with an irreverent bravado. Vacratsis is a scary delight as Alanna; a hilarious combination of cheerleader and dragon lady, she’s been with the show for years and will do whatever it takes to keep it alive. Musi is adorkably funny as the socially awkward intern Davey; forced out of his comfort zone on a number of occasions, his reward is the care and feeding of Vivienne, who he goes fan boy gaga over.

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Nigel Downer & Rachel Jones in Late Night

Downer is entertaining and compelling as actor Kevin Lee Hicks; a gay black man who’s come to fame by playing cool grandma Mama Jones (who we also get to meet) on the big screen, Hicks is unapologetic, sharp-witted, resourceful and opportunistic. Jones is both a laugh riot and deeply poignant as Vivienne Lawrence; an actress in her mid-forties now relegated to mom roles, she’s struggling with her career and her marriage, and gutted that her kids get drawn into the gossip about her and Marty.

ZoomerHall is the perfect venue for this production. The studio audience sound stage set takes Late Night beyond site-specific and into immersive theatre, complete with cameras and live video monitors.

Funny as hell and shit gets real in the socially sharp, outrageously funny Late Night. My ass was laughed off. Get yourself on over to ZoomerHall to see this

Late Night continues at ZoomerHall until October 23. Check out show dates and get your advance tix online.

The power of the quantifiable meets the strength of the immeasurable in HER2

HER2-header-finalWhen you see an image of HER2, you’re struck at how remarkably – and surprisingly – beautiful it is, like a Valentine’s heart with a single foot on point. Feminine. Ballerina-like.

Maja Ardal’s HER2, directed by Kim Blackwell for Nightwood Theatre, opened its world premiere run at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre this week – the play named for the gene that plays a role in the development of a specific type of breast cancer, and set in a human clinical trial for a new drug.

Dr. Danielle Pearce (Nancy Palk) has had success in the lab treating mice, and has the green light and funding to start a human trial. She takes on PhD student Kate (Bahareh Yaraghi) as her research assistant and starts treating a group of specially selected women – women who have run out of treatment options. The play focuses on a subgroup of seven women; they come from various walks of life and ethnic backgrounds, and most are 40 to 60 years old. One is only 19.

HER2 is a multidisciplinary, multimedia production, incorporating projected images (by Denyse Karn) both real and magical – microscopic cells, female anatomy, CT scans, rays of light and photos of the participants – as well as choreographed movement (by actor Monica Dottor) that beautifully and expressively sets the process of examination and administration to motion.

Blackwell has a stellar cast for HER2. Palk brings a nice blend of humanity and wry humour to the prickly Dr. Pearce, a brilliant and ambitious clinician who’s better with rodents than she is with humans. Yaraghi’s Kate is bubbly and wide-eyed with youthful energy, highly intelligent and interested in the medicine, but particularly invested in the people – she is the bridge between the science and the human touch of the trial. Kyra Harper gives an earthy warmth to the pragmatic dairy farmer Frances, the participant with the most aggressive cancer who literally and figuratively becomes the touchstone of the group. Chick Reid gives a lovely layered performance as Naomi, the chilly and sharp-witted academic who finds she needs more than ciggies and scotch to get through this. Maria Vacratsis is irreverently funny and overflowing with positive vibes as Gloria, the group den mother. Diana D’Aquila is beautifully fragile and sweet as the child-like housewife Daphne, a joyfully expressive bundle of collegial dynamism. Brenda Kamino brings the spirit of open-minded wisdom and support to Melissa (Minnie), a natural medicine practitioner, when she’s not a trial participant – always willing to lend a hand and a cup of stinky herbal tea. Monica Dottor is wonderful as the vivacious and stubborn Charlene, an actress and mother of a young child who makes the risky decision of choosing the trial over a hysterectomy in hopes of having more children one day. Olunike Adeliyi does a remarkable job with the complex young Anya, the baby of the group – a hip and tough as nails, scared kid – full of rage, but willing to relinquish her lone wolf detachment to fully participate, and regain a sense of sociability and community. And Ellora Patnaik brings a spunky take-charge sass to Nurse Gabby; excellent at her job, unafraid of drawing boundaries – and full of surprises – as she suffers no fools on her turf, the treatment room.

What these women all have in common – patients and practitioners alike – is drive, fight, courage and hope. And the greatest of these is hope.

With shouts to Julia Tribe’s design: each participant is represented with a pedestal and microscope up along the catwalk, and each has a modular chair and IV pole, which Dottor also includes in the choreography. And a very effective use of voice-over, with a flat and clinical male voice, distant and detached, querying the participants on medical history and trial survey questions.

The power of the quantifiable meets the strength of the immeasurable as science and community join forces in HER2. Seriously – go see this.

In the meantime, take a look at some great profile pieces in the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star and NOW Magazine. You can also check out Nightwood’s YouTube channel for interviews with the HER2 folks – here’s the trailer:

HER2 continues at Buddies until February 1. Last night’s house was packed, so you may want to book ahead online. The production run also features Talkback Wednesdays (Jan 21 & 28) and panel conversations after the matinee performances (Jan 17 and 31). And HER2 has partnered with the Feminist Art Conference (FAC) to include a photography exhibit by Carol Mark.