Rough & rowdy, it’s all guts & no glory in the funny, poignant, political The Gut Girls

They’re an unruly, foul-mouthed, hard-working, hard-drinking bunch ‘a gals—and their world is about to be turned upside down.

Alumnae Theatre starts off the New Year with its production of Sarah Daniels’ The Gut Girls, directed by Maya Rabinovitch. The Gut Girls is part of Alumnae’s Retrospective Series, leading up to its 100th anniversary next season.

The Gut Girls takes us to 1901, where the “gut girls” work in a gutting shed in the Foreign Cattle Market in Deptford, England. Paid good money, but working punishing hours in a foul environment—often up to their ankles in blood—it’s an offal job, but somebody’s got to do it.

Gut girls Polly (Alexandra Augustine), Ellen (Sarah Thorpe), Maggie (Kaya Bucholc) and Kate (Tasia Loeffler-Vulpe) take new girl Annie (Claire Keating) under their wing. Formerly in service, Annie found herself pregnant and fired, now living in a home for wayward women since the birth of her stillborn child—and finds friends, support and some new digs as she learns the ropes in the shed.

Enter do-gooder Lady Helena (Nicole Arends) with her friend Lord Edwin (Brendan O’Reilly) in tow. A self-appointed crusader for the downtrodden, especially working class women toiling in harsh conditions, she is instrumental in running a women’s club that teaches domestic skills and lady-like manners so women can transition into service. Through her friend Arthur (Mike Hogan), Lady Helena brokers an arrangement for the girls to be let off work an hour early on Thursdays, and garners the assistance of Arthur’s painfully shy wife Priscilla (Thorpe) to coax the girls to come to the club.

Hilarious times ensue, revealing class divisions and presumptions, as Lady Helena and Priscilla attempt to tame this wild group of young women. And when they learn that the sheds are to be shut down, their timing for training the women becomes all the more urgent—the gut girls are unemployable without new skills and ‘proper’ manners to recommend them. And the so-called gentlemen Edwin and Arthur prove to be not as gentlemanly as they appear, causing Maggie to quit the club and Priscilla to go on sick leave.

Struggling to learn new skills and find jobs, and with few prospects beyond the factories, pubs, service or the street, the gut girls have to take what they can get—and that means giving up their independence, dreams and even hope, in order to survive. Grimly circumspect about their situation, they’ve got the lady balls to take it, even though their hearts and spirits are broken.

Really lovely work from the ensemble, which shifts adeptly from comedy to drama throughout this compelling—not to mention timely—story. Augustine’s Polly is the roughest, toughest, biggest tomboy of the gang; she’s also a great jokester with a big heart. Thorpe (doing double duty as actor and co-producer) gives a strong, impassioned performance as Ellen, who tirelessly attempts to spread awareness of workers’ rights and the benefits of unionizing; as Priscilla, she blossoms from mousy wallflower to a caring and assertive mentor—a transformation that is quickly, and sadly, nipped in the bud by her bullying husband. Bucholc’s Maggie, like Polly, has a big heart under that devil-may-care attitude; a gut girl veteran, she’s supporting her mum and umpteen siblings—and must make a hard choice in order to keep life and limb together.

Loeffler-Vulpe’s Kate is a cheeky delight; one of the youngest gut girls, she’s an optimistic realist as she dreams big dreams and longs for a better life with her boyfriend Jim (O’Reilly). As new kid Annie, Keating gives us our introduction to the sights and smells of the gutting shed; formerly in a relatively comfortable job in service, Annie has first-hand experience of where ungentlemanly behaviour can put a young working class woman.

Arends is a formidable Lady Helena; on a single-minded mission to tame these rowdy young things into respectable young ladies, her lack of understanding and conditional respect for these women have unexpected, serious consequences. You know what they say about the road to hell. O’Reilly goes from clown to villain as Lord Edwin; a love-sick puppy following Lady Helena about, he turns his unwanted attentions to Maggie in a more forceful manner—with dire results for her. And he gives a sweet turn as Kate’s boyfriend Jim, who dreams of owning a toy shop. Hogan is an especially busy actor, playing four characters; notably the gruff gutting shed foreman Harry, barkeep Len (who has an eye on Maggie), and Priscilla’s controlling, devious husband Arthur.

With big shouts to the design team: Marysia Bucholc for the evocative, textured set (featuring scrubbed blood stains); Wendel Wray for the period costumes (especially the hats!); and Julie Skene for the entertaining period music (ranging from vaudeville to Scott Joplin).

Rough and rowdy, it’s all guts and no glory in the funny, poignant, political The Gut Girls.

The Gut Girls continues on the Alumnae Mainstage till February 4; for ticket info and online purchases, visit their website.

Special pre-show event in the lobby Jan 21 @ 6:45 pm: Prior to tonight’s performance, writer/performer and producer of the storytelling show Storystar Erin Rogers leads a group of storytellers as they relate tales of women’s and workers’ rights. Participants include Toronto-based writer, activist and social agitator Anne Thériault; United Church minister Evan Smith; and Seneca College and Second City storytelling instructor Sage Tyrtle.

Special pre-show event in the lobby Jan 26 @ 6:45 pm: President of United Steelworkers Local 8300 and the Steelworkers Toronto Area Council Carolyn Egan speaks about the rise of the labour movement and its impact on women in the workforce.

Photo by Ashley Elliot: Back – Nicole Arends. Front – Kaya Bucholc, Sarah Thorpe, Alexandra Augustine, Tasia Loeffler-Vulpe & Claire Keating

Powerful, moving & beautifully raw storytelling in I Am Marguerite

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Daniela Pagliarello & Christopher Oszwald in I Am Marguerite – photo by Bruce Peters

In 1542, banished from a French ship by a heartless, domineering brother, Marguerite de Roberval is set afloat on a skiff towards a remote island off the north coast of Newfoundland. With her are her faithful nurse and her lover Eugene. Left with scant provisions and in fear of never seeing home or loved ones again, they land on the Isle of Demons with the prospect of perishing in the face of cold, harsh winters and predatory wildlife.

This is the story, a little-known piece of Canadian history, brought to life on stage in an hour-long, emotionally and psychologically packed play by Shirley Barrie. This is I Am Marguerite, directed by Molly Thom – and it opened to a packed house at Alumnae Theatre last night.

The storytelling is taut and compelling, shifting in and out of memory and hallucination, and honed over the past decade and after having taken on various forms – from play to opera libretto back to play again – and executed by an excellent cast. As Marguerite, Daniela Pagliarello does a remarkable job of driving the story, not to mention a lovely job of capturing the youthful passion, lust for life, curiosity and rebellious streak of the young French noblewoman. Teetering on the edge of madness, struggling with physical, emotional and mental hardship, she vacillates between a ferocious fight for survival and a desperate surrender to the memories and faces that haunt her in her loneliness. And, like Marguerite, we often find ourselves wondering if the faces are real or imagined ghosts from her past.

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Top: Chris Coculuzzi, Heli Kivilaht & Sara Price. Bottom: Daniela Pagliarello & Christopher Oszwald – photo by Bruce Peters

Joining Pagliarello is an outstanding supporting cast. As Marguerite’s ambitious, older brother Jean-François, Chris Coculuzzi gives us a strong performance of a man as driven and strong-willed as his younger sister, but with a dark, cruel edge. Proud, controlling and manipulative, he is not above using those closest to him as a means to his own ends. Heli Kivilaht is a delight as Marguerite’s former nurse and present companion Damienne, a loving, nurturing and supportive soul with an irreverent, no-nonsense sensibility. Sara Price brings layers of warmth and genuine goodness to the otherwise imperious and proper Queen of Navarre. As Marguerite’s lover Eugene, Christopher Oszwald gives us a man of quiet strength, a romantic, and a lover of music and beauty who is willing to risk it all for the woman he loves. And the love and loyalty of Eugene and Damienne’s choice to be banished with Marguerite make subsequent events all the more heartbreaking.

With big shouts to a most excellent design team. Marysia Bucholc has created a magnificent, abstract set design – the layers and multi-dimensional, almost sculptural, landscape sharp and rippling outward, with eerie, weeping trees; and props by Razie Brownstone – the rocks, bones and rustic supply trunk – dress an otherwise barren space. The characters are honed and brought to brilliant living colour with stunning period costumes by Peter DeFreitas and Toni Hanson. Angus Barlow’s evocative sound design features haunting atmospheric composition by James Langevin-Frieson (who composed theme music for Marguerite, played at the beginning and the end of the play), as well as period dance and lute music, going from dulcet to frenetic as the music mirrors the fragility of Marguerite’s mind.

I Am Marguerite is a powerful, moving and beautifully raw piece of storytelling.

I Am Marguerite runs on the Alumnae Theatre mainstage until April 25, featuring a talkback after the matinée on April 19. Advance tickets available online or at the box office an hour before curtain time (cash only).

Here’s a little teaser by way of the show trailer. Go see this.

Department of Corrections: An earlier version of this post neglected to mention that the original music included in Angus Barlow’s sound design was composed by James Langevin-Frieson. This has since been corrected.

Magic & mayhem in a small town – Alumnae Theatre’s The Killdeer

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A rural kitchen with lavender walls, wallpapered below the chair railing on one side and paneled with different cuts of wood on the other. An open doorway reveals a pantry, shelves full of mason jars of colourful preserves. Up centre, a tree sprouts, covered in all manner of porcelain knick-knacks – a tea pot, glass animals – instead of leaves. Through the window, a portion of it cut away, vines enter from the outside world, and we get the stage right view of white birches, giant bull rushes and the beginning of a glittering green swamp.

Marysia Bucholc’s set is the audience’s introduction to the world of the Alumnae Theatre Company’s production of James Reaney’s The Killdeer, directed by Barbara Larose, with assistant director Ellen Green, part of Alumnae’s “Countdown to 100” retrospective programming as it approaches its 100th anniversary (it’s 95 now). Reaney’s play, which came about due to the encouragement of late director and Alumnae member Pamela Terry, had its premiere at Alumnae in 1960 (back when it was located on Bedford Road) and was directed by Terry – and it launched Reaney’s career as a playwright.

In this seemingly quaint country town – part rural gothic, part fairy tale place – with a mysterious and violent history, this kitchen in the Gardner home is a whimsical oasis of innocence. Through prose that is at times vernacular, at others poetic, storytelling and gossip, The Killdeer takes us on an intense, dramatic – and at times magical – journey into the lives and secrets of its characters.

Like me, you may be asking, what the heck is a “killdeer”? The press release for the production provides a helpful definition: a killdeer is “a small bird, known for feigning a broken wing to draw predators away from its nest, which is built on open ground, and for calling out its own name.” Sound designer Rick Jones incorporates the call of the killdeer into the production, along with musical touches of whimsy, mystery and drama, inspired by the original production’s sound design by John Beckwith.

The Killdeer features a very strong cast. Tricia Brioux’s Madam Fay is a deliciously arch, darkly comic and dangerously crazy lady with issues, while Tricia’s real-life nephew Matt Brioux (playing Madam Fay’s son) rounds out Eli’s seemingly simple-minded, childlike behaviour with good sense and a good heart. Rob Candy does evil up good as Clifford, a notorious piece of work whose menacing character rivals even that of Madam Fay. As Mrs. Gardner, Anne Shepherd combines a sense of rural tradition and individual quirkiness as Harry’s bric-a-brack collecting, overprotective mother, while Marie Carrière Gleason is great fun as Mrs. Gardner’s gossipy neighbour Mrs. Budge. Paul Hardy offers a nice transition as Harry goes from wide-eyed innocent teenager to a good man searching to find his way and save the true love of his life; and Blythe Haynes is lovely as Rebecca, a lost innocent like Harry, protective of those she loves even to her own detriment. Naomi Vondell adds some nice layers of mystery to the put upon Jailer’s wife Mrs. Soper, left to manage the cells while her husband is away. In their multiple roles, Michael Vitorovich is delightfully evil as the Hangman and comically officious as the Judge; Joanne Sarazen is especially entertaining as the mercurial Crown attorney and Tina McCulloch – doing quadruple duty playing two characters, as well as marketing/publicity and co-producer – gives a nice comic turn as courthouse cleaning lady Mrs. Delta. Peter Higginson’s enigmatic physician turned hermit Dr. Ballad is both gently wise and sharply funny.

Razie Brownstone’s costumes, and prop team’s Tess Hendaoui and Deborah Roed detailed touches, make for a lovely combination of realism and once upon a time. And Ed Rosing’s lighting design ranges from the clever (the box-like light on the floor for the witness stand in the courtroom) and magical (the lighting on the swamp and the twinkley lights on the walls of the set that burst out into the back of the house). All held together by intrepid SM/lighting op Margot “Mom” Devlin and her ASM team. Shouts also to co-producer Lynne Patterson and opening night catering mistress Sandy Schneider – and to Suzanne Courtney at Ticking Time Bomb Productions for the graphic design work on the poster (and for the entire season).

This was one crazy trip. And The Killdeer leaves the audience talking.

The Killdeer runs on the Alumnae Theatre main stage until April 27, with a talkback following the April 21 matinée. In the meantime, check out this Hye’s Musings blog interview with director Barbara Larose.