Creatures of myth & memory in the playful, pointed, evocative Cryptids: Prose-Poetry from Creatures of Memory

Cover art from Cryptids: Prose-Poetry from Creatures of Memory by Dee Sparling     

dee original smallDee Sparling is a local Toronto poet/spoken word artist and singer. We’ve been friends for about 16 years, and folks who frequented Lizzie Violet’s Cabaret Noir, either at Q Space or The Central, will recognize Sparling, who performed poetry and a cappella songs during the open mic spots. She’s previously self-published two poetry collections, Sol Believers: Prose-Poetry from the Orion Spur and Freedom Codes: Prose-Poetry from Empires Within, and has recently published Cryptids: Prose-Poetry from Creatures of Memory.

In the Author’s Note, Sparling describes Cryptids as playing “upon the concept of nostalgia and the role it takes in shaping personal and societal narratives,” as well as featuring “various types of mythical beasts and conjurings.” Cryptids as pieces of memory, and also as mythical creatures and monsters.

Cryptids is a magical, evocative collection of 16 poems, woven with rich, textured language that includes ancient biblical (“Ecce Venus” and “Gethsemane”) and mythological (the nod to the Kraken in “Fimbulwinter”), as well as political and natural, references. Reading these poems, one gets the feeling of being gathered around a campfire, hearing tales both fictional and non-fictional—especially “Credit Valley Cryptids (A Final Goodbye),” which conjures up reminiscences of a different time and place with its compass-eye view of ghosts, shades of history and natural landmarks.

Some of the pieces are playful in their observations, taking the point of view of the creatures themselves (“The Underground” and “Memory and the Moray Eel”) or ponder the situation of a creature (“Sparrow without a Care”). And “Painted Desert” portrays the otherworldly, deadly beauty of a landscape with a cheeky, Wild West flavour—the High Noon of the cacti—while drawing a metaphor for the will to thrive and live, coupled with warnings of more parched earth on the horizon.

The cautionary tone continues into space with “Centaurus Loves Cassiopeia,” highlighting humanity’s sense of entitlement with the line “Earth, thy vanity begins… with the licking of your lips;” into the digital realm in “Troll Bytes” and the perception of power in a world of ongoing obsolescence.

Creatures of politics aren’t spared in the pointed and sharply funny “A Day in the Counter-Revolution,” a satirical evolution of man as political animal. Or was it all a dream? And ruminations on the younger generation and nature take on an introspective, speculative tone in “Millennial Breeze” and “Nature Remembers You.”

Words that paint pictures, reminding us of how tricky memory and perception can be—and how these combine to create our own mythology.

Creatures of myth and memory in the playful, pointed, evocative Cryptids: Prose-Poetry from Creatures of Memory.

Keep an eye out for Dee Sparling at Toronto poetry/spoken word events.

Heart vibrations as the dead weave tales reminding us to live in the inspirational, uplifting Spoon River

Spoon River ensemble—photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

 

Is your soul alive?

As we make our way into the theatre, we find ourselves entering the funeral of Bertie Hume; filing past old family portraits and rows of headstones as we make our way out of the funeral parlor and into the cemetery. We are greeted by funeral home attendants and, possibly, friends and family of the deceased.

This is our introduction to Soulpepper’s immersively staged Spoon River, based on Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology poetry collection, and adapted by Mike Ross and Albert Schultz for the stage, with music composed by Ross. A remount of this beloved, award-winning show is currently running in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre, located in Toronto’s Distillery District.

As Bertie Hume is left to her eternal rest, former citizens of the town—now “asleep” in the cemetery on the hill—emerge to share their stories with us, the passersby. Set in small-town America, the lives, loves, joys and pain of its people are revealed with memories, regrets, confession; at times harrowing (“Fire”), hilarious (“Couples” and “Drinking”) and heartbreaking (“Mothers and Sons”). The quirks, the humanity, the secrets and betrayals—all interwoven with poetry, spoken word, music and song, as we get snapshots of the people they once were.

The remarkable, multitalented ensemble plays and sings, with rousing, foot-stomping sounds and gorgeous, resonant harmonies in a collection of blue grass and gospel-inspired songs. Stand-out soloists include Alana Bridgewater, Hailey Gillis (as Bertie Hume), Miranda Mulholland, Jackie Richardson (“Widow McFarlane”) and Daniel Williston (“Fire”). Soulpepper veterans Oliver Dennis and Diego Matamoros bring stellar character work, as do Raquel Duffy, Stuart Hughes, John Jarvis and Michelle Monteith. Ultimately, Spoon River is a celebration of life (“Soul Alive”)—and a reminder that life, warts and all, is a cherished gift. I dare you to not stomp along.

With big shouts to the design team for their work on this magical, evocative production: Ken MacKenzie (set and lighting), Erika Connor (costumes) and Jason Browning (sound).

Heart vibrations as the dead weave tales reminding us to live in the inspirational, uplifting Spoon River.

Spoon River continues in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre until April 21; booking in advance is strongly recommended to avoid disappointment—the place was packed last night and this show is getting lots of standing ovations. Get your advance tix online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.

Up next: Soulpepper will be taking Spoon River to New York City’s 42nd Street in July as part of its first NYC season at The Pershing Square Signature Center.

The Spoon River soundtrack is available on CD in the lobby of the Young Centre; you can also find it on iTunes. In the meantime, check out the trailer:

 

 

Compelling storytelling in the riveting, edgy, darkly funny Slip

Clockwise, from top: Alex Paxton-Beesley, Daniel Pagett, Mikaela Dyke & Anders Yates—photo by Alec Toller

Circlesnake Productions remounts its production of Slip, collectively written by the ensemble and directed by Alec Toller—opening in the Tarragon Theatre Workspace last night.

Walking into what appears to be a crime scene—some of us walking through it to get to the bank of seats opposite the entrance—we become immersed in Jane’s (Mikaela Dyke) apartment. Pieces torn out of books, scraps of paper, post-its litter the floor and cover the walls; and there’s a banner with a strange interlocking symbol (set by Bronwen Lily, lighting by Wesley McKenzie). Jane lies dead in the middle of the floor, red hood pulled up covering her face.

Detective Lynne (Alex Paxton-Beesley) and her partner Mark (Daniel Pagett) assess the scene as they await the arrival of medical examiner Blake (Anders Yates). Is it murder or suicide? Perfectly matched, they work at piecing together a story for this incident, playfully one-upping each other in a private, quick-paced game as each comes up with theories and trajectories.

As the detectives sift through photographs and other evidence found on the scene, we see pieces of Jane’s story played out in flashback—inspired by a photo Lynne finds on a shelf: a relationship with a young black woman, one of two people witnesses saw entering and exiting the apartment. Marina (Nicole Stamp) is Jane’s ex-girlfriend, still on friendly terms and concerned about Jane’s welfare. And we learn that the young ginger-haired man seen in the vicinity turns out to be Chris (Yates), Jane’s brother.

Meanwhile, Lynne is a subject of particular interest in a tribunal investigating an incident where she and Mark pursued a perp into a darkened alley and shots were fired. And she’s in the dog house with their boss Passader (Stamp), who expects great things from her. Brilliant and known for her remarkable instincts, Lynne has been anxious and off her game lately. And it’s not just because of the tribunal—she’s been forgetting, losing her grip on her memory and sense of time. And the investigation into Jane’s death becomes personal—maybe too personal.

Outstanding work from the cast in this tale where crime procedural meets psychological thriller meets dark comedy. Paxton-Beesley and Pagett have amazing chemistry as the two detectives; dedicated and good at their jobs, Lynne and Mark are well-matched, riffing off ideas and theories with a playful, mercurial banter and a good-natured sense of competition. Beneath the professional, hard shell exteriors are two damaged souls. Paxton-Beesley (no stranger to playing detective—Murdoch Mysteries fans will recognize her as Murdoch’s childhood friend turned private detective Winifred “Freddie” Pink) gives a compelling, heartbreaking performance of Lynne’s journey; Jane’s story hits close to home—and the dawning realization of what will it mean for a beloved career she’s dedicated her life to. And Pagett reveals the softer, conflicted side of Mark; a man struggling with alcohol and having a ‘normal’ life when he goes home from the job. Supportive and loyal to Lynne, Mark can’t help but be suspicious and concerned about her recent erratic behaviour.

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Mikaela Dyke & Nicole Stamp—photo by Alec Toller

Dyke gives a moving performance as Jane; deeply troubled, fragile and lost, Jane reaches out in an attempt to reconnect with ex Marina, but can’t bring herself to tell her what’s wrong—revealing and mysterious at the same time. Her perceptions of family are in stark contrast with that of her brother; whose version of the story is true? Stamp shows some great range as the hard-ass, domineering Passader, who has big plans for Lynne and demands she doesn’t screw it up; and the loving, kind Marina who longs to be there for Jane, but whose care and compassion can only go so far. Yates is hilarious as the wisecracking ME Blake, who doesn’t particularly enjoy his job, but game for the quick-paced, sharp-witted exchanges with Lynne and Mark. And he brings an edge of pragmatism and deep-seated pain to Jane’s brother Chris.

The immersive staging puts the audience on either side of Jane’s apartment, giving us a fly-on-the-wall’s-eye view of the proceedings. Photographs and writings become jumping off points for flashbacks, revealing new pieces of the puzzle. Memory and story weave in and out—and stories intersect and combine to a stunning and heart-wrenching revelation.

Compelling storytelling in the riveting, edgy, darkly funny Slip.

 Slip runs in the Tarragon Workspace till April 2; advance tickets available online—strongly recommended as it’s an intimate space with limited seating.

In the meantime, check out the interview with director Alec Toller on Stageworthy Podcast with host Phil Rickaby.

Toronto Fringe: Engaging, immersive storytelling & a bird whispering love letter to mom in charming, poignant Life List

life-list-press-photo-1-credit-andrew-gaboury-medAre you ready for an adventure? Then you must come along on Alex Eddington’s bird watching walking tour Life List at this year’s Toronto Fringe, directed by Tyler Seguin and starting off at the Randolph Theatre.

Wear some good walking shoes and bring binoculars. If you don’t have binoculars, no worries – Eddington has extra and he’s got great tips for those who haven’t used them before. Working in pairs, with binoculars and clip board maps in hand, you’ll set off into Seaton Village (the neighbourhood just northwest of Bathurst/Bloor) as you assist Eddington in his search for an elusive and rare leucistic bird that’s been sighted in the neighbourhood, and drawing a following of fans and protectors. There’s even a debate on what to name it.

As you scan the trees for movement and check the ground for evidence of feathers, and note any sightings on your map, Eddington gives a brief history of how he got into bird watching. Through anecdotes, songs and memories, we learn of his late mother’s love of birds – and how she kept a life list of her sightings in a little silver book, which contains sightings dating back to 1977. Before she died of breast cancer in 2014, she passed her book and her bird watching legacy on to Eddington, who fondly recalls watching with her. Stories of family and beloved pets emerge, in particular a cockatiel named Spike; full of character and definitely part of the family, Spike was also a winged guardian for Eddington.

I first saw Eddington perform during a preview of his SummerWorks production of Yarn two years ago. An entertaining and genuine storyteller/field trip leader, in Life List he adeptly weaves interesting facts and tidbits about our feathered neighbours with childhood memories and stories of family, especially his mother. The tension comes when the time and energy spent on the object of our search becomes challenging, tedious and seemingly fruitless. Where did she go?

Engaging, immersive storytelling and a bird whispering love letter to mom in the charming, poignant Life List.

Life List continues, with its starting point at the Randolph Theatre, until July 10; advance tickets are a good idea for this one – spots are limited and the show has been getting good buzz. For ticket info and advance tickets/passes, check out the Fringe website.

SummerWorks: A beautiful, bittersweet memory play featuring outstanding, powerful performances in Seams

Seams-400x312Dress forms, a clothing rack, a large basin with wash board and soap, a pile of fabric, a work table. And off stage left, a chair. Old Frosya enters, the ghosts of her former co-workers standing on the catwalk on the upper level of the stage.

And so the stage is set for the Seam Collective’s production of Polly Phokeev’s Seams, directed by Mikaela Davies – running at the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Mainspace as part of SummerWorks. Inspired by an old photo of Phokeev’s grandmother and her seamstress/seamster co-workers, Seams is set in the wardrobe room of a theatre in Moscow, 1939.

Old Frosya (Clare Coulter) is the sole survivor of a group of costume-makers – and her memories turn to their moments together in 1939, in the first months of WWII. In a world where the state owns everything, corruption runs wild, and being broke, cold and hungry is commonplace, it’s everyone for themselves. People are desperate enough to report neighbours, friends and co-workers for any hint of suspicious activity – selling out one family for another to heavy-handed authorities – in order to survive or, in some cases, to get perks like a nicer apartment. Suspicion and mistrust, and guarded thoughts, become a way of life. The love/hate for Russia and the people in their lives is palpable. Everyone has a secret. And this is everyday life.

Part memoir, part confessional, Frosya’s narrative starts with relatively happy times – a workplace family gossiping about the actors and selectively sharing their lives. It’s a microcosm of the larger world outside the wardrobe room; and as conditions deteriorate in Russia – in an already difficult socio-political environment – so too do they begin to crumble in their world.

Seams features moving, nuanced performances from the entire cast. Coulter is haunting as the gruffly matter of fact, wry-witted Old Frosya. As Frosya’s younger self, Caitlin Robson brings a bright warmth and generosity to the brisk and efficient costume room den mother. Ewa Wolniczek brings a strong, stubborn sense of drive and idealism to the passionate young activist Marina.

There’s great chemistry between Krystina Bojanowski (the positive, open-hearted and hopeful Ira) and Jesse La Vercombe (the quiet, pleasant and troubled Anton) – who share some adorably awkward moments as both fumble around their attraction for each other. And there’s an equally lovely dynamic between Sochi Fried’s dark, introspective and mysterious Radya and Elizabeth Stuart-Morris’s irreverent, daring and carefree Shura – their moments together full of aching longing and electric eroticism. Of course, circumstances being what they are, when they are, the good times cannot last – and with the ransacking of the wardrobe in a theatre already on the brink of closure, so too are relationships torn apart as their time together draws to a close.

With shouts to design team Shannon Lea Doyle (design), Steve Vargo (lighting), Jackie McClelland (installation) and Nicholas Potter (sound) for their evocative construction of this world.

Seams is a beautiful, bittersweet memory play – equal parts charming and heartbreaking – featuring outstanding, powerful performances.

Seams has two more performances at the TPM Mainspace: Fri, Aug 14 at 9:30 p.m. and Sun, Aug 16 at 4:15 p.m.The buzz is strong with this show, so book in advance or get to the venue box office early.

In the meantime, check out Bailey Green’s chat with Phokeev, Davies and Stuart-Morris (who does double duty as producer) for In the Greenroom.

SummerWorks: Captivating living collage of memory & restoration in Blindsided

BLINDSIDEDimage-CopyWas back at the Scotiabank Studio Theatre at the Pia Bouman for more SummerWorks adventures last night, for a couple of things – but first, I’d like to talk about Fée Fatale’s production of Sabrina Reeves’ Blindsided, directed by Matt Holland, with film editing by Paolo Santos and video installation by Jacques Poulin-Denis.

Blindsided is a multi-media journey of perception and memory, triggered by a cycling accident – and we see Hayley’s life flash before her eyes. Hayley Hughes teaches a film restoration class – more specifically, the work of her famous grandmother Nan Hughes – and the piece begins with Reeves entering, as Hayley, into the world of the classroom. We are her students and she is the exacting, yet wryly funny, prof.

In a powerful, and also archly funny, performance, Reeves takes on several characters in addition to Hayley: Nan; Hayley’s brother Declan; and a glamourous German film actress, notorious for acting in Nazi films as a child (a subject in some found footage that came into Nan’s possession, and fascinated Hayley and Declan). As Reeves morphs in and out of these characters, and opens up the folding flats to reveal yet another layer of the playing area, snatches of moments from Hayley’s cycling accident appear, then moments from childhood when she and Declan stayed with Nan – and a horrible childhood accident of a friend.

Film restoration becomes a metaphor for restoring a life. In the classroom scene, Hayley tells us that the first step to restoring a piece of film is to assess the damage. We also learn that Nan’s greatest career achievement came through an accident. Accidents have the resulting impact of permanently changing the subject – but not necessarily in a bad way. And like old film stock, we are delicate things, but when handled with great care we can be mended. But, after an accident, things are never the same.

Blindsided is a captivating living collage of moving pictures, memory, mixing art and science, and putting what’s broken back together.

Blindsided continues its run for three more performances at the Scotiabank Studio Theatre at the Pia Bouman until Sun, Aug 17 – see here for exact times/dates.

Riveting, jarringly honest & moving – EN(LIVE)N Productions’ Frozen

Last night, I saw the final preview performance of EN(LIVE)N Productions’ run of Bryony Lavery’s Frozen, directed by Andrew Freund, at The Box Toronto – and it was a gripping, poignant and thought-provoking trip.

The stage is set with seating for the audience along the length of the intimate space, on both sides, and throughout the centre. Actor Alexander Saridag, who we see later as the prison guard, suggests seating as people enter. Hanging from the lighting grid are various items, some of which are props and others denoting a specific place: children’s toys, family photographs, personal items from a purse or briefcase, glass wind chimes with mini bottles of booze attached, a micro audio recorder and tapes, videotapes carefully sealed in clear plastic bags, two rope nooses. There is an eerie, low-volume soundtrack playing in the background. A howling wind? Screeching children? Playing? Terrified? The other three actors pace the space. All creating a sense of anxious, curiosity-filled anticipation.

As Freund points out in his program notes, Frozen is a memory play. Through a series of monologues, during which the actors often speak directly to the audience, as well as two-hander scenes, we follow the lives and thoughts of three people. Agnetha (Lynn Zeelenberg) is an American academic, studying serial killers using both psychological and neurological examination; Nancy (Lavetta Griffin) is a British mother who’s dealing with the trauma of a missing 10-year-old daughter; and Ralph (Peter Nelson), also a Brit, a rough and snake-like charming loner with troubling sexual proclivities.
Each character is compelling in his/her own way – and performed with jarring honesty and great respect by a fine cast. Zeelenberg does an excellent job of juggling Agnetha’s conflicting emotions; an academic struggling with her own loss and sins even as she studies and lectures on one of the most reviled criminal types imaginable. And her scenes with Ralph are layered with a tense curiosity, a driven sense of exploration, and a touching, nurturing quality. Griffin does a lovely job as Nancy, going from put-upon housewife and mother, to living the emotional turmoil of the loss of her youngest daughter, to crusading activist. Like Agnetha, Nancy is also seeking answers – and, even more so, closure. Nelson is both mesmerizing and repulsive as Ralph, who has a certain bizarre logic to his perversity – a method to his madness. Ralph is unable to forge true human connections, and Nelson does a beautiful job of revealing Ralph’s humanity as he responds to the women’s attempts to connect, both intellectually and emotionally, with a combination of boyish confusion, longing and repulsion. Nice work from Saridag, doing multiple duty as our host/usher, set and props valet, and the silent but expressive Guard.

With shouts to the design team: Natalia Tcherniak (set), Claire McMillan (costumes), Eric Sullivan (lighting) and Dave Fitzpatrick (sound and photography).

Riveting, moving and gut-wrenchingly real – relieved with snatches of dark humour and the foibles of everyday life – Frozen holds no punches in its intense examination of memory, loss, sex crime and forgiveness.

EN(LIVE)N Productions’ Frozen opens tonight (April 5) and continues until April 20 at The Box Toronto. Tickets are $20 and available online. Go see this.

Production stills by David A. (aka Dave) Fitzpatrick:

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