Looking beyond mental illness to see the person in the intense, affecting The Valley

Photo by Keagan Heathers. Graphic design by Ali Carroll.

 

Don’t Look Down Theatre Company, in support of CAMH, presents an intense, affecting production of Joan McLeod’s The Valley, directed by co-Artistic Director Ryan James and running in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Backspace. Inspired by the shocking 2007 tasering death of Robert Dziekanski during his arrest at the Vancouver airport, The Valley looks at the experience of mental health issues; and the assumptions about and reactions to someone living with mental illness, from the perspective of loved ones and law enforcement.

Eighteen-year-old Connor (Daniel Entz) is an intelligent, engaged, aspiring sci-fi writer—that is, until he goes off to Calgary to university. When he returns home to Vancouver for Thanksgiving, he is withdrawn and combative; and his mother Sharon (Nicole Fairbairn) learns that he’s dropped two courses, been absent from another and appears to have an irrational suspicion of his dorm roommate. And now, a young man who was previously excited to go off to university is insisting that he can’t go back. A divorced single mom, Sharon is navigating her own troubles—and her desperate attempts to help and cheer her son only serve to agitate him more, resulting in an increased level of stress and worry for her.

Meanwhile, Vancouver cop Dan (Cedric Martin) is becoming more and more cynical about and dissatisfied with his job. Faced with an ongoing array of people with serious substance and behaviour issues, he finds it hard to feel that his work makes a difference. Feeling the pressures of being a new father, as well as looking after his emotionally fragile wife Janie (Alexa Higgins), a recovering addict, he sucks it all up and carries on, finding refuge in his bicycle. Janie is struggling with post-partum depression and sleep deprivation; and is deeply troubled that she can’t seem to connect with their infant son Zeke. Try as she might, she can’t seem to get Dan to understand what she’s going through—and she’s feeling increasingly at her wit’s end.

The worlds of these two intimate family units collide when Connor experiences a psychotic break on public transit and Dan arrives on the scene. Scared and confused, and brandishing what appears to be a weapon—in actual fact, a rolled up bunch of fliers, which he drops at Dan’s command—Connor becomes even more agitated, lashing out while Dan attempts to cuff him, hands behind his back. Dan’s use of force to restrain him escalates, resulting in Connor sustaining a broken jaw. Outraged, Sharon files a complaint and tries to get Dan to see who Connor really is—a talented, intelligent young man and not just a mental illness. When that fails, she suggests a resolution-oriented approach: a healing circle that includes Dan, Janie, Connor and herself. Janie is all for it, but Dan is having none of it.

Lovely, focused work from this cast on the sensitive, timely subject of mental illness. Entz gives us a deep dive into Connor’s tormented psyche, surfacing with a physically and emotionally present performance. We can see Connor’s tightly wound, tortured soul torn between withdrawing in fear from the world, and reaching out for help and connection. Fairbairn gives a heart-wrenching performance as Sharon; dealing with her own emotional upheaval, Sharon’s profound desire to do the best she can for her son comes out in bursts of unsolicited advice and talkative cheerleading, pushing her son further into his own world and making her feel even more helpless.

Martin’s multidimensional performance goes a long way toward making us feel empathy for Dan. Dan is trying his best to be a good cop and a supportive husband, but lack of awareness and misconceptions about mental health and mental illness get in his way—as do his own personal demons, particularly an increasingly dark view of his career in law enforcement. Higgins gives a touching, layered performances as Janie, bringing a sweetness and optimism, as well as a strength that underlies Janie’s vulnerability. Faking it till she makes it only gets Janie so far, and she soon comes face to face with her own troubled past.

Good people with the best of intentions can fall short in their drive to be effective and helpful allies for those living with mental illness. How do we increase awareness—for both the public and law enforcement—and bring the focus onto the people behind the illness, who are struggling and need support? The Valley puts a face on mental illness, reminding us that we’re all grappling with internal conflict. And that compassion, understanding and empathy go a long way to providing healthy, helpful support and making meaningful connections.

With shouts to stage manager/lighting designer Chin Palipane for the cool, atmospheric lighting effects.

The Valley continues in the TPM Backspace until September 23; 7:30 p.m. curtain for evening performances and 2:00 p.m. weekend matinees (Please note: Sun, Sept 16 matinee has been moved to 7:30 p.m.). Book advance tickets online or by calling 416-504-7529.

You can also keep up with Don’t Look Down Theatre Company on Twitter. In the meantime, check out the trailer:

 

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SummerWorks: Art, madness, longing & inspiration in the visceral, cerebral, deeply moving The Red Horse is Leaving

Moleman Productions presents a multimedia, multidisciplinary work in progress with its SummerWorks production of The Red Horse is Leaving; running for three performances in the Toronto Media Arts Centre Main Gallery. Written and co-directed by Erika Batdorf, with excerpts from artist Thaya Whitten’s journals and performance talks, and co-directed and choreographed by Kate Digby, the piece takes us on a thoughtful, moving journey into the playful, pensive and tormented mind of Batdorf’s performance artist/painter mother. I caught the closing performance, along with a sold out house, last night.

Part lecture, part performance art, part fly-on-the-wall experience, the audience is invited into Whitten’s (Erika Batdorf) studio as she faces off with a blank white sheet of Masonite; struggling to manifest her vision, her concept, in colours and brush strokes on a two-dimensional surface. All the while, a Gargoyle (Zoe Sweet) watches, climbing cat-like over tables and chairs—and even curling itself around Thaya—largely unseen but felt; its glowing, lit spine flashing and changing colour along with her breath and pulse.

Cerebral and visceral at the same time, The Red Horse is Leaving also addresses the issues of meaning, ethics, outreach and economics as they relate to art; and the changing landscape of art and artists, and how their work is perceived and received. Back in the 60s, performance art was the big new thing; controversial, revolutionary and exciting. Not so much anymore. Referencing “the red horse”—the subject of Thaya’s work in progress—we get the impression that it represents her muse, her inspiration, her passion. And it’s eluding her.

Beautiful performances from Sweet and Batdorf in this profoundly moving, thought-provoking two-hander. Batdorf’s Thaya is an artist with a curious, sharp and tormented mind; and a playful, tortured soul. Longing for inspiration and connection with her muse and her work, as well as her audience, Thaya struggles to reach out—to the white space before her and the world around her. Sweet is both menacing and adorable as the Gargoyle; moving with precision and grace under and over furniture, and coiling around the artist. Both bird-like and cat-like, it nudges and prods Thaya, offering brushes and even sharing a snack.

Inside Thaya’s secret heart, like her, we realize that longing can be a dangerous and unfulfilling thing—but it’s part of our human nature to strive and struggle to find meaning in our work, our world and ourselves.

With shouts to the design team for their work in bringing this multimedia vision to life: Mark-David Hosale (digital technology and sound, costumes), Sylvia Defend and Joyce Padua (costumes), J. Rigzin Tute (original music composition) and Alan Macy (biosensors).

This was the final SummerWorks performance of The Red Horse is Leaving; look out for the Toronto premier in the Rendezvous with Madness festival Oct 13 – 21.

Department of corrections: The original post had the cast credits reversed; this has been corrected.

Finding equilibrium amidst the pain & joy in the candid, vulnerable, sharply funny Periscope

Megan Phillips. Photos by Corey Palmer.

 

Vancouver-based writer/performer Megan Phillips was in town at Bad Dog Theatre last night for a one-night-only performance of her autobiographical piece Periscopethe up and down journey of finding equilibrium in her life when personal day-to-day miracles stopped coming—directed by Jeff Leard, with dramaturgy by TJ Dawe and music by Leif Ingebrigtsen.

Having done some hard soul-searching and putting in the work to correct the previous ongoing bad behaviour that was creating unnecessary drama and negative outcomes in her life, Phillips’ life was coming up roses, with a productive, successful career, as well as good professional and personal relationships. And suddenly, these life miracles stopped.

Struggling to get her groove back and keep on the path of being a productive, happy, responsible adult, she embarks on a plan to network and make friends while she bartends at a big comedy industry event. She’s confident in her plan, but anxiety keeps rearing its ugly head, so she self-medicates with MDMA to take the edge off her anxiety. And while her subsequent high behaviour turns her attendance at this event into a careening train wreck, the rock bottom it puts her in offers enlightenment and understanding.

Candid, vulnerable, poignant and sharply funny, Phillips takes us step by step through her journey and subsequent epiphany. Highlighting how it’s impossible to be “happy” all the time—including moments of the Zen of mental health—it’s a reminder that we all need to recognize, accept and move through the “negative” feelings that come up for us. We need to move past the pain to get to the joy, in the ongoing cycle that is life. After all, we can’t have joy without pain—and sometimes, we need a periscope view above all the shit in our lives to get some distance on it and laugh at it all.

This was a one-off performance of Periscope, but keep an eye out for Phillips if you happen to be in Vancouver—and look out for her return to Toronto.

 

Doctor/patient relationship gets real as they exorcise demons in Criminal Girlfriends’ razor sharp, intense, darkly funny Fierce

 

Emmelia Gordon (top) and Marisa Crockett (bottom). Photo by John Gundy.

 

Criminal Girlfriends opened its intimate production of George F. Walker’s Fierce to a sold out house at Red Sandcastle Theatre last night. Directed by Wes Berger, assisted by Martha Moldaver, the new play bears all the classic Walker trademarks of tight, mercurial dialogue; quirky, complex characters; edgy, dark comedy; and surprising revelations.

Set in a psychiatrist’s office, Fierce puts us into a court-mandated session between patient Jayne (Emmelia Gordon) and doctor Maggie (Marisa Crockett). In order to avoid jail time for repeated disorderly and dangerous behaviour while on multiple drug-induced benders, Jayne must put in some couch time and get signed off by the doc. Jayne begrudgingly—and full of skepticism, insisting that she’s not an addict—attends the appointment, immediately throwing up walls of resistance as Maggie tries to get to the bottom of why the benders and the subsequent wandering into traffic.

Over the course of the next 75 minutes, the power dynamic shifts back and forth, and revelations emerge from both sides. Pushing for some personal give and take, and armed with some deep-dive research on Maggie, Jayne coaxes Maggie to tell her own story—which, while initially appearing to be a pain-in-the-ass move, becomes more about building trust. As each woman tells her story, they realize they have a lot in common: Both are survivors, with troubled pasts and criminal records. And both were drawn to occupations aimed at helping people (Jayne worked as a high school guidance counsellor). And while Maggie withholds details that come out later in the conversation, Jayne plays around with her story to the point that it’s hard to tell what’s true. And the session takes an even more unorthodox turn and, in a bizarre way, cements the bond that took root during their initial verbal sparring.

Brilliant, complementary performances from Gordon and Crockett, playing characters that are perfect foils for each other. Crockett brings a tightly controlled, almost prim, edge to Maggie; but, as we soon discover, there’s something more bubbling just below the surface there. Whip-smart and suffering no bullshit, Maggie is a straight-talking professional who gives as good as she gets; she’s tougher than she looks and genuinely wants to help. Gordon’s Jayne is part professional smart-ass, part unpredictable wounded animal; tough-talking and cagey, and deflecting with sarcasm, Jayne’s hard edges don’t entirely cover the deep-seated pain and denial. And when that mask starts to come down, we see a woman haunted by personal tragedy and in despair over not being able to do more.

It’s a complex, intense, at times disturbing, dance of revelation, confession and being real—as poignant as it is funny, and so very true to the mark. Walker is famous for writing about characters on the fringe of society, and while Jayne and Maggie are both what could be considered as white collar professionals, their shared histories of substance abuse, run-ins with the law and struggles with mental illness are a stark reminder that there’s more to people than meets the eye.

Bonus points for including Blue Oyster Cult’s Don’t Fear the Reaper in the rockin’ pre-show soundtrack.

Shifting power dynamic and a doctor/patient relationship gets real as they exorcise the demons in Criminal Girlfriends’ razor sharp, intense, darkly funny Fierce.

Fierce continues at Red Sandcastle Theatre until March 3. Check here for dates, times and advance tickets. It’s an intimate space and getting good buzz, so advance booking strongly recommended.

Power, connection & identity in the potent, magical, eye-opening Watah Theatre Double Bill

“A world without fairy tales and myths would be as drab as life without music.”—The Watah Theatre

The Watah Theatre presents a Double Bill of biomythographies, including an excerpt reading of d’bi.young anitafrika’s Once Upon A Black Boy and the world premiere of Najla Nubyanluv’s I Cannot Lose My Mind, running in the Studio at Streetcar Crowsnest.

Once Upon A Black Boy, written and performed by d’bi.young anitafrika, opens with a mother singing to her infant son. Rocking him in her arms as she sings, she tells him he is beautiful and loved, enveloping him with encouragement and protection. When he grows into an energetic, self-involved (what teen is not?) 6’ tall 15-year-old, she must call him out on the condition of his room, slacking off on his chores and changing out of his uniform before he comes home from school. Because, now, she is afraid for him. She is afraid that others won’t see a 15-year-old child, but a scary, big Black man—and she’s terrified that assumptions based on fear, prejudice and racism could get him killed.

D'bi Young-54-flat-2
d’bi.young anitafrika

Told through spoken word, song and a cast of multiple characters, Once Upon A Black Boy is as much about Black motherhood as it is about raising a Black son—and how Black bodies are treated differently in the face of systemic and institutional racism. Joyful and hopeful, then exasperated and deeply concerned, anitafrika’s performance covers the complex array of experience of a Black mother—longing and hoping for the best, but bracing and preparing for the worst. The mother also fears what may happen when she’s not around, from having to be at work and, even more importantly, if she were to get sick. Her sister has just been diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer, which we see played out when the sister visits the doctor to check out a lump and is instructed to keep an eye on it and return in six months.

Moving, insightful and peppered with playful comic moments—and filled with music and sharply-defined characters—anitafrika’s storytelling is both compelling and entertaining. I look forward to seeing where this story goes.

I Cannot Lose My Mind, written and performed by Najla Nubyanluv and directed by d’bi.young anitafrika, chronicles a Black womxn’s* quest to be rid of depression. Discovering an inexplicable mutual connection with a kind and helpful Black female therapist, the womxn finds she must also put up with the therapist’s questionable colleagues: two white male doctors who are happy to push pills onto their patients, including a hilarious list of possible side effects—but, oh, they have additional pills to take care of those too. Experiencing a dreamscape of shared connections with a group of seven women, some of whom were also being treated for depression—and including the therapist and her sweet, elderly receptionist—the womxn finds a bigger world outside her day-to-day life. Trouble is, the doctors have also discovered these mythological connections and want to harness the womxns’ collective power for themselves.

rsz_najla_nubyanluv_in_i_cannot_lose_my_mind_-_photo_by_enas_satir_4_1
Najla Nubyanluv

Telling the story through movement, song and a cast of characters, Nubyanluv weaves personal experience, dreams and mythology, creating a landscape of magical connections with a larger community as the womxn navigates therapy, medication and health care practitioners who don’t have her best interests in mind. Dressed in a goddess-like white gown, Nubyanluv gives a fluid, playful and mesmerizing performance. Connecting with the audience on a personal level as the story unfolds, she draws us into this world. This is what it’s like to experience depression—and struggle to get better and get your life back as you try to make sense of an often senseless world.

Both of these biomythographies demonstrate how anitafrika and Nubyanluv walk the talk of some of the key principles The Watah Theatre teaches its resident artists: Who are you? How are you? And what is your purpose? Theatre-making as self-discovery: the artist coming to the work as a human being, connecting with their lived experience, and then sharing that discovery as they connect with an audience. Making their lives as the make their art.

These stories also highlight the intersections of oppression, particularly the health care system’s failure to treat women of colour with equal respect and diligence. During the talkback that followed the performance, anitafrika also mentioned the importance of recognizing how we all perpetuate stigma ourselves, and to turn our focus away from how we are oppressed in our daily lives to how we propagate oppression. We need to examine power, not just how it’s exerted upon us, but how we exert our own power on others. Are we using our power for support and allyship—or to oppress and demean?

Power, connection and identity in the potent, magical, eye-opening Watah Theatre Double Bill.

The Watah Theatre Double Bill continues in the Streetcar Crowsnest Studio till February 17; advance tickets available online.

*This is The Watah Theatre’s preferred spelling of woman/women.

Memory, loss & insight—true stories of living with mental illness in the funny, poignant Stories Like Crazy double bill

After launching Stories Like Crazy with their inaugural podcast at the beginning of Mental Health Week, Adrianna Prosser and Lori Lane Murphy finished off the week with two real-life solo shows that “stomp on stigma and set fire to adult colouring books”: Lane Murphy’s Upside Down Dad and Prosser’s Everything but the Cat. The double bill ran for two nights this past weekend at Red Sandcastle Theatre, with a portion of the ticket sales going to CMHA’s #GetLoud campaign.

Singer songwriter, and member of the Cheap Wine Collective (and Adrianna’s brother), Luke Prosser opened the two evenings with an acoustic set of fiercely passionate, introspective indie originals and a few covers, including an awesome version of “Folsom Prison Blues.” Wrap your ears around his evocative, raspy blues-infused sound on Soundcloud.

Upside Down Dad (directed by Christopher Lane). Part memoir, part homage, Lane Murphy reminisces about growing up in the 70s with Warner Brothers cartoons, navigating teenage milestones and living with a clinically depressed dad who was by all appearances a happy, fun guy. Childhood memories of being goofy and putting on cartoon voices in an attempt to bring her father out of bouts of profound sadness turn into more urgent and impactful moments in adulthood, where she continued to act as caregiver, driving him to treatment appointments and then being by his bedside when he was dying from leukemia.

Running parallel to her experience of her father’s mental illness is the growing realization of her own—from following her dad’s early example of self-medicating with alcohol to her own personal turning point, supported by him to find a healthier way to deal. And her support of his journey adds new insight to her own.

A genuine and engaging storyteller, Lane Murphy takes us from moments of laughter to tears—and some wacky, bizarre moments—as she chronicles her kindred spirit relationship with her dad. And her story highlights how important conversation is to insight, acceptance and healing—denying or ignoring the problem won’t make it go away.

Everything but the Cat (directed by Stephanie Ouaknine). A personal exploration of loss and grief, Prosser tells the story of losing her younger brother Andrew to suicide and her already shaky relationship with her boyfriend on the same day. Profound grief is peppered with second guesses and guilt, and coupled with gut-wrenching abandonment as her Peter Pan boyfriend, who already has one foot out the door, decides he can’t deal with this, or any, level of commitment.

A multi-media solo show that incorporates projected images (original projections by Ouaknine, with additional projections by Jason Martorino), Everything but the Cat includes shadow acting and voice-over work by Maksym Barnett-Kemper Shkvorets, Brad Emes, Hannah Barnett-Kemper Shkvorets, Erik Buchanan, Andrew Hodwitz, Scott Emerson Moyle, Devin Upham, Eden Bachelder, Stephanie Ouaknine, Daniel Legault, Niles Anthony, Gaj Mariathasan, Tammy Everett, AJ LaFlamme, Jason Martorino, Val Adriaanse, Jordi Hepburn and Phil Rickaby. Bringing moments of the story to life in creative and innovative ways—from learning the news of her brother from her dad, to grief-stricken/-propelled experiences of throwing herself into the club and dating scene—the projected images and lit areas evoke time, place and, most importantly, emotional state.

Infusing her story with edgy comedy and sharply pointed observation, Prosser gives a brave, bold, deeply vulnerable and ultimately entertaining performance that not only takes us along, but inside, her journey.

Memory, loss and insight—true stories of living with mental illness in the funny, poignant Stories Like Crazy double bill.

Stories Like Crazy’s evening of solo shows closed last night, but you can hear more true stories about mental health and living with mental illness—opening conversation and busting stigma—on the Stories Like Crazy podcast, hosted by Prosser and Lane Murphy. You can also keep up with Stories Like Crazy on Twitter.

Family, transition & mental illness in the honest, engaging, moving Little Pretty and The Exceptional

Sugith Varughese & Farah Merani in Little Pretty and The Exceptional—photo by Joseph Michael

 

A South Asian Canadian family navigates a career transition, personal milestones and mental illness in Anusree Roy’s Little Pretty and The Exceptional, directed by Brendan Healy, assisted by Ryan G. Hinds—running in the Factory Theatre Mainspace.

Little Pretty and The Exceptional takes us to Toronto’s Little India, to a store on Gerrard St. East where Singh family patriarch Dilpreet (Sugith Varughese) is preparing for the Canada Day grand opening of his family-run sari shop with the help of his daughters Simran (Farah Merani) and Jasmeet (Shruti Kothari). To his chagrin, Jasmeet has also enlisted the help of her boyfriend Iyar (Shelly Antony).

The entire Singh household is running on the stress and excitement of major life events: Dilpreet is navigating a career transition, going from shop employee to shop owner; Simran, who wants to be a human rights lawyer, also works at the library and is awaiting her LSAT results; and Jasmeet is preparing for prom and gunning for the coveted Prom Queen crown.

When Simran’s LSAT score is lower than she needs to get into Osgoode, she begins a downward spiral into extreme tension and anxiety. As she struggles to sign up for LSAT prep classes and reschedule the test, her ongoing nightmares and headaches are getting worse, and she’s beginning to hallucinate. And when she goes missing one night, returning with a story of seeing her dead mother, her father wants to take her to the doctor, but her sister thinks she just needs time and space to relax.

Haunted by their shared history of a wife and mother who struggled with mental illness, and with the grand opening just days away, the Singhs are torn about what to do for Simran—but as her visual and auditory hallucinations worsen, even Jasmeet realizes they must seek medical intervention. In the end, as much as the Singhs strive for normalcy as they open the shop, things will never be the same again.

Lovely work from the cast in this poignant, sometimes funny, family story. Varughese gives a moving and powerful performance as Dilpreet; a loveable, outspoken and somewhat stubborn man with a wry wit, Dilpreet is a middle-aged father bravely shifting from employee to entrepreneur. An immigrant who came to Canada to make a better life for his family, the cultural and generational divides with his daughters make for some fun comedic moments of communication and butting heads. Merani is heartbreaking as Simran; the ‘smart one’ of the Singh sisters, Simran’s decent into Schizophrenia is devastating to watch—from her perspective as a strong academic student aiming for law school, and the varied responses from her family.

Shruti Kothari and Shelly Antony in Little Pretty and The Exceptional - Joseph Michael Photography (1)
Shruti Kothari & Shelly Antony in Little Pretty and The Exceptional—photo by Joseph Michael

Kothari is a firework as Jasmeet, the ‘pretty one;’ a young woman of boundless energy and a touch of vanity, Jasmeet’s a high school senior who wants to be a fashion designer. Outspoken like her father, she’s a take-charge gal—but when it comes to her big sis, she goes into denial over the increasingly erratic behaviour. Haunted by vague memories of their “crazy” mother, Jasmeet doesn’t want to consider that Simran may need psychiatric help. Antony is a delight as Iyar; high-energy, laid back and supportive, Iyar has no trouble gently calling Jasmeet on her attitude towards Simran’s situation. And though he’s not technically a member of the Singh family, he does great service assisting with the store opening and overall emotional support.

With shouts to the design team for their work in creating the lush, evocative space—filled with rich, gorgeous fabrics, and music and lighting that goes from bright and lively to malevolent: Samantha Brown (set, props), Chantelle Laliberte (costumes), André du Toit (lighting) and Richard Feren (composer and sound).

Family, transition and mental illness in the honest, engaging, moving Little Pretty and The Exceptional.

Little Pretty and The Exceptional continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace till April 30. Advance tix available online or by calling 416-504-9971.

Check out Anusree Roy’s beautiful, honest and personal piece on mental health in Intermission Magazine.