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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Big surprise romantic gestures, coming together & falling apart in the endearing, fragile, funny I’m Doing This For You

Haley McGee in I’m Doing This For You—photo by Matthew Peberdy

 

She’s gone to great lengths to set up a surprise birthday party for the man she loves, an aspiring standup comic. We’re all invited to the festivities—and we’re going to be his audience.

Soulpepper closes its Solo Series with Haley McGee’s I’m Doing This For You, directed by Mitchell Cushman; the show opened to a packed house at the Young Centre in Toronto’s Distillery District last night.

Combining storytelling, improv and performance art, McGee gets us from the get go. Dressed in a bright orange vintage dress and wearing a bleach blonde wig, she’s a woman on a mission. She’s invited us to the theatre to celebrate her man’s birthday—and be his first major standup audience. Checking in with stage manager Robin (Munro), and making the rounds to ensure that everyone’s had their shot of vodka, she’s a flurry of super planning activity. And as we sit waiting in the dark for his arrival, she explains what will happen and we get ourselves ready to welcome him.

He’s running late, so the lights come up and we get some history. Her ever alert ear on the door, pricked by any possible sound of entry, she tells us how this engineer/amateur comic caught her attention. He made her laugh. And she really needed that. She finds it difficult to commit and—navigating emotional highs and lows on medication—we hear about how she made herself fit into the relationship so she could keep it.

Of course, things went astray. When he finally does arrive (the ex-boyfriend is played by a different actor each night), things don’t go exactly as planned—and even fantasy can betray. But there’s mini-cupcakes.

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Haley McGee in I’m Doing This For You—photo by Matthew Peberdy

McGee is a powerhouse of storytelling and entertainment, connecting with us in this immersive space. Conveying focus that shifts from razor sharp to scattered, a fragile psyche, and an endless capacity to feel hope and despair, she gives a quirky, genuine performance that is both entertaining and poignant. Touching on issues of relationships, mental health and obsession, I’m Doing This For You highlights the difference between needing and wanting a romantic partnership, and how we can be really attracted to something about someone even when we’re not that into them. And the crazy things we all do to maintain or avoid intimacy, and the regrets and after thoughts that go through our minds when it’s over. This woman is a super kooky, fun gal who’s seriously derailed herself—and we really come to care about her during this 65-minute journey.

With shouts to lighting/set/props designer Shannon Lea Doyle for the trippy performance art set, full of white and transparent balloons. Combined with McGee’s retro costume, the design is a flashback to Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In (for those of us old enough to remember that sketch comedy show).

Big surprise romantic gestures, coming together and falling apart in the endearing, fragile, funny I’m Doing This For You.

I’m Doing This For You continues in the Michael Young Theatre in the Young Centre till this Saturday (May 6); this show is for adults aged 19+ (proof of age required) and booking in advance is strongly recommended. Get your advance tix online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.

Catch a sneak peek at I’m Doing This For You:

 

 

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.

Getting to the other side of a childhood memory in the poignant, playful A Mickey Full of Mouse

3 days •2 thousand miles • 1 secret family

Dawna Wightman brings her thoughtful dramedy shenanigans to Buddies in Bad Times with her remount of A Mickey Full of Mouse, directed by Rory Starkman, and featuring Wightman and Louise Lupo.

Margaret (Dawna Wightman) has a surprise for her friend Anna (Louise Lupo): a magical snow globe that can take them back in time to relive a childhood memory. The catch: they need to get through it to get back to the present.

Spun back into their past, Anna is now 10 years old, living in a raucous, dishevelled household with her mother, siblings, grandmother and an absent father. Neglected and largely left to her own devices, she has a rich inner world despite the economic and emotional poverty that surrounds her. Always the last in line for the shared bath water and a single, soaked towel, Anna savours the warmth of their yellow kitchen and the aroma of all the yummy meals that are prepared there.

Then, an adventure: Momma (Wightman) announces that her dad is taking the two of them to Disney World in Florida! Over the moon at the prospect, Anna is less than thrilled that they’re picking up “retard” Margaret up on the way. Family road trip from hell—from Montreal to Orlando, Florida—ensues, revealing family secrets and memories best forgotten. Except for one: a reminder of how Anna and Margaret became friends.

Moments of unbridled joy and heartbreaking disappointment highlight this wistfully nostalgic, childlike and thoughtful romp; featuring lovely, evocative work from Wightman and Lupo. As Margaret, Wightman is frozen in childhood; slow to communicate but quick to love and comfort, Margaret is a sweet, misunderstood woman doing the best she can to live in an impatient, sometimes harsh, world. She brings a melancholy sense of defeat and disillusionment to the chain smoking Momma; on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and self-medicating with rum and coke, and prescription drugs, she just wants her husband to stay home and be with her and the family. And she’s hilariously inept as the ineffectual, but friendly, Disney World security guard Candy.

Lupo gives a great, multi-layered performance as Anna. A cynical and abrasive adult—and lawyer by trade—she’s there for Margaret, but reluctantly so and hotly resentful about it. As a child, we see Anna before her world took the shine out of her—something that Margaret never quite lost. Somewhere under that beaten down soul is a rambunctious, brave and hopeful human being. And maybe reliving that fateful road trip was just what she needed to be reminded of that.

With shouts to director Starkman for doing double duty as production stage manager.

Getting to the other side of a childhood memory in the poignant, playful A Mickey Full of Mouse.

A Mickey Full of Mouse continues at Buddies until April 8 on the following dates/times:

Saturday April 1 @ 8:00 PM
Sunday April 2 @ 2:00 PM
Friday April 7 @ 8:00 PM
Saturday April 8 @ 8:00 PM

Book advance tix online or call: 416-975-8555. You can follow A Mickey Full of Mouse on Facebook.

Preview: Brilliant, fragile minds at work in the tender, sharply funny Proof

Photo by Bruce Peters: Dan Willmott, Karen Slater & Chris Peterson

New kid on the block Theatre UnBlocked is off to a great start, mounting its inaugural production, David Auburn’s Proof, directed by Carl Jackson, to a packed preview house at Red Sandcastle Theatre last night.

The elegant beauty of math and the minds behind it comes to life in this intimate production. Catherine (Karen Slater), who has been living at the family home outside Chicago, sits on the back porch and chats with her father Robert (Dan Willmott). Thing is, Robert’s dead—and his funeral is tomorrow.

Robert was a brilliant mathematician and professor; he was also living with mental illness, a condition that irreparably damaged his ability to work and thrive. Despite the urging of her well-meaning older sister Claire (Andrea Brown), Catherine had eschewed institutionalization for their father, and left her own studies in math behind, leaving the work she loved for a dearly beloved father. Numb and exhausted, Catherine’s interest in connecting with people is renewed when Hal (Chris Peterson), a mathematician and former student of Robert’s comes to the house to sort through Robert’s papers and notebooks.

Drawn by Hal’s drive, and their shared love and appreciation for her father, Catherine gradually opens up and shares another notebook with Hal; one that’s been locked away in her father’s desk. It looks like Robert’s handwriting, but she says it’s hers. And what it contains is a 40-page proof that mathematicians have been trying to work out for a very long time. Concerned that Catherine inherited their father’s unstable mind, Claire has her doubts; she’s also been trying to coax Catherine to come live with her in Manhattan, as she intends to sell the house. Hal has doubts too; and offers to show the proof to some colleagues to check its veracity and authenticate its authorship. Is Catherine crazy? Or is she a genius? And does Hal genuinely care for her—or is he using her for a treasure hunt?

Simply staged in an intimate space, with the sounds of crickets and birds setting us firmly in the easy lull of a home outside the urban buzz of the city’s core, this production of Proof combines the poetry of nature with the beauty of science and mathematics.

The cast does a remarkable job with this story of math, family, mental illness and gifted minds. Slater gives a lovely, layered performance as the troubled and brilliant Catherine. An exceptional but neglected mind, Catherine puts up walls to separate herself from others, and humour and sarcasm are her weapons of choice; all in defense of the deeply hurt, tired and lost girl beneath. She knows what she knows—but fears that, like her father, she may be going crazy. Willmott brings a gentle, good-humoured cheekiness to Robert; a mathematician with the heart of a poet, and a brilliant but unstable mind—a driven man immersed in his work. The two-hander scenes between Catherine and Robert are both tender and sharply funny; revealing a genuine love, understanding and appreciation—a pairing of kindred spirits.

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Karen Slater & Andrea Irwin in Proof – photo by Bruce Peters

Irwin does a fabulous job mining the many facets of Claire, shifting between gentle caregiver and ‘big sister knows best,’ not to mention one hell of a funny hangover performance. Claire genuinely cares about Catherine’s welfare, but with a mind on the practical issues at hand, wants to sell the family home and keep Catherine close. Like Catherine, she’s concerned that her sister may be on the same path as their father; and while she also inherited some serious math skills and works as a currency analyst, there’s a tinge of painful sibling rivalry in that she didn’t have as close a relationship with Robert—or her sister’s brilliant mind. Peterson brings an adorkable charm and boyish drive to Hal, the mathematician who plays drums in a geek rock band. Like Catherine, Hal was close to Robert, who was a mentor and perhaps even a father figure to him. Reluctant to believe in Catherine’s abilities, he finds it hard to fathom that she authored this newly discovered proof—a reminder that, even 17 years after Proof was first produced, male-dominated STEM careers still present the challenge of gender-based assumptions. And you know what they say about ‘assume.’

Brilliant, fragile minds at work in the tender, sharply funny Proof.

Proof officially opens tonight and continues at Red Sandcastle Theatre until March 19. Advance tickets are available online—strongly recommended, given the intimate space and the size of last night’s preview audience. Go check out what the kids at Theatre UnBlocked are doing with this timely and thoughtful production.

You can also keep up with Theatre UnBlocked on Twitter.