Beliefs, perceptions & connections in the intimate, otherworldly John

Photo by Dahlia Katz: Nora McLellan, Loretta Yu, Phillip Riccio & Nancy Beatty in John

 

Everybody knows someone named John.

The Company Theatre tells a compelling story with its Canadian premiere of Annie Baker’s John, directed by Jonathan Goad in his directorial debut, running at Canadian Stage’s Berkeley Street Upstairs Theatre.

Entering the space, we find the set enclosed in a semi-circle with red curtains, and it’s not until Mertis (aka Kitty) (Nancy Beatty) enters to draw the curtains are we able to take it in. The revealed space is the common living room and dining area of Mertis’s B&B in Gettysburg—and we become immediately immersed in this world, almost out of time and space.

Knick knacks, dolls, stuffed animals and all manner of chachkas fill the space. Antique dolls, a miniature village, angel and animal statuettes, and the like line the shelves and tables, along with a number of lamps. Prints, and even cookie tins, adorn the walls. In the corner near the front door is a Christmas tree, covered in lights, but without decorations or a star. Twinkly lights glow throughout the two rooms; and an Eiffel Tower sits on one of the small café tables in the dining area.

Throughout the course of the action, Mertis advances the hands on the grandfather clock, as night turns into day and into night again as the days go by. Classical music plays on the miniature jukebox that sits on top of the upright piano, also operated by Mertis, who also closes and opens the curtains surrounding the space at the close and start of each act. We’re being let into this world, but on condition.

Young couple Elias (Philip Riccio) and Jenny (Loretta Yu) arrive at the B&B later than expected that night, receiving a warm welcome from Mertis, who gives them a tour. They’re surprised when the room they booked isn’t available, and their host seems edgy and vague about some leak issue, but they happily accept the upgrade to another room at no extra charge.

As the scenes unfold, we witness increasing tension between Elias and Jenny, and we learn that they’re not just on this trip to take in Gettysburg’s history and points of interest. They’re trying to fix their broken relationship. Jenny is receiving a lot of texts, which she says are from her sister, but Elias is skeptical to the point of obsessed suspicion about their true origin.

There is something strange and almost unreal about the B&B and its host. Mertis seems a quiet and introverted, but eccentric, soul; with a fondness for knick knackery, she has an ethereal, spiritual vibe about her. More than meets the eye, we find out that she has a husband, George, who we never see. Married for 13 years, it’s her second marriage.

Added to the mix is Mertis’s friend Genevieve (Nora McLellan); blind, with a gravelly voice and gruff manner. She too was married once, but left her husband in the mid-60s only to find he’d followed her and taken over her soul. Concerned she was losing her grip on reality, she checked herself into a mental institution.

Fears and sources of dread emerge as the characters share personal anecdotes. Elias has a phobia of birds. Jenny grew up thinking her dolls and stuffed animals were sentient beings—and one doll in particular haunts her memory. Even the B&B has an edge; the chachkas seeming to be watching from the dark at night, and the Christmas tree lights keep going off inexplicably. Mertis believes that the house, which served as a Union army hospital during the Civil War, has a personality of its own—and that certain rooms can be temperamental. And the second floor always seems to be cold, which makes you wonder.

Mental illness, reality and relationships are called into question—nothing is as it seems. Who or what is watching; and who is being watched? Baker leaves it to us to decide what’s real, what’s true and what’s going on.

Marvellous work from this four-hander cast. Beatty gives the soft-spoken Mertis a lovely, eerie edge. One gets the impression that the Christmas tree could be up all year round. What’s with that journal Mertis keeps? And what’s going on with George? At one point, you’re wondering if he actually exists. McLellan’s Genevieve is a delightful puzzle of kookiness, sharp observation and loving friend; at one point, she sounds like a paranoid schizophrenic—but then you think, if you think someone’s out to get you, it might actually be true. Like Mertis drawing the curtains and turning the clock, Genevieve draws us into this world—and is the only character that speaks to us directly.

Riccio’s Elias is a complex combination of uptight and neurotic, wounded and longing. At first, you think he’s being paranoid about Jenny’s communications; but as the play unfolds, you begin to wonder if he’s right to suspect. And Yu’s Jenny reveals a darker edge under that adorably spontaneous, child-like exterior. Struggling to understand where Elias is coming from, she feels abandoned and is possibly acting out as a result. Which are the lies and which are the truths? And is her anxiety about her dolls and toys the result of a guilty conscience?

Whether its origins lie in religion, family and relationship history, or a perceived connection with the universe, for each character, there’s a belief in an unseen presence watching, directing—in some cases, taking over, rewarding and punishing.

With big shouts to the design team: Shannon Lea Doyle (set/costumes), Kevin Lamotte (lighting) and Michael Laird (sound) for their outstanding work on creating this strange and spooky world.

Beliefs, perceptions and connections in the intimate, otherworldly John.

John continues at the Berkeley Street Upstairs Theatre until February 19; online tickets and info here. Go see this.

Toronto Fringe: Dark times become comic fodder as stand-up meets storytelling in hilarious A Nurse’s Worst Nightmare

a_nurses_worst_nightmare-web-250x250Saw another highly entertaining, and thought-provoking, solo show at Toronto Fringe yesterday: Zabrina Chevannes’s A Nurse’s Worst Nightmare at the Theatre Passe Muraille TPM) Backspace. I missed this show when it featured in the 2015 Soulo Theatre Festival in May, so was very happy to catch it on the Fringe program before I was totally booked up.

It’s a lemonade from lemons tale of taking some unhappy – and at times dark and desperate – circumstances (like Chevannes’s Jamaican dad does when her older brother lands in a Mexican prison – he learned Spanish!) and turning it into comedy. A married single mom (whose husband is little to no help, and struggling with perceptions of reality), Chevannes works as a nurse at a nursing home – and when she’s not dealing with advances from handsy old men, she’s coming up with hysterically imaginative explanations for her two young kids about the Tooth Fairy and menstruation. The nightmare comes in her struggles with her husband’s mental illness, navigating his increasingly dangerous delusional, paranoid behaviour while trying to help him and keep it all together at home.

Dark times become comic fodder as stand-up meets storytelling in the hilarious autobiographical solo show A Nurse’s Worst Nightmare.

Bad news: A Nurse’s Worst Nightmare closed yesterday. Good news: Chevannes is a local GTA gal (from Brampton), so keep an eye out for future performances, including the comedy show Things Black Girls Say.

Toronto Fringe: Powerful & thoughtful exploration of family & mental illness in Hanger

hanger-web-250x250Saw yet another marvelous two-hander at Toronto Fringe last night: Kildare Company’s Hanger, written by Hilary McCormack and directed by Joshua Stodart (both also on the Ale House Theatre Co. Twelfe Night, or what you will team) – running at St. Vladimir Theatre.

Acceptance and denial of mental health issues come to the forefront as sisters Liz (McCormack) and Kat (Tennille Read) find their relationship at stake over attitudes about mental illness and perceptions of events from their family history. The writing is structured in such a way that you can’t tell if what you’re seeing is a flashback scene or a hallucination – which has the disturbing effect of putting you inside the point of view of an individual in crisis.

Lovely, poignant performances from McCormack and Read; truthful, committed and on the edge as these sisters grapple with inner and outer conflicts – torn between the love and bond of sisters, and being unable to connect or be on the same page of their family history. McCormack’s Liz is the shit-disturber of the family, calling out their concealed troubles; stubborn and determined, she faces the issues but at a very high cost to herself. Can she find a way out? As Kat, Read is the peacemaker and protector; in denial, and vacillating between drive and anxiety in a see-saw of emotion. Can she find it inside her to admit what’s really going on?

Hanger is a powerful and thoughtful exploration of family relationships in the face of mental illness, featuring moving performances from McCormack and Read.

Hanger has one more performance at St. Vladimir: today (Sat, July 11) at 5:15 p.m. Get out to see this – it’s an important topic.

SummerWorks: Bittersweet, heartbreaking & hopeful true story of mental illness in Bitter Medicine

Bitter-Medicine-dedication1-620x500What happens when your seemingly average, regular family is touched by mental illness and suicide?

Bitter Medicine, a true story written by Clem Martini – based on the graphic novel of the same title by Martini and his brother Oliver – and directed for this SummerWorks production by Patrick Finn, gives a first-person account of the family’s experience, with a particular focus on the relationship between Clem and Oliver (Liv), and told by Clem (played by Brian Smith).

Having lost their youngest brother Ben to schizophrenia and suicide, it is unthinkable that another brother would suddenly find himself living with the condition. And, as Clem tells us at one point in the play, once your family has experienced suicide, it haunts you and results in hyper-vigilance when another family member is diagnosed with mental illness.

Clem and Liv’s story highlights the need for patient advocacy, especially in a society – and even a health care system – that makes assumptions about the mentally ill. And we are also reminded that pharma companies don’t always have patients’ best interests at heart, as illustrated in Clem’s battle to get Liv diagnosed when he became gravely ill; turns out the pharma company that manufactured the meds he was on hadn’t disclosed the possible side effect of diabetes.

Smith is a compelling storyteller, speaking as Clem, as Liv’s illustrations play across the screen behind him (scenography design by Anton de Groot), the family’s loss made poignantly visual when we see one person missing from the original family portrait of six (Ben is gone).

Bitter Medicine is a bittersweet, heartbreaking and hopeful journey of family love and support, and finding a way to live with mental illness.

This was Bitter Medicine’s closing performance in SummerWorks at the Lower Ossington Theatre – but keep an eye out for this show. It’s important that people hear these stories to gain understanding and empathy for the individuals and families living with mental illness – and to not define any person by his/her condition.

More theatre in T.O. – on right now & upcoming

So much out there to see and still no clones on hand to help me make it out to everything. Here are some shows that are continuing and upcoming:

The Village Players’ production of Les Liasons Dangereuses, by Christopher Hampton, directed by Anne Harper – running now until October 5 at the Village Playhouse.

Next To Normal at Lower Ossington Theatre, book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, music by Tom Kitt – running now until September 29. Check out In the Green Room’s interview with director Heather Braaten.

The second annual Gay Play Day returns to the Alumnae Theatre studio space for a two-day run September 27 & 28. Here’s the line-up for this year:

September 27 & 28 @ 8 p.m.: Sherlock & Watson: Behind Closed Doors by Darren Stewart-Jones; Let’s Spend Our Lives Together, Maybe by Tina McCulloch; Couples by Bruce Harrott; Men In Kilts by Niall O’Reilly; Hush by Megan Hutton; The Rice Queen of Cabbagetown (excerpt) by Charles Hayter

New this year – a series of matinée solo shows on September 28 @ 3 p.m.: Hossam and Joel by Lorenzo Pagnotta; Obscuring Jude by Dorianne Emmerton; Why I’m Not A Star by Philip Cairns; Fairy Tale Confidential by Marcy Rogers
Enjoy!