Navigating the world with OCD in the funny, poignant, enlightening Living with Olivia Cadence Donovan

Conor Ling, Gabriella Circosta, Allison Shea Reed & Tristan Claxton. Photo by Alice Xue Photography.

 

RedWit Theatre invites us into lived experiences of a young woman living with OCD in Allison Shea Reed’s funny, poignant, enlightening Living with Olivia Cadence Donovan, directed by Sean O’Brien and running now in the Tankhouse Theatre at the Young Centre. Emily has lived with Olivia—her OCD personified—since childhood, and struggles daily with what that means for her relationships and her life. She longs to break out of her comfort zone and enter into a relationship, but will Olivia let her?

Emily (Allison Shea Reed) is a warm, smart and funny young woman who’s been living with OCD her entire life, personified by her helicopter protector, hyper-judgemental joined-at-the-hip best friend Olivia (Gabriella Circosta). Olivia is Emily’s personal flight response attendant, her fierce warrior defender, and her nagging inner voice of self-doubt; the one that tells her she’s too much, a burden, that everyone would be better off if she didn’t exist. Emily also has her roommate and friend, the culinarily gifted Rowan (Tristan Claxton); supportive and on her side, he understands, accepts and is respectful of Emily’s relationship with Olivia.

Enter the fun-loving, charming Graham (Conor Ling), who Emily really likes and, despite her hesitation to go with her attraction—and big pushback from Olivia, who prophesizes doom and gloom about any prospective romantic relationship—decides to date him. The added stress and unknowns about having a new person in her life, and sharing her space both physically and emotionally, make for extra tension between Emily and Olivia. Despite her courageous, and even optimistic, attempts to get out into the world and open up to new people, it’s still a struggle for Emily, even as she openly communicates her needs—needs that may seem strange—to those around her.

As their relationship progresses, and after much consideration, Emily decides to divulge her condition to Graham, who responds positively and even shares his own experiences with mental illness. But Olivia wonders if he’s being honest and realistic about life with Emily, and is skeptical about how long this honeymoon period will last. For a while, Emily has her world to herself—until things begin to get tense with Graham, and Olivia returns.

Beautifully drawn, sensitive work from the cast in this peek into a life experience that we don’t often see portrayed on stage. Shea Reed gives a complex, compelling performance as Emily; high-functioning and managing her illness, Emily’s cheery, good-humoured self is constantly bombarded with negative internal messaging and impulses toward repetitive actions, especially during stressful times. Longing for a “normal life”, she tries to stay positive, and does the best she can to navigate the world through her OCD, but struggles daily with creeping negative perceptions and fearful responses. As Olivia, Circosta turns on a dime, going from entertainingly impish to devastatingly cruel; both a protector and a naysayer on Emily’s shoulder, Olivia does whatever she needs to do in order to keep Emily safe and within the confines of her comfort zone—be it through manipulation, cajoling, tantrums or drama. Thing is, Emily wants to break out of that dynamic—leaving Olivia abandoned and unheeded. And that troubles Oliva a great deal.

Claxton gives an endearing performance as Emily’s friend/roommate Rowan—and has great chemistry with Shea Reed. A loving and supportive ally, Rowan rides the line between being protective and concerned, and letting Emily have her space as she ventures into new territory. It is Rowan who reminds Emily that OCD does not define her; and that she is so much more than a mental illness, and so loved. Ling gives Graham a compelling combination of affable charm and changeable loyalties; and, like Emily and Olivia, we’re not sure if we can trust Graham. Navigating his own mental health issues, Graham wants to be with Emily, but—despite his warm feelings and best intentions—needs to work out whether he can be okay with her challenging days and unorthodox needs. And the fact that he doesn’t seem to be as self-aware of his own mental health as Emily is of her own isn’t helping.

Living with Olivia Cadence Donovan gives us a candid and thoughtful look at the inner workings and lived experiences of someone living with OCD. We need more storytelling like this—to break down barriers and stereotypes, and foster awareness and understanding of those living with mental illness. And that an individual’s mental health issue, while part of who they are, does not define them; and they have something to contribute to their loved ones and society.

Living with Olivia Cadence Donovan continues in the Tankhouse Theatre at the Young Centre until January 25; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

 

Getting real at the movies in the intimate, entertaining, immersive The Flick

Durae McFarlane & Amy Keating. Set & lighting design by Nick Blais. Projection design by Nick Bottomley. Costume & lobby design by Anahita Dehbonehie. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Outside the March and Crow’s Theatre join forces to present Annie Baker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning love letter to the 35mm movie theatre in The Flick, directed by Mitchell Cushman, assisted by Katherine Cullen and Rebecca Ballarin, and running in the Guloien Theatre at Streetcar Crowsnest. Intimate, entertaining and immersive, workplace shenanigans, friendship, loyalty and personal demons emerge in the world of a run-down dive of a neglected movie house and the lives of three people who work there for minimum wage.

When you enter the Guloien Theatre, the audience seating faces rows of empty movie theatre seating, with a raised projection booth up centre. As the lights go down, the projector comes to life in the booth (projection design by Nick Bottomley), accompanied by Richard Feren’s sound design, giving you the full movie theatre experience—from a different perspective from the one we’re used to experiencing—including production company theme music and movie soundtrack snippets that play along with the light show.

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Durae McFarlane & Colin Doyle. Set & lighting design by Nick Blais. Projection design by Nick Bottomley. Costume & lobby design by Anahita Dehbonehie. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

It’s Avery’s (Durae McFarlane) first day on the job at The Flick Cinema, a run-down endangered species of a 35mm movie house in Massachusetts run by absentee owner/manager Steve (who we never meet). Veteran usher Sam (Colin Doyle) shows him the ropes of the walk-through—sweeping up and collecting trash in between screenings (and even waking up the occasional sleeper: Brendan McMurtry-Howlett). Rose the projectionist (Amy Keating) is working up in the booth; and despite Sam’s enthusiastic attempts to catch her attention, she’s not having it.

Avery is a college student, working there as a summer job; and he’s a big-time movie nerd and six degrees of separation savant, as Sam soon learns, much to his amazement. Sam’s broad tastes in movies include more popular, mass appeal films; and Avery is a serious film snob. And while Sam pursues the attentions of Rose, Rose seems to be interested in getting to know the new guy Avery.

As the relationship and workplace dynamics unfold, the three gradually and selectively reveal themselves to each other—and to us. Avery is dealing with some heavy psychological and emotional shit, including family issues. Sam is resentful that younger, less experienced staff are being promoted over him; and he keeps his family life close to the chest. Serial monogamist party girl Rose thinks there’s something wrong with her. And rumour has it that Steve may be selling The Flick; and in an age where 35mm is being replaced with digital, this means it will likely be updated with a digital projector—something that film buff Avery can’t abide. Various levels of privilege are highlighted; while Avery is Black, and having a professor father means a free ride to college, he’s the most likely to get blamed (by their racist boss) for screw-ups at work. Sam and Rose enjoy white privilege, but their familial and financial circumstances mean heavy student debt or no college at all, and a struggle to survive with minimum wage jobs. In the end, friendship and loyalty are put to the test as revelations and consequences emerge.

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Foreground: Amy Keating. Background: Colin Doyle & Durae McFarlane. Set & lighting design by Nick Blais. Projection design by Nick Bottomley. Costume & lobby design by Anahita Dehbonehie. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Remarkable work from this outstanding cast, each creating a sharply-drawn, authentic and flawed character that we all end up rooting for; and like in real life, they’re all putting on a show of sorts, wearing the public masks we all don on a daily basis—and occasionally, the masks are lifted and things get real. Doyle is endearing and entertaining as Sam; there’s a combination of grumpy old man and chill young dude that masks Sam’s discouragement at being personally and professionally rejected. He’s in love, but can he bring himself to say so? McFarlane is an adorkable delight as Avery; highly intelligent, socially awkward and longing for a friend, there’s a lost little boy quality about Avery that hints at a deeper internal conflict. Keating brings a lovely combination of fire and vulnerability to the high-octane, free spirit Rose; as much of an extrovert as Avery is an introvert, Rose is a free spirit whose desires are expressed in brief and intense sexual relationships. Even though Rose does what she likes and likes what she does, she wonders about the long term—and if something is really wrong with her.

All the world’s a stage—or in this case, a movie screen—and we’re all merely players. Real life isn’t like it is in the movies, but sometimes we can hit some of those sweet spots. And we all have opportunities to choose to get real and drop the stereotype mask for a moment, or not.

The Flick continues at Streetcar Crowsnest, extended by popular demand to November 2; advance tickets available online. Advance booking recommended; this is a really popular show.

See for yourself in the trailer:

A brush with celebrity in the electric, tantalizing, surprising Intangible Adorations: Experience the Icon

Ensemble with the October 15 guest Icon. Lighting design and effects by Carl Elster. 

 

Haus of Dada, Workman Arts, KC Cooper and Meek present Lisa Anita Wegner and Scott White’s electric, tantalizing and surprising Intangible Adorations: Experience the Icon as part of Workman Arts’ annual Rendezvous with Madness Festival, running in the Workman Arts Chapel. The multimedia performance piece is part film, part performance art, part social experiment—as it explores the allure of celebrity and its impact on celebrity mental health. Each performance, a different mystery celebrity appears as the Icon, disguised in a morph suit. Will they reveal themselves or choose to remain anonymous?

Featuring performers KC Cooper, Emily Gillespie, Amy Loucareas, Meek, Jane Smythe and Lisa Anita Wegner; and hosted by creators Wegner and Scott White, audience members are ushered into the space as VIP guests of a celebrity. You’re given a VIP tag with your host celebrity’s name (I was with Tilda Swinton’s group) and invited to be seated by group for a three-part immersive experience of performance art and brush with celebrity.

We’re introduced to the genesis of Intangible Adorations with a brief documentary film highlighting Lisa Anita Wegner’s history as an actor, producer and filmmaker; and the diagnosis of Complex PTSD that led her to set off on solo film projects and an exploration of identity, iconography and transformation—and to the genesis of the morph suit-clad Think Blank Human that served as inspiration for this current project. For Wegner, art saves her life every day.

Prior to the appearance of the Icon, an audience member is offered the opportunity to get a taste of celebrity by joining Wegner and White up front and centre, along with the ensemble. It is a strange and discomfiting experience for the volunteer, even though she’s an actor. We’re reminded that lots of celebrities and performers are actually quite shy of the spotlight when it’s focused on them personally, as opposed to when they’re in character or in performance. Many performers are, in fact, introverts.

Wegner and White move on to give us a few rules of engagement with the Icon. Hints are dropped at who the celebrity may be: a female pop star of great renown, a major celebrity. There’s some buzz in the audience that it’s Madonna. A respectful hush falls over the audience as White ushers her in; the white morph suit, worn with a deep purple costume over it, covers her from head to toe, making it challenging for her to see. We’re called up by group to line up for a photo and an autograph; and then invited to head across the hall, into the Red Chapel.

While it may have a Game of Thrones edge to the name, the Red Chapel is actually a place of celebrity adoration—the Church of Celebrity, if you will. Here, we may sit where we like as we watch the ensemble, now all dressed in morph suits and costumes, prepare the way for the Icon as they move and dance (music by Pink Moth) around the ornate wooden throne, set on a dais. It is here that we will have a brief audience with her.

The Icon arrives to sit on the throne; White hands her a microphone and, through voice modification to maintain her anonymity, she speaks to us. Sharing personal anecdotes of youthful adoration and a more recent fan girl moment with a famous actor she respects and admires at the Academy Awards, she is genuine, candid, vulnerable and circumspect. She goes on to share her experience of and response to being famous, including sessions with a therapist; her talk taking on a confessional tone. Humble, forthcoming and generous, she moves to reveal herself—and then, with apologies, decides against it. The second-hand celebrity gained by the audience at having spent time with her is less important than the revelation that we are all worthy and beautiful people in our own right.

And so our time with the Icon comes to a close. The buzz about her identity continues: too tall for Madonna. Katy Perry? Lady Gaga? As we head back into the first space to collect our coats, ensemble members, acting as reporters, ask us about our favourite celebrities and how our views may have changed as a result of this experience.

If you had any aspirations to be a celebrity, the experience may have you thinking otherwise. And the electric buzz about the possible identity of the Icon was, I’m sure, accompanied by skepticism about whether the guest was an actual celebrity at all. How does that change the experience? And how would a reveal have changed the experience? Were we more at ease, as she was anonymous, vulnerable—humanized, even? Come and see for yourself—you have three more chances.

Intangible Adorations: Experience the Icon continues in the Workman Arts Chapel until October 19, with performances on Oct 16 at 8:00, Oct 18 at 7:00 and Oct 19 at 2:00 (final performance to be followed by a Q&A). Advance tickets available online. Enter through the main entrance off of Dufferin St. (where the box office is located up a short flight of stairs); a member of the company will come to escort you to the performance space.

Here are some photos I took last night; lighting and FX by Carl Elster. Thanks to Scott White for the photo of me and the Icon. And thank you to the Icon for sharing her time and thoughts with us last night.

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Check out the trailer.

 

 

SummerWorks: Forgotten women’s voices emerge from the asylum in the remarkable, haunting Audible Songs from Rockwood

Simone Schmidt. Photo by Jeff Bierk.

 

Fiver brings a remarkable piece of musical storytelling to the stage with Audible Songs from Rockwood, written by Simone Schmidt, created by Schmidt, Shannon Lea Doyle and Frank Cox-O’Connell, and directed by Cox-O’Connell—running in the Franco Boni Theatre at The Theatre Centre. Based on the album of the same name, Schmidt has brought to life the voices of 10 women who were incarcerated at the Rockwood Asylum for the Criminally Insane between 1856 and 1881, taking us on a music accompanied history tour of these women’s lives and experiences at Rockwood—while drawing on issues of colonialism, patriarchy and mental health.

Staged as a piece of solo storytelling theatre, Schmidt shares her inspiration and research—of Rockwood and its inmates, and of Upper Canada law and general history of the time—in between songs, as she draws parallels between colonialism, and the system of white Protestant patriarchy that ruled the land and made property of wives and daughters. Inspired by the experiences of 10 women incarcerated at the Rockwood Asylum for the Criminally Insane, and incorporating two years of research from the case files and ledgers of the facility, Schmidt has created a series of song portraits. Put away by fathers, husbands or the authorities for out of wedlock sexual activity and being “man-obsessed”, melancholia, paranoia over land theft or spousal infidelity, or going incognito (one woman fabricated a life under an assumed name as a single woman from down south, when she was married to a local man), these women were subject to harsh conditions, initially housed in the stables of the former estate as the facility was under construction to house the overflow of mentally ill inmates from Kingston Penitentiary. Silenced and forgotten, some were left there for years after they were deemed fit to return home, their families inquiring about them but not bothering to make the journey to take them back.

Inmates were confined, forced into silence, and subjected to hard labour and cruel punishments for breaking the rules. Lack of funding for mental health shut down plans for more advanced, humane treatment at the facility; moral treatment, based on a Quaker model, whereby patients would have freedom to move about, and be given useful tasks to perform around the facility, like cleaning, cooking or gardening. Lack of funds also meant the facility had insufficient heating in winter, forcing inmates to huddle together for warmth as the contents of their chamber pots froze.

Haunting and mournful, lyrical yet matter of fact, the Appalachian folk-inspired music captures the essence of women whose lives were forever changed; silenced and policed in a harsh penal/mental health system—the stories in the facility documents were essentially told by the male doctors and police officers involved with each case. Schmidt’s vocals are earthy, deep and soulful; accompanied by Laura Bates on fiddle and Carlie Howell on double bass, in addition to back-up vocals/harmonies. Schmidt is well-aware of the possible issue of appropriation of voice here; and she wondered out loud if it’s right for her to tell these stories that aren’t really hers to tell. But if not for her songs—developed through respectful and painstaking research—who would be telling the stories of these troubled, silenced and forgotten women?

The “Audible” in the title may seem redundant, but Audible Songs from Rockwood are the songs of the hearts, souls and minds of women who otherwise would have had no voice.

Audible Songs from Rockwood continues, with three more performances, in the Franco Boni Theatre at the Theatre Centre until August 18; check the show page for exact dates/times. Tickets available online or in person at the box office.

Toronto Fringe: Telling stories in the darkly funny, quirky, satirical News Play

Clockwise from bottom: Andrew Cromwell, Rouvan Silogix, Greg Solomon, Madeleine Brown & Charlin McIsaac. Photo by Graham Isador.

 

Theatre ARTaud and Lal Mirch Productions, in association with Prairie Fire, Please give us a dark satirical look at storytelling and journalism in Madeleine Brown’s sharply funny, quirky, edgy News Play, directed by Aaron Jan and running at the Annex Theatre.

Brother and sister children’s book team, illustrator Phoebus (Greg Solomon) and writer Joy (Charlin McIsaac), have hit a wall in their career; the fire woman superhero featured in their books is scaring kids and making them feel bad about themselves. When they return to their hometown Peterborough to visit their cousin Winny (Madeleine Brown), a troubled pyromaniac since the death of her parents in a fire when they were all kids—and the inspiration for their work—they find themselves suddenly becoming journalists. Winny’s recent fire escapade accidentally killed two Peterborough Examiner reporters, and Editor in Chief Art (Andrew Cromwell), former classmate and school bully, blackmails them into working for him in exchange for not suing Winny. The goal: sell 100 papers.

The siblings’ first assignment is producing an exciting piece about a local natural landmark—a big rock. They strike gold when Winny injures her hand while punching it, spinning the event into a story of significant bravery and resilience, while also making the town’s “crazy fire girl” look good in the media. This inspires local charity organizer Lyle (Rouvan Silogix) into inviting Winny to be the torch putter-outer at an upcoming event supporting those who’ve soldiered through personal injury.

Things go from crazy to bad to worse when Joy decides to take things to the next level. How far will she go for subject matter that people will want to read? Will her relationship with her brother, who’s against her increasingly extreme methods, be the same? And will their cousin Winny survive it all?

Great work from the cast is this sharp satirical trip. McIsaac and Solomon are great foils as the positive, cheerful Joy and the cynical, edgy Phoebus. Brown gives a lovely vulnerable performance as the shy, awkward Winny, who really does have reserves of strength that largely go unnoticed; still living in a town where everyone thinks she’s crazy, Winny perseveres because it’s her home. Cromwell plays the edge of menacing bully and charming manipulator as Art; you can tell immediately that Art was the school bully, and he’s desperate and amoral enough to go along with whatever scheme will sell newspapers. And Silogix gives lovely comic turns as the clueless, enthusiastic charity organizer Lyle and the gruff Greyhound bus driver.

Telling stories, making up stories and reporting stories—sometimes, they can overlap and get all mixed up. Are we fetishizing personal injury in our news media and charities? And is fake news, however small and local, ever harmless?

News Play continues at the Annex Theatre until July 13; check the show page for exact dates/times and advance tickets.

A family slogs through the fallout of mental illness & tragedy in the brutally honest, wry-witted And So It Goes

Left: Deborah Drakeford & Scott McCulloch. Right: Tyshia Drake & Dan Willmott. Set & costume design by Kelly Wolf. Scenic art by Ksenia Ivanova. Lighting design by Chin Palipane. Photos by John Gundy.

 

Kyanite Theatre presents George F. Walker’s And So It Goes, directed by Walker, assisted by Martha Moldaver—running in the Pia Bouman Scotiabank Studio. A brutally honest, wry-witted family tragicomedy, the play’s title was inspired by a line from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five; and delivers the signature Walker punch to the gut realism with a side of dark humour, to highlight a critical social issue—in this case, the impact of a child’s mental illness on an already struggling family.

Karen (Tyshia Drake) is tormented with thoughts of people out to do her harm, while her father Ned (Dan Willmott) struggles to make ends meet after getting laid off his job as a financial advisor; and mother Gwen (Deborah Drakeford), a former Latin teacher, is at her wits end trying to maintain order amid the chaos. Charged with several alleged assaults, Karen is diagnosed with schizophrenia, a finding she neither accepts nor complies with—refusing to take her meds, and shutting herself off from her well-meaning good cop dad and controlling bad cop mom. In the background of this family’s life is an estranged son, who we never meet, who left home when Karen’s condition began to emerge. And then there’s Gwen’s imaginary confessor/therapist Kurt Vonnegut (Scott McCulloch), who she confides in—trading contradictory thoughts between glasses of white wine as she grapples with the fear and frustration of a world that’s gradually falling apart.

The upbeat Ned goes back to school to earn a pastry chef certificate; but even his positive outlook can’t withstand the family tragedy and financial ruin that ensues. Sifting through the debris of their lives for a way out—and who is to blame—he too reaches out to Vonnegut for advice. And acquires a gun. Gwen finds new footing with Karen as she begins to loosen her vice-like grip on the carefully tended middle-class world she once knew. As Gwen and Ned’s lives spiral downward to hit rock bottom, Ned hardens and Gwen softens. And the only directions from there appear to be out or up.

Lovely, heart-wrenching work from this ensemble in this fast-paced “life’s cocktail” of laughter and tears, and how humans cope with the fallout of tragedy and the destruction of the world as they know it. Drake is heartbreaking as the tormented Karen, who knows that something’s not right, but refuses to accept her diagnosis. The paranoia and voices in Karen’s head torture and exhaust her—aptly mirrored by Jeremy Hutton’s sound design, which features rapid-fire sound bites about mental illness and the negative impact on the economy and productivity, as well as the pervasiveness of depression and its connection to the current unemployment/EI situation.

Willmott’s Ned is a big, lovable bear of a dad with an equally big heart; the protective “good cop” parent in this family dynamic, Ned stays positive despite his daughter’s illness and wife’s sharp criticism. But even his sunny disposition loses its shine as their lives take a desperate turn—and he must decide if he will apply equally desperate measures. Drakeford’s Gwen is aggravating and deeply poignant; bitter, exhausted and longing for things to get back to normal, Gwen is the bad cop and harsh realist of the family. Desperately trying to put this family’s broken life back together, Gwen’s hyper-rational, sharp edges melt as she begins to let go and look for a new way to live. And McCulloch is a wry-witted, debating delight as Vonnegut; playing Devil’s Advocate and acting as a sound board for both Gwen and Ned, the imaginary friend and ghost Vonnegut is filtered through the thoughts and perceptions of whoever summons him.

Guns or lemon tarts? When faced with personal tragedy in the face of a society that’s losing its social conscience and sense of civility, we have the choice to descend into darkness or rise up into the light. And strive to build a new world from the rubble. One thing’s for certain: we need to pay more attention and apply more care to those who are losing their lives to mental illness, unemployment and despair.

And So It Goes continues in the Pia Bouman Scotiabank Studio until May 26, with evening performances Wed-Sat at 8:00; and matinées on Sat, May 18 and Sun, May 26 at 2:00. Advance tickets available online or pay cash at the door.

In the meantime, check out Arpita Ghosal’s interview with actor Deborah Drakeford in Sesaya.

A journey into the light & dark of self-discovery in the bittersweet, courageous Welcome to my Underworld

Clockwise, from top left: Grace Thompson, Nikoletta Erdelyi, Carolyn Hetherington, Samson Brown, Radha S. Menon, Maddie Bautista & Bilal Baig. Set design by Brett Haynes. Lighting design by Sharmylae Taffe-Fletcher. Photo by Sophia Thompson-Campbell.

 

RARE Theatre Company, in partnership with Soulpepper, presents the world premiere of Welcome to my Underworldwritten by Bilal Baig, Maddie Bautista, Samson Brown, Simone Dalton, Nikoletta Erdelyi, Carolyn Hetherington, Radha S. Menon, Ellen Ringler and Grace Thompson, on stage at the Young Centre. Dramaturged/directed by RARE’s AD Judith Thompson, choreographed by Monica Dottor, and featuring original composition/live accompaniment by Olivia Shortt, a 10-year-old girl’s search for her truest self weaves nine individual stories into one as we follow her into the world of the shadow self.

Anchored by 10-year-old Willow (Grace Thompson), who struggles with her own sense of self, Welcome to my Underworld is part fairy tale, part hero’s journey, part autobiography as each performer presents their own story; a place where light and dark meet, and where spirits are tested and tempered. Possessing of a sharp, curious mind and keenly interested in how others navigate the world, Willow and her imaginary friend Mara invite the other characters in to share their stories.

There are the infuriating stories of a pre-transitioned trans man being confronted in a woman’s washroom, and a Trinidadian lesbian’s connection with an HIV+ gay father figure-told with humour, tenderness and heartbreak by Brown. The harrowing experiences of the elderly surviving a terrifying adverse reaction, apparently common among seniors, to a post-op medication (a feisty, fighter Harrington); and the feelings of family betrayal and confusion as an Indian woman is driven alongside a truck full of cattle to her new home at an assisted living facility (a spirited, poignant performance from Menon). Navigating prejudice regarding competence and attractiveness based on Roma (“gypsy”) ethnicity and physical ability (the candid, suffers no fools Erdelyi, performing from a wheelchair). Childhood innocence and trust lost during a time of burgeoning sexuality (a delightful, heart-wrenching performance from Bautista, a bi, Saudi Arabia-born Filipina).

There are the social castaways dealing with addiction and mental illness (fierce and lyrical performances from Menon and Baig); observed by Willow while in the psych ward. And queer, genderqueer Baig’s sassy, poignant secret party girl persona, fleeing their home and fearing attack from both parents and strangers, shares a narrow escape that hearkens back to the recent tragedy of missing and murdered gay men in the Village. Humourous, heart-breaking and eye-opening, each shares a broad range of lived experience from their own unique perspective—calling upon us to examine who we’ve ignored, shoved aside or disrespected. Who will love or miss the disenfranchised, the social pariahs, those living on the fringes?

Shortt’s live onstage music and pre-show mix blends sound effect with soundtrack, tailored perfectly to each story; and Dottor’s choreography is playful, balletic and emotive as it visually weaves one tale into another. Haynes’s set deftly combines black/white, dark/light; the central image a tree of life, its branches reaching for the sky as its roots dig into the earth.

Playful, poetic and funny—at times harrowing, infuriating and heart-breaking, the storytelling is raw, candid and impossible to ignore. These are stories from those whose voices are seldom heard, let alone given space to speak their truth. While Welcome to my Underworld promises no happy endings, it does bring a sense of hope and resilience. We all need to be seen, be heard, be loved and respected. We all need to feel safe to be ourselves. And we need more theatre like this.

Welcome to my Underworld continues at the Young Centre in the Tankhouse Theatre until May 25; advance tickets available online, or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

ICYMI: Check out Phil Rickaby’s interview with dramaturg/director Judith Thompson on Stageworthy Podcast.

 

Nostalgia meets the ghosts of memory in the funny, poignant, authentically human New Magic Valley Fun Town

Caroline Gillis, Andrew Moodie, Daniel MacIvor & Stephanie MacDonald. Set design by Brian Perchaluk. Costume design by Brenda McLean. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Prairie Theatre Exchange and Tarragon Theatre join forces to present the Toronto premiere of Daniel MacIvor’s New Magic Valley Fun Town, directed by Richard Rose, assisted by Audrey Dwyer; opening last night in the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace. Equal parts funny and poignant, it’s an authentically human story of nostalgia and ghosts of the past as the kitchen party reunion between two childhood friends reveals some unwelcome memories.

In small-town Nova Scotia, cancer survivor Dougie (Daniel MacIvor) lives in a spotless double-wide trailer, separated from his wife Cheryl (Caroline Gillis), who’s stayed in their family home in town. Their young adult daughter Sandy (Stephanie MacDonald) is on a break from her English lit thesis to manage some mental health issues. Dougie is anxiously awaiting the arrival of Allen (Andrew Moodie), a friend from childhood and one of the few Black residents of the town back in the day, who moved on to become an English professor at U of T.

Dougie and Allen haven’t seen each other for 35 years, and their reunion—initially rife with awkward excitement, vintage music, drinking and dancing—takes a dark turn as painful, secret memories emerge. Dougie is dealing with his sense of mortality and Allen needs to get something off his chest; and lifelong feelings of deep-seated anger, shame and longing bubble to the surface.

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Daniel MacIvor & Andrew Moodie. Set design by Brian Perchaluk. Costume design by Brenda McLean. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Beautiful performances from this ensemble, enacting a marathon of emotional experience and responses. MacIvor is a compelling, high-energy presence as the tightly wound Dougie; obsessively neat and wanting things to be perfect for Allen, Dougie appears to have channelled his nervous energy into preparations for the visit—but we learn that this behaviour pre-dates his cancer diagnosis, going back to adolescence. Moodie’s calm, introspective Allen is equally gripping; perfectly complementing the frenetic Dougie, the emotionally contained Allen is bursting with the buried feelings of distant, disturbing memories—memories that are excavated and brought to the surface during this fateful visit, and intersect with his experience of being Black in a small town.

Gillis is loveably quirky and as the cheerful, attentive Cheryl; a protective wife and mother who’s at a loss as to how to help her husband and daughter, her positive demeanour masks the pain within, and she finds solace and community in the local Catholic church. MacDonald gives a hilariously playful, irreverent and sweetly poignant performance as Sandy; a post-grad student with the heart of a poet, Sandy is navigating her own illness, even as she continues to reach out to connect with her ailing father.

The classic 70s vintage vibe of Brian Perchaluk’s set design and Don Benedictson’s original music and sound design (those of a certain age were singing along with the pre-show tunes) combine nicely with Brenda McLean’s modern-day costume design, and the realism and cathartic magic of Kim Purtell’s lighting.

Each of these characters is reaching out for connection from a place of profound aloneness. And, while the deeper meaning of the titular amusement park of childhood memory is revealed—not new, magic, a valley, fun or a town—there’s strength and resilience in the present, and hope for the future, as these characters move towards light and closure.

New Magic Valley Fun Town continues in the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace until March 31; get advance tickets online or contact the box office at 416-531-1827.

Portrait of a family in messy, human shades of grey in the intimate, intense, complex What I Call Her

Charlie Gould & Ellie Ellwand. Lighting design by Imogen Wilson. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

In Association—which led a sold-out production of Ellie Moon’s Asking For It last season—partners with Crow’s Theatre once again, this time with the world premiere of Moon’s intimate, intense and complex What I Call Her, directed by Sarah Kitz and opening to a sold-out house at Streetcar Crowsnest last night. Exploring a family dynamic of abuse, estrangement, grief and reconciliation, What I Call Her gives us the messy—ultimately human—blacks, whites and greys of family relationships shaped by trauma, conflicting memory and divergent lived experiences.

Estranged from her mother and younger sister Ruby, and recovering from childhood abuse at the hands of her mother, English MA student/writer Kate (Charlie Gould) now finds herself navigating the myriad mixed emotions of her mother’s impending death. Triggered by her mother’s distant death bed, as well as her mother’s startlingly contrasting history of abuse, abusive behaviour and philanthropy for survivors, Kate starts writing a frank obituary for her mother. Her supportive, live-in boyfriend and women’s ally Kyle (Michael Ayres) acts as her anchor, sounding board and Devil’s advocate on the idea of posting it on Facebook.

When Ruby (Ellie Ellwand) surprises them with a late-night arrival at their apartment, the family conflict—in particular, Ruby’s contradictory and hugely different experiences of childhood and their parents—gets too close to home. While Ruby’s appearance sparks Kate’s rage over the family’s denial of her experience, she’s got some anger to unpack as well; and the sisters face-off over their shared history and their mother’s desire for a death bed reunion and subsequent redemption.

The finely-tuned three-hander cast of What I Call Her plays out the various levels of family conflict in a series of contrasts—in moments of quiet and explosion, trauma and comfort, remembering and forgetting—turning the blacks and whites of family history, memory and corresponding emotional/psychological responses into complex, messy and profoundly human shades of grey.

What I call her 1 - Michael Ayres, Charlie Gould - by Dahlia Katz
Michael Ayres & Charlie Gould. Lighting design by Imogen Wilson. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Gould’s broken, neurotic, sharply intelligent Kate can be self-involved, but also self-aware; and Kate’s self-professed knack for hyperbole is matched only by her lonely, hopeless sense of familial gaslighting. As Ruby, Ellwand is both adult and baby sister; brutally honest and perceptive, but needing support and validation. While Ruby’s directness with Kate tends toward cruelty, she desperately needs Kate right now. And Aryes’ Michael is that sweet, #MeToo woke good guy you want to see your sister with. Michael’s calm, quiet demeanour is a perfect foil to Kate’s mercurial outbursts of emotional activity—but, caught in the middle of and pushed away from this family war, and exhausted from keeping Kate from spinning off, even he can only take so much.

It’s especially noteworthy that Kate and Ruby’s mom, who is a fourth but unseen character in this piece, has a history of family abuse—both she and her own mother are survivors. And while it’s no excuse for her verbal and physical abuse of Kate, it’s a reason. The Kates of the world need be able to tell their stories; and as contradictory to the experiences of other family members and painful as these stories may be, they need to come out so real reconciliation and redemption can begin.

What I Call Her continues at Streetcar Crowsnest until December 8; advance tickets are available online. It’s an intimate venue and the show is getting a lot of well-deserved buzz, so booking ahead is strongly recommended.

 

 

Mental health takes centre stage in the mercurial, heart-wrenching, provocative adaptation Hamlet(s)

Skipping Stones Theatre gives us a new, contemporary take on the Shakespeare classic brings mental health front and centre with its mercurial, heart-wrenching, provocative adaptation Hamlet(s), directed by Sean O’Brien, supplemented by additional Shakespearian text; and opening last night to a sold out house at b current Studio in Artscape Wychwood Barns. Here, we have a Hamlet who’s literally and figuratively beside himself, played by two actors; a young man struggling with emerging Bipolar I as his world crumbles around him.

I never get tired of seeing how different theatre companies interpret and adapt Hamlet. Opening with “To be or not to be…,” Hamlet’s (Tristan Claxton and Kate McArthur) emerging mental illness is established off the top of Hamlet(s). The double casting turns soliloquies into Hamlet’s conversations with himself; and the effective tag team nature of his dialogue reveals a troubled, fractured mind rolling through manic, mixed and depressive episodes—with McArthur’s side of Hamlet taking on an inner voice quality.

This adaptation also examines the responses of friends and family to a loved one’s mental health crisis. Ophelia (Breanna Maloney) is featured more prominently, taking on a more active role; mindful and concerned about Hamlet’s welfare, she enlists the assistance of Hamlet’s friend Horatio (Liz Der). Conflicted and torn about telling her father Polonius (Mike Vitorovich) about Hamlet’s increasingly erratic behaviour, and unable to find another way to help him, Ophelia chooses to place her trust in a parent; this makes her subsequent mental breakdown following Polonius’s death—at Hamlet’s hand—all the more heartbreaking. And one can see how and why Horatio would consider taking her own life after all attempts at helping her friend have failed—and those who were supposed to help and care for him have only betrayed or neglected Hamlet.

Claudius (Tim MacLean) and Gertrude (Shalyn McFaul) are also concerned—he out of fear of exposure and losing his ill-gotten throne, and she out of guilt and neglected love—but are after a quick fix for Hamlet’s problem. Enter Hamlet’s old friends Rosencrantz (Felix Beauchamp) and Guildenstern (Tamara Freeman), summoned to cheer Hamlet up; but instead of genuinely listening to Hamlet, they offer mere positive spins to counter his intimations of what ails him.

Unable to level off and organize his rapid-fire thoughts and emotions, Hamlet’s in no shape to enact revenge on Claudius for the murder of his father. Directly responsible for the death of Polonius, and perhaps also feeling responsible for Ophelia’s subsequent breakdown and death, Hamlet eventually faces off with the vengeful Laertes (Erin Eldershaw) in what’s being sold as a friendly fencing match. Surprisingly calm and ready for death—one gets the impression that he may be opting for suicide by vendetta.

Remarkable, gripping, lazer-focused performances from Claxton and McArthur as the dual Hamlets; both revealing a full range of struggling, conflicted emotional and psychological experience—from dejected despair, to playful antics, quixotic exchanges and a-ha flashes of inspiration. It’s raw, real and present—fascinating, heart-wrenching and thought-provoking to watch.

Equally fine work from the rest of the ensemble, with Maloney’s ethereal, loving Ophelia and Der’s sweet, nerdy Horatio clearly the only ones who are truly on Hamlet’s side; desperate to help their friend, they’re both frustrated and baffled as they grasp for a solution. MacLean gives a slick, corporate edge to the pompous, entitled Claudius; and there’s a tinge of melancholy to McFaul’s cool, detached Gertrude. Vitorovich gives us some great comic turns as the intelligent but verbose Polonius and the cheeky, sharp-witted Gravedigger; and Eldershaw offers up compelling performances as the irreverent, fiery Laertes and the divalike First Player. And Beauchamp and Freeman are a great pair as the affable but duplicitous Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are more concerned about serving at Claudius’s pleasure than they are with helping their friend.

Those who aren’t protective of Hamlet’s health and welfare aren’t necessarily bad people—some are merely self-serving, clueless, in denial or negligent. And even those who strive to truly help find themselves spinning their wheels due to lack of awareness and subsequently missing what resources may be employed to help. Just like real life. A long neglected aspect of our health care system, we’re gradually seeing mental health come to the forefront. More of us are realizing that mental health is health.

Hamlet(s) continues in the b current Studio Theatre until November 24, with performances tonight (November 17) and November 22-24; please note the 7:30pm curtain time. Advance tickets available online—a good idea given the limited seating in this intimate venue, with a short run—at the door.