Women’s stories across the ages in the sharp-witted, illuminating & timely Top Girls

Jordi O’Dael (Gret), Jennifer Fahy (Patient Griselda), Charlotte Ferrarei (Pope Joan), Alison Dowling (Marlene), Lisa Lenihan (Isabella Bird), Tea Nguyen (Lady Nijo). Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Bec Brownstone. Lighting design by Jay Hines. Projection design by Madison Madhu. Photo by Bruce Peters.

 

Alumnae Theatre Company opened its timely, updated production of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls last night, directed by Alysa Golden, assisted by DJ Elektra. Sharp-witted, illuminating and theatrical, Top Girls is a both an observation and commentary of women’s lived experiences across the ages. Written in 1982 and given a contemporary framing in this production, it’s both funny and sad how little has changed for women in terms of opportunity, oppression, and the expectations of the spaces they occupy and the roles they play—a timely undertaking in the age of #MeToo and #timesup.

We open on a fantasy dinner party, hosted by Marlene (Alison Dowling), who is celebrating her promotion at the Top Girls employment agency. Her guests include the fastidious Victorian world traveller Isabella Bird (Lisa Lenihan); 13th century Japanese concubine and material girl Lady Nijo (Tea Nguyen); Gret, the coarse, lusty subject of Breughel painting “Dulle Griet” (Jordi O’Dael); the esoteric, philosophical Pope Joan (Charlotte Ferrarei); and the unquestioningly obedient Griselda, from Chaucer’s “The Clerk’s Tale” (Jennifer Fahy). The women share stories of love, marriage, motherhood, travel, oppression and hardship as they eat, drink and descend into drunken stupor.

Shifting into present day, we meet Marlene’s niece Angie (Rebekah Reuben), who lives in the country with her mother, Marlene’s sister Joyce (Nyiri Karakas), and spends most of her time with best friend Kit (Naomi Koven), who is several years younger. More than just a handful of a teenager, Angie is troubled, young for her age, and adrift in her life; mistrusting and disrespecting of her mother, she dreams of getting away and learning the truth about herself.

We get a glimpse of the Top Girls employment agency, populated by female recruiters, the office abuzz with Marlene’s upcoming move to her own office and greater things. Not everyone is thrilled, however, and a male colleague’s wife Mrs. Kidd (Lenihan) pays a visit to protest his being passed over. Marlene’s colleagues Win (Claire Keating) and Nell (Grace Thompson) interview prospective recruits— including a couple of ambitious, vague 20-somethings (April Rebecca) and an overlooked, undervalued 40-something (Peta Mary Bailey). Angie arrives on the scene, having gone AWOL from home and inviting herself to stay at Marlene’s.

Jumping a year into the past, Marlene visits Joyce and Angie—tricked by Angie with an invitation that supposedly came from Joyce. The family dynamic of estrangement between the estranged sisters comes into focus, as does a life-changing family secret.

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Naomi Koven (Kit), Nyiri Karakas (Joyce). Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Bec Brownstone. Lighting design by Jay Hines. Projection design by Madison Madhu. Photo by Bruce Peters.

Lovely work all around from this considerable, all-female cast, with several actors playing multiple characters. Stand-outs include Dowling as the sharp, bold and unapologetic Marlene, who’s executed some major shifts in her life to get where she is, in spite of the naysaying and resentment from family and male colleagues. Reuben is both exasperating and poignant as the immature, lost Angie; like her mother, we come to worry for her future—she can’t hide out and play in the backyard with her little friend Kit (played with sweet, wise child energy by Koven) forever. Karakas brings a home-spun rural edge to the gruff, worn-out Joyce; unlike Marlene, who couldn’t get out of town fast enough, Joyce stayed in their hometown to raise Angie.

Keating and Thompson make a great pair as the gossipy, snippy and ambitious Top Girls recruiters, interviewing their respective prospects with the impervious attitude of entitled gate keepers. And O’Dael brings both great comedy and drama as Gret, with her hearty appetite, lust for life and hair-raising tale of her campaign against the demons of Hell.

Golden’s theatrical, multimedia staging is both technically effective and dramatically compelling, as scenes shift from fantasy to reality, and present to past—Teodoro Dragonieri’s set largely constructed from doors, an apt image for the production. Scene changes feature a spritely young Dancer (a confident, mischievous and willowy Estella Haensel); and Viv Moore’s elegant, expressive choreography is playfully and tenderly accompanied by Richard Campbell’s sound design. Projected backgrounds (projection design by Madison Madhu) mark the change of space and passage of time, form urban to rural, and light to dark.

While the lives, times and stories of these women vary dramatically, crossing a broad range of lived experience, the themes of class, female identity and male entitlement emerge as common threads. The more things change, the more they stay the same. It is comic in its tragedy that, in 2019, half of the world’s population is still held back, to varying—and sometimes violent and criminal—degrees, from achieving its full potential. On the upside, we see these women persevere and push back—breaking rules and shattering expectations to thrive and live their dreams.

Top Girls continues this weekend on the Alumnae mainstage until February 2; get tickets online, by calling 416-364-4170 (ext. 1) or in-person at the box office one hour before curtain time (cash only).

The run includes a pre-show Panel “Women, Power and Success in the Age of Me Too” on January 24 at 6:30 pm; and a post-show talkback with the director and cast on January 27.

Check out the trailer by Nicholas Porteous:

 

Department of corrections: The original post misnamed the lighting designer as Jan Hines in the two photo credits; it’s actually Jay Hines. This has been corrected.

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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.

 

 

Playfully whimsical, profoundly poignant & sharply candid ruminations in Dawna J. Wightman’s honey be

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Dawna J. Wightman. Photo by Vince Lupo.

 

Montreal-born Dawna J. Wightman is an award-winning Toronto-based actor, playwright and writer. Toronto audiences will recognize Wightman from her solo show Life as a Pomegranate, as well as Yellow Birds (Alumnae Theatre’s FireWorks Festival, 2015) and A Mickey Full of Mouse (Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, 2016 and Toronto Fringe, 2017). She’s currently working on adapting her unpublished dark fantasy novel A Yarn of Bone & Paper, based on her ebook: Faeries Real & Imagined: How to Create Magical Adventures for Very Young Children, into a feature film. She’s also working with director Theresa Kowall-Shipp on her short Kid Gloves, set to shoot November 2018.

As part of the funding process for Kid Gloves, Wightman self-published and sold honey be, “a collection of sweet words and some that sting,” including hand-painted covers and “surprises” stuffed inside. The first 50-volume print run sold out in about a week; and a second run will be available this month, featuring cover art design by Wightman’s daughter Sabine Spare.

Much like Wightman’s theatre work, the stories, poems and snippets in honey be range from playfully whimsical to profoundly poignant to sharply candid—often all in the same story and sometimes autobiographical in nature. While there are no titles, each piece bears an italicized post-script at the end; in some cases, these take on a conversational and even self-deprecating tone, making for a personal, intimate read.

The themes of family, motherhood and friendship come up in several pieces. There’s the story about Mrs. Kay, written from the perspective of a precocious, neglected eight-year-old who finds a home with fellow misfit schoolmate Sandra Kay and her quirky family; and the goofy four-legged family member Bella in just a dog. Reminders that family can sometimes be found in unexpected places—and to never judge a book by its cover.

There’s heart-wrenching nostalgia with an ode to her son in little boy; and remembrances of wearing an itchy baby blue Phentex dress and being her mother’s go-fer at the bingo hall, in pretty little head. And the heartache and fumbling for what to say to a friend living with cancer tumble out in the visceral when we found out you had cancer and in the outpouring of loving, supportive words in the piece that follows.

Ruminations on body image and aging come up as well, from the erotic in late summer, to the sharply candid and calling bullshit on the ridiculous expectations placed on women’s bodies—professionally and personally—in tits and ass and #chubbyprettywoman, and the #MeToo shock of new neighbour.

Quirky, bittersweet, child-like grown-up, all of the stories in honey be are tinged with humour and poignancy, and the everyday acknowledgement of life’s remarkable moments. And one gets the sense that, beyond coming from a place of truth telling—there’s a deep longing to share these words. There’s a line in the movie Shadowlands, from a C.S. Lewis quote: “We read to know we are not alone”—one could easily also say “We write to let others know they are not alone.”

Copies of honey be will be available for $20.00 via emailing wightrabiit@gmail.com; website coming soon. Wightman will be performing a reading from the book at Stratford’s SpringWorks Festival on October 11.

 

Toronto Fringe: Trial by browser history in the razor sharp, darkly funny Featherweight

Kat Letwin, Michael Musi & Amanda Cordner. Photo by John Gundy.

 

Theatre Brouhaha is back at Toronto Fringe with with Tom McGee’s razor sharp, darkly funny look at judgement for the afterlife, Featherweight—inspired by Egyptian mythology and Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What The Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are—directed by McGee and running at The Paddock Tavern.

A customized courtroom of the Egyptian mythology persuasion takes form as The Paddock Tavern; presided over by Anubis (Amanda Cordner) and her servant Thoth (Kat Letwin)—in this case, for the judgement of the recently deceased Jeff (Michael Musi). Traditionally, the heart of the dead is put through the Trial of Osiris: Weighed against a feather to determine whether the soul moves on to the Field of Reeds or is devoured by the demon Ammit (who, in this case, lives in The Paddock’s kitchen).

The bar was an important place in Jeff’s life, hence its appearance as his place of judgement; Anubis appears as his ex-girlfriend and servant Thoth appears as a Downton Abbey-esque Butler. Weary of judging souls for the afterlife, and aggravated by a broken justice system, a suicidal Anubis ups the ante by adding Jeff’s browser history to the scale; and proceeds to summon witnesses from his life that aren’t included on the previously approved list. The fastidious, wry-witted Thoth is to be the channel for these crucial people from Jeff’s life—and she doesn’t like this plan at all.

Faced with the soul of his father—who also faced judgement in The Paddock—we get some insight into Jeff’s dysfunctional childhood, hanging out in the bar without any meaningful guidance from a father figure. And his browser history offers some damning evidence of complicity in several #MeToo incidents; in his case, indirect, as he wasn’t the perpetrator.

Stellar work from the three-hander cast; serving up compelling, entertaining and sharply focused performances in this quirky, edgy and sardonic tale. What does our online footprint say about us, our lives and our relationships with others—and should we be judged accordingly?

Featherweight has three more performances at The Paddock: tonight through Sunday at 8 pm; it’s sold out for the remainder of the run, but you can take your chances at the door for rush seats by arriving early.

Want to check if the show you want to see is sold out? The Toronto Fringe folks have set up a page for sold-out shows, updated daily.

 

Toronto Fringe: An intersectional heart-to-heart on the state of manhood in the candid, funny, brave We The Men

Sunday Muse, Mercy Cherian, Rachel Brophy & Sundance Nagrial. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Sam’s having the guys over at his cottage—and we’re all invited!

The back room stage of the Cadillac Lounge is transformed into the living room of Sam’s cottage as Soulo Theatre takes us behind the scenes of a heart-to-heart gathering on the state of manhood with its Toronto Fringe production of We The Men. Co-created by director Tracey Erin Smith and an ensemble of Dude for a Day workshop participants, and inspired by hearing men’s stories during Soulo Theatre’s Step To The Line events, women portray male characters—and the sexes come together from the other side of the gender divide in the hopes of bridging the gap and coming to a greater understanding.

The storytelling, which includes stories that emerged from male Step To The Line participants, draws on important and timely ongoing issues: Debates about complicity—direct or indirect—in #MeToo scenarios; societal, familial and cultural challenges and pressures; physical abuse and bullying; and struggles with identity, sexuality, loneliness and finding love. Heartfelt anecdotes and confessions emerge from the cocky, fart-filled party atmosphere as the men confront themselves and each other with their experiences, beliefs and perceptions—giving us a fly-on-the-wall perspective of men’s lives. And one is struck that, while women will naturally open up and have these kinds of conversations—revealing shame, vulnerability and confusion—it’s maybe not so easy or as common for men. And we all need to have those conversations.

Featuring energetic, entertaining and poignant performances from Rachel Brophy, Mercy Cherian, Jacqueline Dawe, Savoy Howe, Sunday Muse, Sundance Nagrial, Silvi Santoso, Savannah Binder and Todd, We The Men is a candid, funny and brave intersectional exploration of what it means to be a man in the 21st century.

We The Men continues at the Cadillac Lounge until July 15; check the show page for exact dates and times. For the inside scoop on the inspiration and creative process, check out this great interview with Tracey Erin Smith by She Does the City. And check out the show’s Facebook event page for bios and character descriptions.

Lust, corruption & the pursuit of justice in Shakespeare BASH’d sharply funny, timely Measure for Measure

Sochi Fried & Geoffrey Armour. Scenic design by Caitlin Doherty. Photo by Kyle Purcell.

 

Shakespeare BASH’d returns to a Toronto pub to present one of the less produced plays of the canon: Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, directed by Catherine Rainville and opening last night at Junction City Music Hall. Given the current #MeToo climate, with powerful and famous—in some cases, respected and even beloved—men called out and taken to court for sexual harassment and assault, and female accusers disbelieved and finding themselves faced with challenging choices, it couldn’t be more timely.

Duke Vincentio (David Ross) is well aware that local laws regarding moral and sexual conduct have gone by the wayside, with officials turning a blind eye to cases of fornication, adultery and sex work. When he decides to get some distance and perspective on his kingdom and people—in what today, we’d call an undercover boss move—he leaves his deputy Angelo (Geoffrey Armour) in charge, with trusted advisor Escalus (Olivia Croft) acting as his second; the Duke tells no one that he’s actually staying in the city, disguised as a Friar as he conducts his observations.

No sooner has Angelo been granted power than he starts rounding up whores, bawds (Lesley Robertson as Pompey) and fornicators, including young Claudio (Jeff Yung), who with the exception of an official ceremony is essentially married to his pregnant love Juliet (Megan Miles). Juliet’s condition protects her from execution, but Claudio is to be put to death for his crime. Claudio’s friend Lucio (Michael Man) informs Claudio’s sister Isabella (Sochi Fried) of her brother’s fate, urging her to plead with Angelo for mercy. When she does so, Angelo’s response is to extort her chastity in exchange for her brother’s life.

Faced with the terrible choice of seeing her brother put to death or surrendering her virtue, Isabella encounters the disguised Duke, who has some interesting information about Angelo, and hatches a plan with her, the maid Mariana (Melanie Leon) and the Provost (Drew O’Hara) to make things right.

With its signature accessible performance and resonant connection with the audience, Shakespeare BASH’d plays up the comedy in this production, however dark at times, to add a spoonful of sugar to this otherwise serious cautionary tale. Angelo’s heavy-handed adherence to the letter of the law, coupled with his vain and entitled sense of virtue and status, make for an ugly and merciless rule—and, like many men in his situation, he believes his power and position make him immune to scrutiny. Who would believe the accusations of a young female nobody? This is how men like him have gotten away with it. The ending is a question mark, making us wonder even about the ‘good guys.’

The ensemble is a finely tuned storytelling delight. Stand-out performances include Armour’s conflicted but entitled Angelo; a dark and corrupt man who struggles with his own lustful desires, he ultimately believes he’s above the law he’s so cruelly enforcing. As Isabella, Fried brings a sense of quiet contemplation, thoughtful oration and fierce vulnerability; Isabella’s genuine goodness and attempt at true justice stand in sharp contrast to Angelo’s hypocritical mask of virtue. Ross gives the Duke a balanced sense of fairness and firmness; progressive where Angelo is regressive, the Duke realizes that the law is a living thing that must reflect the society it rules. Hilarious, sharp-witted comic turns from Man, as the incorrigible scallywag Lucio; and Robertson, as the delightfully coarse Pompey. And shouts to producers/co-founders Julia Nish-Lapidus and James Wallis for stepping in with outstanding comic timing and panache—and off book!—for actor Cara Pantalone (as Mistress Overdone, Froth and Abhorson), who was off sick with no voice last night. The show must, and does, go on.

Lust, corruption and the pursuit of justice in the face of merciless hypocrisy in Shakespeare BASH’d sharply funny, timely Measure for Measure.

Measure for Measure continues at Junction City Music Hall till May 6; advance tickets available online ($20) or at the door ($25 cash only). The first half of this short run is sold out, and there’s limited availability for Friday-Sunday. Tickets are going fast, so book in advance or arrive extra early to get on the wait list.