Fear, loathing & melancholy at an office party in the razor-sharp, edgy, timely Casimir and Caroline

Hallie Seline, Cameron Laurie & Alexander Crowther. Set & costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

The Howland Company presents the North American premiere of their adaptation of Ödön von Horváth’s Casimir and Caroline, based on the original translation by Holger Syme, and adapted by Paolo Santalucia, Holger Syme and the company. Razor-sharp, edgy and timely, we’re front and centre witnesses to the goings-on at an office summer party, where bigwigs and nobodies alike eat, drink and dance as fast as they can on the rooftop patio while they all still have jobs. Running in parallel collapse are the tensions and crises between the titular engaged couple and the various corporate machinations and relationships that churn among their co-workers. It’s a one percent vs. 99 percent world of “winners” and “losers”, and no one is as they seem. Directed by Paolo Santalucia, assisted by Thom Nyhuus, Casimir and Caroline opened its run in the Scotiabank Community Studio at Streetcar Crowsnest last night.

Caroline (Hallie Seline) is enjoying some fun time with colleagues at their summer office party on a rooftop patio—until fiancé Casimir (Alexander Crowther) shows up in a mood and pisses on her parade. He got fired from his job driving their boss Rankin (James Graham) the day before, he’s broke, his cellphone doesn’t work and he’s pissed that Caroline invited him to the party. With brutally honest friends Frank (Cameron Laurie) and Frank’s girlfriend Liz (Caroline Toal) on his side, Casimir stomps in and out of the party, becoming incensed when he sees Caroline chatting with newly met co-worker, the fashionable Sanders (Michael Ayres), and later witnessing her being hit on by corporate sleazeball Rankin!

Add to the mix the boyish intern Trevor (Michael Chiem), who’s been tasked with minding the popsicle stand; the intimidating boss lady Shira (Kimwun Perehinec), visiting from the Montreal office; the neurotic Mary from HR (Veronica Hortiguela), who worships Shira and wants to rise up the ranks; and her cool, sharp-tongued co-worker pal Ellie (Shruti Kothari)—and you have a lively, fascinating field guide of some favourite office animals.

It’s a one percent vs. 99 percent world of “winners” and “losers” where anyone can lose what they have at any time and without warning. There are those at the top, trying to maintain or grow their position; those who want to be at the top, in some cases by any means necessary; and those who are either stuck at the bottom, or who have fallen from corporate and social grace. Everyone is wearing a mask of some description, and true colours are revealed as the action unfolds. And as the party fun and jocularity among colleagues devolves, so too does Casimir and Caroline’s relationship.

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Hallie Seline, Caroline Toal, James Graham, Shruti Kothari, Veronica Hortiguela, Cameron Laurie, Alexander Crowther & Michael Ayres. Set & costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Outstanding performances all around. Seline’s Caroline has a strong sense of determination and resilience, edged with lovely sense of vulnerability; and Crowther’s Casimir is a tightly wound combination of bouffon Stanley Kowalski and hurt little boy. Laurie is both intimidating and comic as the ex-con Frank; and there’s great combative chemistry with Toal’s edgy, gruffly candid Liz. Graham’s Rankin is an entitled #MeToo poster boy, but there’s something deep and sensitive there too; and Perehinec gives stylish dragon lady Shira hints of magnanimous warmth and openness.

Ayres brings an affable charm to fashion writer Sanders, keeping us guessing whether Sanders’ smoothness has something to hide. Chiem is adorably cheerful as Millennial intern Trevor, who must decide if he wants to venture into the dark side of corporate life. Hortiguela brings both comedy and pathos as the socially awkward, ambitious Mary; and Kothari’s chill, sharply candid, in-the-know Ellie makes for the perfect foil—though Ellie’s cruelty may not always be meant in kindness.

The storytelling is nicely supported by Jeremy Hutton’s sound design and Evan MacKenzie’s composition, featuring frenetic, whirling retro accordion music in the pre-show (a nod to the 1930s German origins of the play) and some heavier urban music sounds; and Reanne Spitzer’s choreography, wild and flailing, with some synchronized group dancing.

The melancholy is balanced by absurdity—with the old adage about comedy equals tragedy plus timing in high evidence here. And elements of the ridiculous among the characters are ultimately full of poignancy. Disappointment, disillusionment and discouragement abound. The world is a fucked-up place and the ground is shaky for everyone—and that changes how people behave and present themselves. In the end, those who are genuine, sharply candid and able to express what they want are the ones who’ll make out okay.

Casimir and Caroline continues at Streetcar Crowsnest in the Scotiabank Community Studio until February 9; advance tickets available online. This is going to be a hot ticket, so advance booking is strongly recommended.

#MeToo from the other side in the sharply funny, provocative Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes

Alice Snaden & Matthew Edison. Set & costume design by Michael Gianfrancesco. Lighting design by Bonnie Beecher. Photo by Joy von Tiedemann.

 

Tarragon Theatre kicks off the New Year with the premiere of Hannah Moscovitch’s sharply funny, provocative #MeToo look at a student/professor affair in Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes, directed by Sarah Garton Stanley, assisted by Eva Barrie. A famous 40-something author and popular professor, grappling with writer’s block and a crumbling marriage, would rather not have the lovely, smart girl in the red coat standing so close to him—but he is irresistibly drawn to her despite the personal and professional ramifications. Questions of the nature of consent, power dynamic, and mixing up admiration and love, come into play as we witness the evolution of the relationship over time.

Jon (Matthew Edison) is a 40-something author and professor. Both famous for his writing and popular among students, he’s feeling out of sorts as he struggles with writer’s block on his current novel, and navigates separation and impending divorce from his third wife. Enter the bright and attractive first-year student Annie (Alice Snaden), who is a big fan. And she lives across the street from him.

Despite his scoffing at youthful sexuality and the middle-aged men who are attracted to it, and his initial discomfort at Annie’s attentions, Jon’s personal and professional resolve melt in the face of his hot mess of a life and a longing to get close to this fascinating young woman who appears to be coming on to him.

The “love story” is narrated by Jon, who speaks about himself in the third person and punctuates events with editorial comments that both admit and rationalize his actions. In this way, the narrative—presented from Jon’s point of view and coupled with surtitles that read like pointed chapter headings (video design by Laura Warren)—takes on the feel of a novel, written from a man’s point of view and ultimately relegating the female character to a roughly drawn, vague love interest. Despite his awareness of the sloppy, dismissive effect this has on writing, Jon proceeds to live this dynamic with Annie.

A few years after the end of the affair, Annie brings forward a perspective that questions the consensual nature of that relationship—given the age difference and power imbalance. As more years pass, Annie finds some closure as she examines their relationship from his point of view.

Razor-sharp, nuanced performances from Edison and Snaden in this thoughtful, provocative and funny two-hander; nicely complemented by Michael Gianfrancesco’s perspectival set of multiple doors, and Bonnie Beecher’s lighting design, adding a luminous sense of discovery and mystery. Edison gives Jon a genuine combination of cockiness and self-consciousness; above all the student drama, sex and stupidity, but wondering if he can still be cool and relate to them, Jon fears becoming a stereotypical middle-aged man who chases after younger women as much as he eschews the behaviour. Using the stresses of his mess of a life to rationalize his affair with Annie, Jon believes she’s coming on to him and that he’s really falling for her—and that makes it alright. Snaden brings an ethereal, wise child edge to Annie; wide-eyed, smart and a brilliant writer in her own right, Annie longs for acceptance, acknowledgment and a sense of identity. Despite Annie’s attention and attraction to Jon, and that she was of legal age, she realizes that she was still the student and he was still her professor.

Jon was in a position of power and could’ve stopped the affair from happening, but didn’t—and what Annie needed wasn’t a lover, but a mentor. In the end, it looks like they both mistook admiration for love. And the middle class isn’t as “nice” as some would expect.

Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes continues in the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace until February 2; advance tickets available online. This premiere is bound to provoke questions and discussions—get out to see it and get in on the conversation.

 

Questions of perception, assumption & expectation in the powerful, riveting, provocative Actually

Tony Ofori & Claire Renaud. Set design by Sean Mulcahy. Costume design by Alex Amini. Lighting design by Steve Lucas. Photo by Joanna Akyol.

 

The Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company, in association with Obsidian Theatre, opens its 13th season with Anna Ziegler’s Actually, directed by Philip Akin, assisted by Kanika Ambrose; and running in the Greenwin Theatre at the Meridian Arts Centre (formerly the Toronto Centre for the Arts). Two Ivey League freshmen, a Black male student and a Jewish female student, make a connection that becomes sexual in nature—and each has a very different experience and account of the night they spent together. Powerful, riveting and provocative—featuring compelling and genuine performances—this timely two-hander takes you on a see-saw ride of belief, empathy and understanding; highlighting perceptions, assumptions and expectations based on race, gender and class.

Excited, terrified and determined to do well, Amber (Claire Renaud) and Tom (Tony Ofori) arrive at Princeton for their first year of studies. She’s quirky and awkward, with romantic notions of sex and limited experience; he’s got swagger and game, with a sexually active lifestyle and a commitment to sowing his youthful wild oats. Opposites attract on common ground as the two make a connection; and attraction brings them together in Tom’s bed.

During their encounter, Amber finds that something changes for her; and their initially sexy fun times experience becomes uncomfortable and unwanted. She relates how she attempts to put a stop to it by getting off the bed, saying “Actually…” Tom believes she was into it, and later remembers nothing from her verbal communication or body language that would have suggested otherwise. Amber comments on the night to a friend, and the response prompts her to report the incident to the university, which launches a sexual misconduct investigation and hearing. Amber believes she was raped, and Tom is shocked and mortified by the allegation.

As their individual and collective stories unfold, the audience goes from being confidante—as we hear about their lived experiences with family, sex, desire, what inspires them—to university hearing panelist as they make their statements. Both had a lot to drink on the night in question. Both feel like outsiders with much to prove, anxiously navigating their first year at a prestigious school, along with raging 18-year-old hormones, and a culture of sex and partying. Not the best conditions for making good choices. Both live with body issues: Amber with the pressures of traditional feminine beauty standards; and Tom with the everyday racism and prejudice that accompany the colour of his skin. The seriousness of Amber’s rape charge lands particularly hard on Tom—a young Black man living in a world stewed in toxic, ongoing systemic racism. And Amber’s initial tacit consent that night, going to his room for the purposes of sex, combined with her behaviour earlier that evening, puts her credibility in question.

Compelling, genuine and nuanced performances from Renaud and Ofori in this vital, timely piece of theatre. Renaud brings a big spark of light, energy and pathos to the adorkable, hyper-talkative Amber; a young woman desperately treading water to stay afloat in a new world of classes, assignments, squash practice and obligatory partying. Amber finds herself wanting and not wanting at the same time; pressed forward by social media-driven peer pressure, she engages in activities and behaviour even when her heart isn’t really in it. Ofori’s Tom is a complex portrait of a confident, frank young man who wants to do his family proud; Tom is the first of his working class family to attend university, let alone at an Ivey League school. There’s a sensitive soul beneath the swagger, expressed through Tom’s love of classical music and piano playing—where he finds a space to be free.

It would be grossly simplistic to call this a “he said/she said” story. As you vacillate between believing and sympathizing with one, and then the other, in the end you may find yourself believing both of them. And if both are right, on which side of this 50/50 situation will the feather land in the final decision? In this age of #MeToo and #consent, and with all of these complex and intersectional variables to consider, audiences will no doubt come away with questions, conversations and reflections. This story is a prime example of why sex, sexuality and consent need to be taught in elementary and secondary schools.

Actually continues in the Greenwin Theatre at the Meridian Arts Centre (formerly the Toronto Centre for the Arts) until September 29. Advance tickets available online by clicking on the show page calendar.

ICYMI: Check out assistant director Kanika Ambrose’s Artist Perspective piece for Intermission Magazine.

Gender power dynamics get a table flip in the provocative, timely Beautiful Man

Foreground: Ashley Botting, Mayko Nguyen & Sofía Rodríguez. Background: Jess LaVercombe. Set design by Gillian Gallow. Costume design by Ming Wong. Lighting design by Jason Hand. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography.

 

Factory Theatre closes its 2018-19 season with Erin Shields’ Beautiful Man. Directed by long-time Shields collaborator Andrea Donaldson (now the new AD at Nightwood Theatre), assisted by Keshia Palm, Beautiful Man was first produced during SummerWorks in 2015—a few years before the #MeToo movement exploded into public consciousness. A hilariously sharp, satirical and thought-provoking turnabout of gender power dynamics, Shields has revised the original script to reflect the #MeToo landscape; and has added a section that provides a sense of everyday realism—in both cases, flipping gender power roles in surprising, provocative ways.

I first saw Beautiful Man at SummerWorks 2015—and loved it. Not for the feint-hearted when it comes to adult language, and discussions of graphic sex and violence, the razor-sharp, bawdy, no holds barred script and the playful, rapid fire performances turn the tables on who is marginalized and objectified. Three women—Jennifer (Ashley Botting), Sophie (Mayko Nguyen) and Pam (Sofía Rodríguez)—get into a passionate discussion about popular scripted media; all stories in which the female characters hold the power, and men are subject to objectification and violence. A movie about a world-weary, tough yet haunted female homicide detective on the hunt for a female serial killer who preys on beautiful men. Exhausted and zoning out in front of the TV, the detective watches a violent, graphically sexual Game of Thrones-esque fantasy fiction series featuring a powerful, cruel queen and her amazon warrior sister. Within the TV show, the queen watches a play with a plot that’s similar to Julius Caesar, but with women in the key roles; and within that play, a puppet show starring a lusty cave woman. Yep, it’s a puppet show within a play, within a TV series, within a movie—all within a play!

Throughout this first fantasy section of the play, the Beautiful Man (Jesse LaVercombe) is a peripheral character, always present in the background, with little to say as he gradually removes his clothing throughout. A sensitive, supportive but frustrated husband; a poignant murder/rape victim; a conquered sex slave. Valued only for his beauty and usefulness to the women in charge, his name is perpetually forgotten. In the epilogue, the shifted power dynamic continues, but in a markedly different way, as a woman relates personal anecdotes of navigating everyday corporate oppression, mansplaining, harassment, self-doubt and chastisement, and fear for her safety.

Outstanding performances from the entire cast in this thought-provoking, timely piece of theatre. Beyond mere fan girl involvement with the media they’re consuming and discussing, the three women engage on a deeply personal level with the movie, TV series, play and puppet show. Botting’s Jennifer displays wry wit and shameless enthusiasm; Nguyen’s Sophie brings an edge of precision and authority; and Rodríguez’s Pam relishes the sensual and forbidden. At times misremembering details in their reverie, these three  women find a titillating oasis in these stories of sex, violence and dominant female characters. And LaVercombe gives a sensitive and moving performance as the Beautiful Man. Viewed as eye candy, the “other half”, a sex object, a victim, and only subjectively and conditionally seen as useful—this is a man standing in places traditionally endured by women.

Despite the graphic sex and violence described during the first part of the play, not to mention the fact that these women are really getting off on it, the second part is perhaps the most provocative. What impact does it have on the conversations about these issues? Will the everyday oppression of women be better understood when told in this manner? Who gets the last word?

Beautiful Man continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until May 26; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416- 504-9971.

Check out this Intermission Spotlight piece on Shields and her work by Carly Maga, including chats with Shields, Donaldson and Maev Beaty. And Megan Robinson’s conversation with Shields and Donaldson in In the Greenroom.

A family confronted with its own #MeToo secret in the complex, honest Lies and Consequences

You can’t change the past, but you can share it.

Rare Day Projects presents Carol Libman’s Lies and Consequences, directed by Jeanette Dagger and running this week only at Red Sandcastle Theatre. With the genesis of the play occurring well before the emergence of the #MeToo movement, playwright Libman was inspired to return to it and complete the script—and tell this story.

Lauded popular author Martha (Tara Baxendale) is under pressure to complete her next novel, inspired by Catherine the Great, as she juggles the scheduling nightmare that is her professional and personal life. Struggling with writer’s block, but looking forward to catching up with her sister Cathy (Martha Breen) at an upcoming weekend of celebration around her cousin/BFF Peter’s (Ryan Bannon) science award ceremony, she’s suddenly thrown back into the past when a drunken make-out session with her journalist boyfriend Andre (Derek Perks) goes from clumsily enthusiastic to overly aggressive, triggering the memory of a childhood incident of sexual assault.

Confiding in Cathy, Martha shares how their uncle John (Christopher Kelk)—Peter’s father and their deceased father’s brother—attempted to sexually assault her while they were alone at her home, retrieving chairs for a family picnic; she was 10 years old at the time. Peter’s wife Karen (Clara Matheson) has invited the whole family to a dinner in Peter’s honour—but Martha finds herself unable to attend, as she wishes to avoid all contact with John. She also doesn’t want to spoil Peter’s weekend by telling him what happened with John. Still wanting to see her cousin, she drops by his hotel room to congratulate him and decline the dinner invitation—where she bumps into John.

A confrontation between Martha and John in the hotel hallway grabs the attention of Karen and Peter, who invite them back into their room to learn what is amiss; they are soon joined by Cathy. Revelations, denial and gaslighting ensue, as the family divides into those who believe Martha and those who believe John’s version of the story—that Martha’s assertions are the result of childish misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

Lovely work from the cast on this timely, sensitive topic—covering the gamut of responses to a family incident of assault on a child. Baxendale does a nice job balancing Martha’s sharply intelligent and tightly wound adult side with the haunted, fearful child within. The past keeps rearing its ugly head, and Martha must find the courage to confront it if she’s going to have any peace. Kelk’s performance as John deftly combines the likeable with the deplorable; the supportive and trusted favourite uncle accused of having dark, secret desires—which John vehemently denies, spins and gaslights his way around. Classic victim-blaming and shaming, as the perpetrator makes himself out to be the wronged party as the survivor struggles with self-doubt and self-blame.

As Cathy, Breen brings a bubbly, positive, supportive light to the dark fog of Martha’s situation; open-minded, open-hearted and listening, Cathy is sharply contrasted by Matheson’s prim, controlling Karen—who seems to care more about avoiding disruption to her perfectly orchestrated celebration plans for Peter’s award. Bannon is adorakable as the brilliant but disorganized Peter, giving the performance an affable, absent-minded professor flavour. And Perks is both devilishly charming and sweetly supportive as Martha’s boyfriend Andre; not as woke as he might think, Andre’s willing to listen, learn and change his behaviour.

The ripples of sexual assault are far-reaching, impacting the survivor’s perceptions of time, space and intimacy—and, in this case, family dynamics. Internalized shame, self-blame, and the fear of not being believed or heard have silenced Martha, leaving her haunted and second-guessing herself. And it isn’t until she’s able to share her experience with Andre, who realizes he was in the wrong that drunken date night, that she’s able to fully communicate what was behind her reaction to his advances—and ultimately move on from the past.

Lies and Consequences continues at Red Sandcastle Theatre until May 5, with evening performances at 8 pm May 2-4; and matinées at 2 pm on May 4 and 5. Tickets ($25 general; $20 for students/seniors/arts workers) are available at the door (cash only), online or by calling 1-800-838-3006.

 

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.

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.