Speaking truth to power in raw, real, fierce & funny Sound of the Beast

Tamyka Bullen (onscreen) & Donna-Michelle St. Bernard in Sound of the Beast—photo by Michael Cooper

 

Hear ye, hear ye

let it be known,

No one on my block walks alone.

 

Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) closes its 2016-17 season with Donna-Michelle St. Bernard’s (aka Belladonna the Blest) Sound of the Beast, co-directed by Andy McKim and Jivesh Parasram, with ASL components by Tamyka Bullen, and featuring composition and sound design by David Mesiha. Sound of the Beast opened in the TPM Backspace last night.

Inspired by the story of Tunisian rapper Weld El 15, whose artistic freedom of speech was muzzled by police and government, and part of St. Bernard’s 54ology (her commitment to create a performance piece from each country in Africa), Sound of the Beast combines rap and spoken word with lived experiences for an up-close, profoundly personal and resonant performance. Complementing St. Bernard’s storytelling is a projected performance of Tamyka Bullen’s poetry, performed in ASL with English surtitles (projection design by Cameron Davis). And a series of radio voice-overs (Glyn Bowerman), updating us on news of an “incident” in a “priority neighbourhood,” provide a bleak commentary on the clueless, one-sided and white-washed view of mainstream media.

Autobiographical, observational and replete with first-hand lives lived in an environment of racism, mistrust and injustice, words and stories that we may only have read or seen on the news come to life. Urgent. Shocking. In front of us. What is the most shocking is that stories of oppression and injustice are not shocking, but part of our everyday lives.

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Donna-Michelle St. Bernard in Sound of the Beast—photo by Michael Cooper

A compelling and engaging storyteller, St. Bernard shifts easily from pointed remarks and calling out prejudice, to casual and conversational moments. She puts forth hypothetical scenarios and asks us how we would respond; making us active participants as we silently think about the choices in front of us. And during two poignant and charged scenes, she speaks to her imaginary young son; guiding him on how to behave, speak and even set his facial expressions in order to stay safe out there when confronted by the authorities. At times speaking to us as friends, she takes us in and along on her journey—her research on Weld El, her personal experiences—genuine, infuriating, heartbreaking, hilarious. Shifting from a stand-up storytelling vibe, to in our faces or in emcee performance mode, St. Bernard moves through the space with ease and fluidity, with professionalism and personality. Singing and speaking with strength, emotion and moving beats, her job is to tell it—and she brings it big time.

Speaking as a Deaf woman born into a “hearing Indian-Guyanese Hindu-Christian family”—and living in a “hearing, straight Eurocentric Christian patriarchal country,” Bullen’s poetry is beautiful, moving and revealing. Highlighting the intersectionality of experiences of oppression and prejudice among the Black and Deaf communities, she points to how heavy unemployment and underemployment leave marginalized people struggling to get by in a system that “operates for so long based on ignorance and hate.” Writing of poverty, PTSD, the immigrant experience and her relationship with the earth, Bullen reminds us of the ever present need for mindfulness, awareness and compassion—and how we are all we are all born of the same Mother Earth.

Coiled on the floor and ready, the microphone is St. Bernard’s weapon and bridge; and the black hoodie she dons at the opening of her performance and sheds at the close is her storytelling cloak. If you are not black or marginalized, you can only glean so much from what you see and hear in the news about these lived experiences. Of being constantly under surveillance because of the colour of your skin and the neighbourhood you live in. Of being questioned by law enforcement for no reason. Of being misunderstood and not knowing what you’re supposed to say. Of unarmed youth being shot by police. Sound of the Beast brings it in closer. Come and hear for yourself.

Speaking truth to power in raw, real, fierce and funny Sound of the Beast.

Sound of the Beast continues in the TPM Backspace until May 7; book tickets online or call 416-504-7529. Advance booking strongly recommended—it’s a powerful show and an intimate space.

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You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll sing along in your heart with the brilliant, hilarious & deeply poignant Stupidhead!

Katherine Cullen & Britta Johnson in Stupidhead!—photo by Michael Cooper

 

Better late than never to the party, as I finally got out to see Katherine Cullen and Britta Johnson’s SummerWorks hit Stupidhead! A Musical Comedy, directed by Aaron Willis—now in its final week in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Mainspace.

Written and performed by Cullen and Johnson, who also collaborated on the lyrics, with music by Johnson, Stupidhead! is a part musical, part stand-up, part personal storytelling journey of Cullen’s experience living with dyslexia.

Stupidhead! is Cullen’s childhood dream of being in a musical come true. And, despite her lack of training, experience and self-reported ability, she was determined to make it happen; and recruited her good friend Johnson to help her write the music. Johnson joins her onstage, accompanying her on piano and back-up vocals—reacting to Cullen’s performance throughout, sometimes cracking up along with the audience.

Pointing out that dyslexia affects people differently, Cullen has no trouble with reading and writing—and as a child enjoyed escaping into writing poetry, and stories about the adventures of a silly koala and rabbit. Diagnosed at a young age, Cullen relates her struggles with math, organizational skills and directions, finding herself mentally lost at school and physically lost in her own neighbourhood—and, above all, labelled. And that label put her in the position of having to deal with ignorance and lack of compassion from others, making her sense of otherness feel even more isolating and humiliating, and becoming a part of her identity.

Her anecdotes about trying to fit in are both hilarious and moving—from her grade three poetry contest nemesis (now a CFL football player), to being lost on her own street, to two weeks in a puppet camp in Vermont as a young adult and her love of Jesus Christ Superstar—all delivered with genuine feeling and gusto. While it’s a show about the “glamour of failure,” it’s also a show about throwing off the chains of shame and isolation. In the end, Cullen avoids tying it up neatly, but emerges from the darker moments of her experience into a place of hope and determination.

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Katherine Cullen in Stupidhead!—photo by Michael Cooper

Cullen shines onstage. An engaging, genuine and charming performer, she’s gutsy and kick-ass, but also vulnerable and fragile. As she schools us on dyslexia, she gives us the straight goods about what it’s like to live inside her head. And she gives ‘er with the music, putting her all into performing the songs, from belted out numbers to gentle, heartfelt ballads. She and Johnson make a terrific duo. Johnson is pretty damn funny herself; and there’s a lovely tender moment of compassion and understanding between them that rings with friendship and love. And their anthem of “don’t give up!” brought tears to my eyes.

With big shouts to set designer Anahita Dehbonehie and lighting designer Jennifer Lennon for the cool and beautiful neurosciencey environment.

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll sing along in your heart with the brilliant, hilarious and deeply poignant Stupidhead!

Stupidhead! continues in the TPM Mainspace, closing on Apr 2; book in advance online or call 416-504-7529. Check out Hallie Seline’s interview with Cullen and Johnson for In the Greenroom.

And here’s the trailer:

 

 

Intense, complex psychological game of cat & mouse in interrogation thriller Caught

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Sabryn Rock, Meegwun Fairbrother & Jakob Ehman in Caught – photo by Michael Cooper

Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) continues its 2015-16 season with resident playwright Jordi Mand’s intimate and gripping Caught, directed by Sarah Garton Stanley.

Sixteen-year-old James (Jakob Ehman) has been caught for theft over $2,000 by department store security guard Trisha (Sabryn Rock) and is being held for questioning in the store’s security holding room while they wait for the police to arrive. James dances around her questions, particularly keen to withhold his name, parents’ cell numbers and address. Cagey and suspect as he continues to rationalize his actions, he has no luck winning over Trisha, who’s becoming increasingly irritated at having to deal with this kid, as well as the poor walkie talkie reception with the officer en route. And by the time the cop arrives (Dan, played by Meegwun Fairbrother), machinations and misunderstandings are well underway. As the interrogation continues, connections and relationships are uncovered – and the balance of power shifts with every new revelation till the three-way dynamic reaches a fevered pitch.

Caught is a short, tight one-act that turns up the heat gradually during the course of the proceedings – and this excellent cast is more than up for it. There’s a tightly wound, restless edge to Rock’s Trisha; intensely focused and earnestly dedicated to her job – perhaps too much so – she’s a suffer-no-fools, by-the-book kinda gal who will occasionally colour outside the lines when circumstances force her to do so. She takes ‘serve and protect’ very seriously and maybe a bit too personally – to the point that she finds herself choosing between justice and the law. Ehman’s performance of James weaves charming, even lovable, precociousness with an infuriating sense of rich kid entitlement; Puck-like, bright and emoting innocence, you’d love this kid if he weren’t such a manipulative little asshole. Fairbrother brings a great sense of inner conflict to Dan and is a great foil for Rock’s Trisha. An imposing figure who can intimidate with the best of them, Dan is a pragmatic, no-nonsense guy – something he has in common with Trisha; however, that’s where their similarities end. As events unfold, it’s clear that Dan is more concerned about his application for promotion, and must choose between departmental politics and justice.

With shouts to production designer John Thompson and assistant Elizabeth Traicus for realizing a tight, realistic interrogation space – one that includes a large cut out window for the audience to witness the action therein, making us part of the system.

An intense, complex psychological game of cat and mouse in interrogation thriller Caught.

Caught runs till Apr 24 in the TPM Backspace – box office info here; you can book tix in advance online.

Check out the awesome new trailer (by Hallie Seline):

 

Delight & devastation in deeply moving, insightful & brutally honest Pyaasa

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Anusree Roy as Chaya in Pyaasa – photo by Michael Cooper

“Life isn’t easy, Chaya … but you have to believe in it.”Pyassa, by Anusree Roy

Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) opened its remount of Anusree Roy’s Dora award-winning one-woman play Pyaasa in the Backspace last night. Directed by Thomas Morgan Jones and originally produced in 2008 to sold-out houses, the Pyaasa remount is part of TPM’s 50th Anniversary Celebration Play Series, which will feature one remount per season until 2018.

Born into an Untouchable family, 11-year-old Chaya lives with her parents in a leaky tent under a bridge; both parents work cleaning toilets – her mother in people’s homes and her father at the local police station. Longing to go to school, Chaya works on her times tables while her mother paves the path for her future. A higher caste servant in a home where her mother works has a son who runs a tea shop, and Chaya’s mother secures a position for her there: cleaning tea cups in exchange for tea and some food – a move that proves to be life-changing for Chaya.

Roy is spell-binding, shifting adeptly between characters, her posture and facial expressions specific and unmistakable for each character she assumes. Chaya’s mother, bent from work; submissive and ingratiating with higher caste persons, but a feisty fighter for her family and in the long line for the communal water pump. The haughty higher caste servant, clenched and tight-lipped – and wary of being touched even by the shadow of an Untouchable. As Chaya, Roy is a delight; a bubbly, bright and inquisitive tween with an unquenchable thirst (“pyaasa” means “thirsty” in Hindi and “Chaya” means “shadow”) for education as she soaks up all she can from borrowed or second-hand books. And though she’d give anything to go to school, she knows that her family needs her as a household earner – and that employment opportunities are a precarious treasure. So she goes to work at the tea shop. And her life will never be the same.

It was particularly fitting to see Pyaasa on International Women’s Day. The play serves as a stark reminder that, as far as human rights – and women’s rights in particular – have come in some parts of the world, others aren’t so lucky. In Chaya’s case, the oppression is deeply rooted in Hindu society, despite India’s modern-day laws abolishing Untouchability and forbidding discrimination based on caste – and for a young girl in this environment, the situation is all the more dire. The words from Chaya’s mother, noted at the beginning of this post, serve as both powerful advice and understatement, given the extreme, harsh realities of their lives as female Untouchables.

Delight and devastation in the deeply moving, insightful and brutally honest Pyaasa.

Pyaasa runs until March 27 in the TPM Backspace; advanced booking is strongly recommended. You can purchase tix in advance online  or by calling the box office: 416-504-7529.

In the meantime, take a look behind the scenes of Pyassa:

Delightfully vicious melodramedy with laughs that bite in Creditors

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Liisa Repo-Martell & Noah Reid in Creditors – photo by Michael Cooper

First trip out to The Coal Mine Theatre last night to see the company’s production of August Strindberg’s Creditors, adapted by David Greig and directed by Rae Ellen Bodie.

An intimate space (at 798 Danforth Ave., below the Magic Oven), Coal Mine is a storefront-style space – in this case, the black box has been set up with thrust staging, the audience in a tight horseshoe around the playing area. All the better to be flies on the wall for this trio of love, jealousy and revenge, played out in a series of three two-handed scenes.

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Noah Reid & Hardee T. Lineham in Creditors – photo by Michael Cooper

Watching Creditors is like seeing Shepard meets Chekhov – the characters are embedded deeply under each other’s skin, and love is obsessive, desperate and even child-like. You just know that it will all end in tears. Gustav (Hardee T. Lineham) meets Adolph (Noah Reid) at a bayside hotel, where Adolph is staying with his older wife Tekla (Liisa Repo-Martell). Under the guise of being friendly and helpful, Gustav proceeds to burrow inside Adolph’s head, sewing seeds of doubt in himself, his work as an artist and his marriage. The devil appearing with a smile and a caring tone, offering assistance even as he lays waste all in his path (see Lineham talk about Gustav and evil here).

Creditors is a period piece that roars today. Darkly funny and acutely intelligent, it’s a sharp look at relationships, and how those involved are molded and changed. How imperceptibly the thoughts, ideas and expressions of the one you love can seep into your consciousness. It is a powerful examination of the power dynamics of older and younger, experience and innocence, artist and muse; the give and take of relationships. And in that taking, one becomes indebted to one’s husband, wife, lover – particularly where there is an imbalance of power and especially when one has taken too much. One will always owe the other. And if you run out on your bill, someone may come after you.

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Liisa Repo-Martell & Hardee T. Lineham in Creditors – photo by Michael Cooper

Bodie brings an excellent trio of actors to this power play of obsessive love and revenge. Reid’s Adolph is boyishly sweet, naïve and guileless, possessing of a pliable, open-mindedness that may appear weak at first, but is more about youthful optimism and energy. Manipulated by Gustav, the starry-eyed young lover turns green-eyed with jealousy, his crutches and poor health an outward sign of his inner frailty. Lineham’s Gustav is deliciously understated in his evil intent; calculating, bitter and vengeful – but seasoned enough to know that vengeance is best served cold. It is both fascinating and abhorrent to watch as he plays puppet master to Adolph and Tekla, making them dance to his tune and then cutting the strings. Repo-Martell is luminous as Tekla; older than Adolph and beginning to feel her age despite the nervous girlish giggle she maintains, while she loves passionately and fully, she is forever dissatisfied – her first husband too old and her second too young – a spider caught in her own web. And yet, we feel for her as a woman whose options are limited, living in a time in which a woman must live through a man.

With shouts to composer Ted Dykstra for the lovely, cascading classical piano arrangement; Andrea Mittler’s lush set, with its oriental rugs and golden frames; and Ming Wong’s rich period costuming.

Creditors is a delightfully vicious melodramedy with laughs that bite and a stellar cast.

Creditors continues its run at the Coal Mine Theatre until May 17. Advance tix are strongly recommended – you can purchase them online here.

In the meantime, check out these other video chats: Repo-Martell talks about relationships within the play and Reid talks about the cutting comedy. You can also keep up with Coal Mine Theatre on Twitter.

Drunk & delirious on life, love & art in Hooked

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Nicky Guadagni in Hooked – photo by Michael Cooper

Was back out to Theatre Passe Muraille last night for the opening of the last show of their 2014-15 season: Hooked, based on a book of poems by Carolyn Smart, adapted by and starring Nicky Guadagni, and directed by Layne Coleman.

Hooked features the stories of seven real-life women – each one creative, driven and sucking the marrow out of life in her own unique way – all played by Guadagni. Myra Hindley, the obsessed sociopath who murdered at least three children with her partner Ian Brady, gives a chilling account of their meeting and the aftermath of her incarceration. Unity Valkyrie Mitford, the entitled, bigoted upper crust Brit and exceedingly silly Hitler fangirl; giggly and slapdash, she speaks of meeting her idol and defending his brutal policies. Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, the fragile, self-destructive party girl; the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald and an artist in her own right, spinning and broken, cast off into madness. Dora Carrington, tomboyish, puck-like and intense, a gifted painter hopelessly in love with a gay writer Lytton Strachey – her desperation and loss pushing her to the edge of despair. Elizabeth Smart, the bored daughter of Ottawa nobility who seizes on her target, married poet George Barker, with single-minded drive, wanting art, love and children – wanting it all. Carson McCullers, physically damaged with health issues, sharp as a tack and wry-witted, the champion of misfits in her writing; she loved husband Reeves McCullers so much, she married him twice. Jane Bowles, a larger than life writer with a delightful Brooklyn Jewish accent, a woman of big fun and silent, infectious guffaws; a lover of women, married to composer and writer Paul Bowles, she fell in love at first sight with Cherifa, a woman she saw in a market in Tangiers.

All of these lives and voices are performed on a bare stage with a single chair, with Guadagni barefoot in a black dress. Chameleon-like and captivating, Guadagni channels these women using her body, her voice and her presence, shifting seamlessly from character to character in this dance of words and life experiences – and the result is compelling, funny and poignant. These women aren’t afraid to give ‘er – going home is not even an option as they go big, at full throttle.

Hooked is a remarkable, moving and entertaining one-woman show featuring seven exceptional, passionate women, drunk and delirious on life, love and art. Get on over to the TPM backspace to see this.

Hooked continues its run in the TPM backspace until May 10, with special performances Wednesday, April 22 at 6:45 pm (Egg Rolls with Andy – pre-show chat with Artistic Director Andy McKim); a post-show talk back on Sunday, April 26; and a student matinée performance on Wednesday, May 6 at 1:30 pm. You can purchase tickets in advance online here – highly recommended as seating is relatively limited in the TPM backspace.

With shouts to musician/composer Victoria Carr, who provided the original soundtrack of evocative piano and guitar music for the production – and who played live acoustic guitar during the show.

Check out the YouTube chat with Guadagni about Hooked:

Magical connections & remarkable storytelling in Sara Farb’s R-E-B-E-C-C-A

rebecca-cropped-no-balloonsB is for “balloon,” “birthday,” “basketball,” “band-aid.” And also “bitch.” It’s also the third letter in “Rebecca,” the shared name of the two characters in playwright/performer Sara Farb’s one-woman play R-E-B-E-C-C-A, directed by Richard Greenblatt, which opened at the Theatre Passe Muraille backspace last night.

The two Rebeccas are based on Farb’s younger sister Rebecca: one real (May, born prematurely and diagnosed as developmentally delayed when she was a small child) and one made up (July, based on Farb’s imaginings about what Rebecca would have been like if she weren’t developmentally delayed). Their lives and stories running parallel, both are celebrating their 18th birthdays – and both end up at the same summer camp (May as a camper and July as a counsellor), where these two Rebeccas connect in a fantastic and surprising way.

May Rebecca is a physically full-grown young woman, her mind frozen in time as a pre-schooler of three or four years old. The play opens with her birthday party, projected silently onscreen upstage, as she blows out her birthday candles and receives a piece of cake with a blue flower on it. The celebration is interrupted as she becomes clearly angry and stomps off camera. She enters and takes up a spot on the stairs – she’s in a time out. She wanted a second piece of cake with the pink flower and became enraged when she was denied. This is where we start to see the world through her eyes and hear her story, told in her own words.

Opposite the stairs in May Rebecca’s world is a step-like rock formation by the water at a summer camp, where July Rebecca broods about her approaching 18th birthday, recording her thoughts and feelings on a video camera. A darkly moody and sardonically funny young woman, this Rebecca takes morbid delight in her own sense of apocalypse. She is convinced that the moment she turns 18 – at exactly 4:14 p.m. – will be her last. Her impending sense of personal doom is clarified by the emerging revelation of her severe depression diagnosis.

Farb does an excellent job winding the story in and out and around the two women, the characters sharply defined and transitions smoothly executed (with movement consultation from Viv Moore). May Rebecca is playful and endearing, bright and present; a lover of Disney princesses, Sesame Street, elephants and basketball – and camp counsellor Dave. Her responses to the world are immediate, deep, largely positive and always dead honest. And her smile glows big and bright. As July Rebecca, Farb is darkly funny and Holden Caulfield-like, her biting sense of humour conjuring up mocking nicknames for the phonies who inhabit her world – except for the developmentally delayed kids, where the monikers become playfully descriptive. Drawing much of her imagery from World of Warcraft characters and themes, she compares them to Troggs – but not in a cruel way, even though she refers to them as “tards.” Like the Troggs, she sees the developmentally delayed kids as doing what they want, when they want – with no apologies and no regrets. She sees beauty in their genuine responses and individuality – and wishes she could be more like them.

As Farb notes, and July Rebecca realizes, “All it takes is something on a microscopic level to define a person’s entire existence.” And when the two Rebeccas see each other, wordlessly connecting across the space between them, there is bright light and love and beauty.

R-E-B-E-C-C-A is a magical, funny and moving piece of storytelling, allowing the audience to see and experience the world from a perspective that is rarely presented onstage – or anywhere. Get yourself out to the TPM backstage space to see this remarkable play.

R-E-B-E-C-C-A runs in the TPM backspace until March 1. You can book tickets online here.