Toronto Fringe: Fear & loathing in the workplace in the razor-sharp, brutally honest dark comedy The Huns

Breanna Dillon, Cass Van Wyck & Jamie Cavanagh. Set & costume consulting by Alexandra Lord. Photo by Steven McLellan.

 

One Four One Collective presents The Huns, a razor-sharp, timely new play by Michael Ross Albert, directed by Marie Farsi and running in the Streetcar Crowsnest Guloien Theatre. It’s all hands on deck, after a break-in at a tech company office; and an international conference call meeting devolves into local power plays and startling revelations in this darkly funny, brutally honest workplace comedy.

It’s Friday morning and office manager Iris (Breanna Dillon), recently returned from leave, has gathered colleagues Pete (Jamie Cavanagh) and Shelley (Cass Van Wyck), a contract interim office manager, into a boardroom for an international conference call meeting to communicate and troubleshoot last night’s office break-in at their location. Ironically, this is a tech company; and Iris, who is not happy with the technical issues thwarting her attempts at projecting her presentation onto their flat-screen TV, is having a terse conversation with IT. Pete, who was in the office during the break-in, is technically on vacation and has a plane to catch for his destination bachelor party; and Shelley is calmly standing by, playing peacemaker, smoothing over rough patches, and ready to jump in to assist in any way she can.

Dialled into the meeting are colleagues from offices in Montreal, Texas and London (voice-over by Claire Armstrong, Blue Bigwood-Mallin, Izad Etemadi, Marie Farsi, David Lafontaine, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, Emilie Leclerc, Daniel Pagett, Tyrone Savage, Andy Trithardt, Jenni Walls and Richard Young—sound design by Trithardt). CEO Roman is otherwise engaged in London, so his VP wife Leanne has dialled in from a windy outdoor location, adding to the technical comedy of errors. On top of all of this, the office dealing with broken A/C, a garbage strike and various other issues around having just moved into an old building.

Things devolve pretty quickly once it’s revealed that the meeting is about something way more serious than just a handful of stolen laptops. And things get even more brutal for the gang around the table when—believing everyone has left the conference call—Iris comes after Shelley in a power play aimed at destroying any favour or credibility that Shelley has garnered during her few weeks in the position. This is exacerbated by Pete’s confirmation of Iris’s suspicions that everyone likes Shelley and wants her to stay on, including Roman. And things go from bad to worse when other, deeply personal, revelations emerge.

Outstanding work from the cast, including those on the phone, bringing sharply drawn, fully-rounded performances that could easily descend into caricature. Dillon does a remarkable job with Iris’s tightly wound, controlling edge—offset by her fears of being usurped by a new, younger employee. Iris’s put-on, chirpy corporate tone and take-charge demeanour belie her dread of being replaced and resentment over being undervalued. Cavanagh is a likeable goof of a bro as Pete, who may come off like a jack-ass who only cares about himself, but actually does care about his job and his colleagues. If Pete really didn’t think he needed to be there for this meeting, he’d be heading to the airport. And Van Wyck’s performance as Shelley unpacks a calm, cool, professional vibe that gradually reveals feelings of desperation and being adrift, not to mention brutally honest insights about the corporate world in general. Shelley’s “good servant” but circumspect professionalism contrasts nicely with Iris’s sense of entitlement and resentment. And does Iris really love her job—or is that just something she tells herself to make all the pain and sacrifice bearable?

While a corporate office environment may talk the good talk about a collegial professional attitude of teamwork, loyalty and meritocracy, this can often be a bullshit façade for the office politics realities of back-stabbing, power-grabbing and favouritism. Knowing and accepting this may help ease the soul-sucking nature of workaday life—but, despite needing to work for a living, we all need to ask ourselves how much toxicity we can suck up for a paycheque.

The Huns continues in the Streetcar Crowsnest Guloien Theatre for three more performances: July 11 at 5:30, July 12 at 10:15 and July 14 at 4:00; check the show page for advance tickets. Book ahead for this one folks; these guys are selling out.

Toronto Fringe: Art, friendship & astroturf in the quirky, edgy, hilarious The Grass is Greenest at the Houston Astrodome

Adrian Rebucas, Lauren MacKinlay, Anne van Leeuwen, Richard Young & Carson Pinch. Photo by Megan Terris.

 

High Park Productions takes us to The Freedom Factory gallery (22 Dovercourt Road, south of Queen St. East) for a fly-on-the-wall view of the aftermath of an explosive art show opening. The Toronto Fringe production of Michael Ross Albert’s The Grass is Greenest at the Houston Astrodome, directed by Robert Motum, is a quirky, edgy, hilarious look at the indie art world and a group of artist friends as they struggle with finding fulfillment in the personal lives and careers.

Photographer Amy (Lauren MacKinlay) manages an art gallery that’s soon shutting down, so she invites her art school friends to hang their work in one final show—one that quickly closes when radical feminist painter pal Caroline (Anne van Leeuwen) goes all rock star in a hotel room on the place. Cleaning up the debris of art work, wine glasses and broken dreams, Amy is assisted by gallery intern/sculptor Pablo (Carson Pinch) and conceptual artist friend Marshall (Adrian Rebucas) while Caroline fumes and smokes outside before rejoining her friends to explain herself and face the music. And just when you thought things couldn’t get more complicated, Caroline’s fiancé John (Richard Young) arrives and the gang discovers that he already knows Marshall.

Remarkable work from the ensemble, who keeps it real and present amidst all the insanity, razor sharp hilarity and satire. Heartfelt, insightful discussions about the art world, the nature of art and creativity, and the artist’s place within it all—and the existential crisis every artist must confront regarding their work, the precarity of their financial status, and their struggle for personal meaning and fulfillment.

The production features dramatic, evocative works by local female artists Shannon Gernon, Christine Miller, Krista Sobocan and Zabrina Szymanski.

The Grass is Greenest at the Houston Astrodome continues every night at 8 p.m. at The Freedom Factory until July 15. It’s sold out for the remainder of the run, but you can always drop by and take your chances on scooping up a spot from a no-show.

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: Turning up the heat in a complex power struggle in the gripping, darkly funny Anywhere

Cass Van Wyck & Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster. Costumes by Lindsay Dagger Junkin. Photo by Emily Dix.

 

One Four One Collective and The Spadina Avenue Gang take us to the middle of a tension-filled stand-off between a suburban Airbnb host and guest with Michael Ross Albert’s gripping, darkly funny Anywhere, directed by David LaFontaine and running in the Factory Theatre Studio for Toronto Fringe.

Returning late from her last day at a business conference, bus tour booking agent Liz (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster) finds her Airbnb host, bartender Joy (Cass Van Wyck), waiting up for her; and Joy’s not happy. An interrogation kicks off an uncomfortable debate and anger-tinged power struggle as the tables turn and Liz confronts Joy about the events of the previous evening—events that Liz can’t entirely recall, only that they included Joy’s estranged husband.

Part mystery, part psychodrama, part class struggle, Anywhere starts at a slow boil; then the heat gets turned up as suspicions, confessions and demands explode—and the verbal sparring takes an unexpected turn.

Outstanding work from Ch’ng Lancaster and Van Wyck in this sharp, compelling game of human chess; each revealing and concealing as accusations shift and tides turn.

Anywhere continues in the Factory Theatre Studio until July 14; check the show page for exact dates and times. Yesterday’s afternoon show was packed—and Ross’s other Toronto Fringe show, The Grass is Greenest at the Houston Astrodome, is sold out* for the run—so best to book ahead.

Speaking of The Grass is Greenest…, it turned out to be a Michael Ross Albert double header for me yesterday—purely by chance; that review will be up next.

*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.

 

Family, blood & sins of the father in the compelling, darkly funny Tough Jews

Maaor Ziv, Blue Bigwood-Mallin, Luis Fernandes, Theresa Tova, Anne van Leeuwen, G. Kyle Shields & Stephen Joffe in Tough Jews—photo by John Gundy

Leave the gun. Take the kugel.

Storefront Theatre is back, this time partnering with The Spadina Avenue Gang to mount the world premiere of Michael Ross Albert’s Tough Jews, directed by Storefront founder/co-artistic director Benjamin Blais and running at Kensington Hall in Toronto’s Kensington Market.

Tough Jews was Albert’s graduate project about a family of Toronto Jewish gangsters; and, although it’s set in the late 20s and early 30s, the play speaks to issues of anti-Semitic and anti-immigration/refugee sentiments that are relevant today, especially given the influence of the current administration to the south, and the rise in hate crimes targeting Jews and Muslims on both sides of the border.

Set in the basement speakeasy, downstairs from the family’s shop and home in Kensington Market, Act one opens in 1929 on Yom Kippur, 10 days before the stock market crash. Overseen by the widowed family matriarch Ida (Theresa Tova), brothers Joe (Luis Fernandes) and Ben (Blue Bigwood-Mallin) take care of the family business running booze downstairs, while Teddy (G. Kyle Shields) runs the legit business upstairs. Kid sister Rose (Maaor Ziv) and Ben’s American fiancée Marge (Anne van Leeuwen) watch from the sidelines. Downstairs business with Detroit’s Purple Gang goes south when hothead cousin Ziggie (Stephen Joffe) interrupts negotiations. This prompts Ben to come up with an idea to get Rose’s dope-dealing boyfriend Harry (who we never see), to get in on the action; despite the family’s disapproval of Harry, Ben hopes to placate the Purple Gang with new, hard-to-get product.

Act two jumps ahead four years to 1933, a couple of months after Hitler becomes Chancellor of Germany and shortly after the Christie Pits riot. Joe and Marge have been living in Florida, but his business was hit hard by the Depression, and he’s returned home to Toronto. Ben has also just come home, just released from jail; and Rose has a three-year-old and some serious domestic issues at her house. Teddy has taken over the speakeasy in the interim, but is now using it as a hide-out after his involvement in the Christie Pits riot.

Family secrets emerge throughout; and serious, changing situations prompt some equally drastic decision-making and choices. How far will a marginalized, oppressed and desperate people go in order to survive?

Stellar work from the entire cast in this immersive theatrical experience where the audience has a fly-on-the-wall view of the proceedings. Tova is hard as nails, hilarious and heartbreaking as Ida, who recalls in sharp, painful detail the oppression of her homeland and the hardship of an ocean crossing. The dreams of a better life destroyed by hate and oppression in a new country, Ida takes charge with pragmatism, grit and wry wit; and with a laser focus on turning the family’s fortunes around. Fernandes gives oldest brother Joe a nice balance of calculating professional and protective man of the house. Dog tired and struggling to keep the family business afloat, Joe must also manage the less than friendly relationship between Marge and his family.

Bigwood-Mallin brings a great sense of spark and ambition to Ben; the only one who really wants to be a gangster, Ben is genuinely excited to expand the business, make connections in the U.S. and make more money. Shields does a marvelous job with Teddy’s arc; as the bookish, observant kid brother, Teddy is torn between being a good man and seeing their legitimate family business survive, and the struggle to survive in a harsh, unfair world that leaves his family few options. By Act Two, he’s grown up a lot in those four years; a changed man, he sees what’s going on in Germany—and how prejudice and hate know no boundaries—and it sickens him.

Ziv’s Rose is an irreverent spitfire; an independent-minded and often neglected member of the family, Rose does her best to make a life for herself, but finds new challenges outside the safety of the family nest. Van Leeuwen brings a regal edge to the platinum blond, leggy Marge; a dancer when Joe first met her, she’s now set on becoming a respectable wife and looking forward to enjoying the good things in life. Unable to stomach Joe’s family business, however, she retaliates by putting on airs. Joffe gives Ziggie a menacing, lost boy edge. Taken in by his aunt Ida as a child, Ziggie’s grown up into a dangerous punk with some serious anger and impulse control issues; and his choices make him a liability to the family.

With big shouts to the design team Adam Belanger (set), Melissa Joakim (lighting), Lindsay Dagger Junkin (costumes), Angela McQueen (makeup) and Miquelon Rodriguez (sound) for their work on the evocative, immersive environment; and to fight director Simon Fon, and co-stage managers Justine Cargo and Andrea Miller. Throughout the production, corpses will be played by Kyle Bailey, Daniel Briere, Gabriel Hamilton and David Lapsley. The bartender makes a mean Manhattan, with the good Jack Daniels.

Family, blood and sins of the father in the compelling, darkly funny Tough Jews.

Tough Jews continues at Kensington Hall till April 16 (enter through the back alley—follow the sandwich board sign); full schedule and advance tix available online]. Book in advance for this one, folks; it’s a popular company and there’s a lot of well-deserved buzz about this show—not to mention the intimate venue. Warning: Show contains gun shots and smoking (herbal cigarettes).

In the meantime, check out Brittany Kay’s In the Greenroom blog interview with playwright Michael Ross Albert and actor G. Kyle Shields, with director Benjamin Blais dropping by.

Toronto Fringe: Furtive desires emerge in Karenin’s Anna

karenin's anna - 2Karenin’s Anna is playwright Michael Ross Albert’s modern-day adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, directed by Luke Marty and currently running in the Toronto Fringe at St. Vladimir’s Theatre.

In this two-hander version, Anna (Caitlin Robson) is a Brooklyn girl who has just married Sergei Karenin (Daniel Pagett), the cousin of a friend, so he can get his green card. For the next six months, he will be living with her in her one-bedroom apartment, sleeping on the couch and paying her rent. Anna intends to use the money to pursue childhood flame Bobby, who is off in Italy to marry someone else.

From the moment the two enter Anna’s apartment, there is an earnest quality to their relationship, even in their polite stranger’s distance. As the play progresses, the dynamic between them evolves, and new – and previously hidden – feelings and emotions emerge.

Robson does a lovely job with Anna, a restless, passionate woman, full of longing – her emotions sometimes getting the better of her and shifting to cruelty. Pagett’s Sergei is nicely layered, frustrations surging beneath his calm politeness as he struggles with his own desires, missing his beloved back home terribly. Both are living daily lives of quiet desperation that can only come to a boil.

With shouts to Marty’s in-the-round set design, which gives the audience an intimate, fly-on-the-wall perspective of this relationship.

Karenin’s Anna is a beautifully rendered adaptation, told with passion and truth by an excellent pair of actors.

The show runs at St. Vladimir’s Theatre until July 12 – check here for exact dates/times.