Two years ago, I had the honour and pleasure of getting a sneak peek at Heather Babcock’s debut novel Filthy Sugar after she approached me to give it a read and write a review blurb. Published by Inanna Publications, it’s set to be released on May 26—and was to have its official launch in Toronto at Queen Books the same day; but since brick and mortar book stores have had to move online, and with events cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, authors and book sellers are now relying on virtual shout-outs and online book sales.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Filthy Sugar (and think it would make a great movie); and hope that Babcock will get to celebrate the launch of the book with colleagues and loved ones soon. Here’s my review blurb:
Filthy Sugar takes us to the mid-1930s, from the struggles of a working-class slum, to the hustle and excitement on and off the burlesque stage. Here, we follow redheaded heroine Wanda Whittle’s rise and fall from fame in a journey of self-discovery that reveals desires and reserves of strength she never knew she possessed. Erotic, compelling and full of richly textured characters, Heather Babcock’s storytelling is equal parts moxie and poetry—tinted with the heartbroken nostalgia of memory and lost dreams; and sparkling with striking, evocative imagery. More than a backstage pass into this world, Filthy Sugar shines a light on the challenges faced by working-class women. Dancing as fast as they can in order to survive, they must navigate the unapologetic misogyny and hypocritical social codes that govern their bodies and behaviour as they pursue their hopes, dreams and desires. Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it?
It will be some time before we’ll be able to attend readings and book launches in person again; in the meantime, you can get your own sneak peek at Filthy Sugar with Babcock’s excerpt reading on YouTube:
Shakespeare BASH’d invites us to hear a grownup cautionary fairy tale of loyalty, betrayal, ambition, jealousy, love and family. Relationships are put to the test with evil and foolish schemes, and women’s and commoners’ true worth—for better or worse—are grossly underestimated in its fast-paced, highly entertaining, resonant production of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, directed by Julia Nish-Lapidus, assisted by Bailey Green, and on for a short run at Junction City Music Hall.
Incensed at his only daughter Innogen’s (Catherine Rainville, bringing fierce strength and gentle vulnerability to the sharp-witted, independent princess) marriage to his ward Posthumus Leonatus (Jesse Nerenberg, giving an earnest, fiery passion to the popular, good young man), Cymbeline, King of Briton (David Mackett, in a chilly and decisive imperious turn) banishes the youth and puts his daughter under house arrest. Strongly influenced by his new Queen (Mairi Babb, deliciously arch as the cunningly manipulative, two-faced Queen), his second wife and Innogen’s step-mother, Cymbeline had intended Innogen for the Queen’s son Cloten (Emilio Vieira, giving a great comic turn as a quarrelsome, entitled idiot).
Having exchanged tokens with Innogen and fled to Rome, and despite pleas to the contrary from his level-headed host Philario (Kiana Woo, who gives a great multitasking performance, notably as the wily doctor and a saucy, irreverent servant), Posthumus agrees to enter into a foolish wager with Philario’s friend Iachimo (Daniel Briere, in a hilariously edgy turn as a sly, lascivious scoundrel of a Roman lord), whereby Iachimo bets he can prove Innogen false. Obtaining his proof through trickery, Iachimo wins the bet—and, out of his mind with anger and grief, Posthumus charges Innogen’s servant Pisanio (Bailey Green, bright-eyed and energetic as Innogen’s unwaveringly faithful right hand) with killing Innogen. Apprising her mistress of Posthumus’s plan for revenge, Pisanio helps Innogen disguise herself as the boy Fidele and flees the palace.
Meanwhile, in the wilds of Briton, banished noble Belarius (James Wallis, bringing a warm, protective sweetness to the rough seasoned warrior) hunts with his daughters Guiderius (Melanie Leon, suffusing the rough and tumble young woman with a mature wisdom) and Arviragus (Déjah Dixon-Green, bringing gentle, poetic tone to the stalwart younger sister)—and come upon a weary, hungry Innogen in disguise when they return to their cave dwelling.
Back at the palace, the proud Cymbeline—egged on by the Queen—incites war with Rome by refusing to pay tribute; and Cloten has learned of Innogen’s whereabouts and is in hot pursuit, intent on having her under any circumstances. Personal and political clashes ensue, secret plots and identities are revealed, and foolish assumptions and conflicts are set to rights.
When you go to a Shakespeare BASH’d show, the audience is treated like family; and Nish-Lapidus, Wallis and company are the gracious hosts—creating an atmosphere of welcome, warmth and inclusion that adds to its signature storytelling; using minimalist but effective set and costumes, focusing on the text and the relationships to deliver a production that is both accessible and resonant for today. This particular production nicely supported by music from Matt Nish-Lapidus.
And with a script that can easily turn to melodrama, the staging, pacing and direction go big with an edgy, dark sense of humour; huge, beautifully poetic declarations of love and fidelity; and impassioned action-packed narratives of conflict. A cautionary tale on a number of levels, what especially speaks to audiences today is the inherent misogyny; society underestimates and undervalues its women, for better or worse—blinding all, especially men, to women’s capacity for both good and evil. The play also speaks to a strict and accepted code of classism, whereby men and women alike are judged by their station in life as opposed to their character and actions—leaving the rich and powerful to do as they wish, often with little or no consequences. This play could have easily been called Innogen—but Cymbeline suits, as it is his actions and ill-conceived decisions that set these events in motion, causing both personal and national distress and loss.
Cymbeline continues at The Junction City Music Hall until February 9. Advance tickets are sold out, but if you get there early, they’ll do their best to squeeze you in. Please note the early curtain time of 7:00 p.m.; box office opens at 6:30 p.m. ($25 cash only at the door).
Christopher Mott, Chanakya Mukherjee & Liz Der. Photo by Stevie Baker.
Dauntless City Theatre is back at Berczy Park (aka the dog fountain park across from the St. Lawrence Centre) with a delightful immersive, site-specific adaptation of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well. Adapted and directed by Scott Emerson Moyle, assisted by Jordi O’Dael, this version of the play is queer, twisty, darkly funny—and calls out bad behaviour—in an intimate, energetic romp of sauce and wit that’s part cautionary tale, part dark comedy.
Helena (a feisty, resilient turn from Liz Der) has recently lost her father, a skilled and respected doctor, and is now the ward of the recently widowed Countess Rousillon (Andrea Lyons is a treat in this edgy, hilarious performance), whose son Bertram (played with sneering pride and entitlement by Chanakya Mukherjee) is now the new Count. Helena is hopelessly and secretly in love with Bertram, but dares not hope for a match, as she is not noble-born. She is, however, very skilled in the healing arts; and when news arrives that the King of France (played with imperiousness tempered by warmth by Christopher Mott) has been very ill with no cure in sight, she sees a way to prove her worth to Bertram, who has travelled to the French court with his BFF Parolles (a cheeky, lovable scoundrel, played with gusto by Annelise Hawrylak).
Despite his skepticism after many failed treatments administered by many learned men, the King agrees to Helena’s treatment—and rewards her success by offering her the choice of any man in court for her husband. Taking this opportunity, she chooses Bertram; and when he rudely refuses her proposal, the King forces him into marriage. With war brewing in Florence, Parolles sees a way out and suggests that she and Bertram leave France and join the army. They do so, with Bertram leaving word with Helena that he will be her husband only if she successfully completes the impossible task of getting a ring from him and getting pregnant with his child. Helena pursues Bertram to France and, with the help of the independent and savvy innkeeper Diana (Melanie Leon), who Bertram has been doggedly pursuing to bed, hatches a plan to make the impossible possible.
Rounding out the company are Eric Benson as the priggish, arrogant M. LaFeu, an elder courtier at the Countess’s home; Tallan Alexander as Lavatch, the Countess’s saucy valet; and Holly Wyder as the spritely, guitar playing Dumaine the Younger and Anthony Botelho as the cheeky, trumpeter Dumaine the Elder, sibling messengers and our guides around the park.
And just as Helena and Diana put one over on Bertram, Parolles’ fellow soldiers (Lyons, Mott, Alexander and Benson) pull some trickery on him, revealing his true character. Prideful and careless of others, both Bertram and Parolles fall hard, and must surrender to their respective fates in the end. And an unexpected match is made in the process.
Part cautionary tale, part dark comedy, the energetic and entertaining ensemble keeps us on our toes—literally and figuratively—with twisting plot turns, and hilarious battles of words and wits; with some characters thinking and acting with their hearts and others working from somewhere decidedly south of there. Sharp-witted skills at verbal thrust and parry is in great evidence between Hawrylak’s Parolles and Benson’s M. LaFeu, as well as Hawrylak and Der’s Helena, and Lyons’ Countess and Alexander’s Lavatch. And Der’s performance is a great combination of love-struck and determination in Helena’s one-sided attentions to Bertram, and keen debate and care with the King—all while trying to prove herself worthy of Bertram’s love, which he clearly doesn’t want or deserve.
The adaptation lives up to the title, connecting us with the story in an intimate and contemporary way in an immersive, site-specific production that incorporates gender-bending casting, queer twists and calling out bad behaviour. The underlying misogyny and classism get big time push-back with powerful, capable and intelligent female and queer characters who ain’t taking no guff. (And with a female Parolles, we’re also reminded that even women can be dicks.) Beware of the proud and scornful, and the braggart cowards—and the proud and scornful mustn’t underestimate the smart and resourceful, no matter what their station. And don’t waste your talent and affection on someone who doesn’t care for or deserve you.
All’s Well That Ends Well continues in Berczy Park until August 25, with Friday and Saturday evening performances at 7:30 pm (except for Fri, Aug 9); and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 1:00 p.m. Admission is pay what you can (PWYC), suggested $20 per person; look for the Dauntless City Theatre banner, east of the fountain.
Department of Corrections: The original post had matinee performances listed at 1:30 p.m.; they’re actually at 1:00 p.m. This has been corrected.
Front: E.B. Smith & Catherine Rainville. Back: James Graham. Photo by Jonas Widdifield.
Toronto favourite Shakespeare BASH’d continues its 2018-19 season with a deep-dive into one of the most complex, messily human plays in the Shakespeare canon: Othello. Directed by James Wallis, assisted by Olivia Croft, and featuring a stellar cast, Othello opened last night for a short run this week at The Monarch Tavern. Before our eyes, hearts and minds are poisoned—and deeply human flaws exposed—along the way to a tragic finale in this intimate, powerful production.
Right off the top, Iago (James Graham) plants seeds of doubt and unrest, playing on sentiments of racism, prejudice and misogyny as, from the shadows and with the aid of the jealous, entitled Roderigo (Jeff Dingle, bringing comic relief in a goofy turn as the foolish would-be suiter), drops the bomb on Venetian senator Brabantio (played with candid self-righteous anger tinged with heart-wrenching resignation by David Mackett) that Othello (E.B. Smith), a general with the Venetian army, and his daughter Desdemona (Catherine Rainville) have had carnal knowledge of each other. Iago won’t stand for Othello’s glorified station as a respected, successful general and especially objects to Cassio’s (Dylan Evans) recent promotion over him; and Roderigo wants Desdemona for himself. Seething with resentment and jealousy over men who have that which they do not, both have their minds set on vengeance and scheme to claim that which they feel belongs to them.
Smugly, even gleefully, relating his plans throughout, the cunning Iago speaks directly to us as he maps out how, step by step, he intends to turn Othello against Cassio and Desdemona, all the while using the foolish Roderigo as his own personal bank account and sidekick, and his trusting wife Emilia (Jennifer Dzialoszynski), who serves Desdemona, as an unwitting accomplice. And all while pretending to be everyone’s friend and confidante.
Poisoning hearts and minds by playing on people’s deepest fears, prejudices and weaknesses, as well as their egos—all the while dropping pearls of apt wisdom on his respective targets—Iago manipulates and orchestrates a falling out between Othello and his friend/second in command Cassio, and gradually makes Othello distrust Desdemona’s fidelity, which he inflames by encouraging Cassio to turn to Desdemona to speak on his behalf to Othello. And that damned handkerchief—a treasured gift from Othello to Desdemona, left behind by her and found by Emilia, who gives it to Iago to please him—becomes the last straw when it is found in Cassio’s chambers. Tormented by rage and despair over his belief that Desdemona has been untrue with his best friend Cassio, that seemingly small thing pushes Othello past the edge of reason, with dire and tragic results.
A powerful, compelling performance from Smith as the tragic hero Othello; a soldier’s soldier, forced by systemic racism and oppression to constantly prove himself as a man and as a general, Othello’s great love for Desdemona becomes his downfall as Iago’s machinations work on his jealousy and sense of honour; and even more importantly, his doubts of deserving her as his partner and equal. Rainville exudes a quiet, but luminous, presence as the loyal, tender Desdemona; eschewing social mores and risking the condemnation of her family and friends, Desdemona courageously and authentically follows her heart to be with Othello. Drawn together in a relationship of mutual ‘otherness’—Othello navigating racism and Desdemona dealing with misogyny—he loves her gentle generosity of spirit and she his bravery and perseverance.
Graham is entitled sociopathic perfection as the cunning, vengeful Iago; kind to be cruel as weaves his web of fake news, mistrust and hatred among good, trusting people, Iago is the diabolical puppet master of the tragic tale. Dzialoszynski is both delightful and heartbreaking as Iago’s sassy, witty and neglected wife Emilia; longing to please her husband and, without malice, she becomes an unknowing accomplice in the tragic events that unfold between Othello and Desdemona. And Evans is adorably boyish and cocky as the eager, ambitious young Cassio; flawed and foolish in his own way, Cassio’s reputation and bromance with Othello are tarnished when he fails to govern his wayward behaviour—and his careless treatment of lover Bianca (a playful turn from Natasha Ramondino) signals a man boy with some growing up to do.
Great work all around from this outstanding cast, which also features Melanie Leon (as the stalwart Montana, Othello’s predecessor in Cyprus), Wilex Ly (the fastidious Lodovico) and Julia Nish-Lapidus (the politically apt Duchess and the hilarious drunken party girl Clown).
Just like The Merchant of Venice continues to spark debate over being an anti-Semitic play or a play about anti-Semitism, so too does Othello have at its core the debate of racist play vs. a play about racism. No matter which side of the debate you’re on, there’s no doubt that these plays both reveal, in a very raw and human way, the ways in which the elite dominant culture—in this case, white Christian males—wields its own sense of entitlement and keeps a tight grip on power as it keeps the ‘other’ in their place through systemic oppression based on religion, race and gender. (Sound familiar?) And the sad truth that even good men can be pushed too far, with serious and tragic consequences.
Othello continues at the Monarch Tavern until February 10; it’s a super short run and an intimate venue—and they’re already sold out—but if you get there early and get on the wait list, you may just luck out and find yourself a seat.
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.
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.
The AMY Project returns to SummerWorks with the brave, bold and deeply personal multimedia, multidisciplinary ensemble-generated Lion Womxn. Directed by Julia Hune-Brown and Nikki Shaffeeullah, assisted by Jules Vodarek Hunter and Bessie Cheng, Lion Womxn ran for three performances at the Theatre Centre—I caught their closing night show in the Incubator last night.
Created and performed by nevada-jane arlow, Clara Carreon, Olivia Costes, Gabi M Fay, Carvela Lee, Megan Legesse, Laya Mendizabal, MORGAN, Whitney-Nicole Peterkin, Rofiat Olusanya, Aaliyah Wooter and Fio Yang, Lion Womxn is a theatrical collage of personal storytelling; told through a combination of monologue, dance (choreography by Jasmine Shaffeeullah), song, poetry and projection (design by Nicole Eun-Ju Bell).
With high-energy and soul-bearing performances, each shares her/their own joy, pain, rage, gratitude, struggle and strength—shouting out feminism, self-care, respect, gratitude, community and sex-positivity; and calling out misogyny, racism, homophobia and transphobia, body shaming and slut shaming. Raw and poetic at the same time, the result is heartbreaking, charming, anger-inducing and, ultimately, inspirational.
This was the final performance of Lion Womxn at SummerWorks, but keep an eye out for The AMY Project and future productions. Learn more about The AMY Project on their website—and give them a follow on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Inspired by the real-life case of former Canadian Forces Colonel Russell Williams, as well as incidents of missing/murdered women from marginalized communities/ethnicities, and the societal/social media bullying and shaming of victims and the families of the accused, DINK (the acronym for Double Income No Kids) is part drama/part musical/part social commentary, with songs by Azar, S. Lewis and sound designer Richard Feren.
Over lunch, a workout and shopping at Holt’s, sisters Lolly (Christy Bruce) and Deb (Sharon Heldt) talk about Lolly’s recent home security measures as daughter Bethany (Jasmine Chen) is being stalked, while Deb is up to her eyeballs with home renovation and contractors. Deb’s husband Bill (David Keeley) is a proud military man who’s served in Afghanistan, a sweetheart with his wife, but under investigation by homicide detective Matt De Souza (Kris Siddiqi) over two missing/murdered women who served under him: soldier Danielle (D.T.) Bryce (Andrea Brown) and Tim Hortons server Izzy Melisano (Lise Cormier).
The action shifts between present-day scenes in multiple scenarios and flashbacks from the past, as well as musical numbers featuring various characters, but mainly the two murder victims Danielle and Izzy (where the song breaks work best). The effect is disturbing, distracting and disorienting.
DINK highlights how victimization goes beyond the missing/murdered women to take in their families, the families of the predator (who are often blamed for not seeing what was going on and failing to blow the whistle) and the investigators. The play also sets out to raise up the victims of sexual violence – including moments of empowerment, some imaginary – and put the predator down. The serial killer, while his actions are monstrous, is not a monster – just a man. A very sick man and, in the end, a pathetic man lost in his revolting and dangerous obsessions and desires. The celebrity of the serial killer – and real-life villains in general – is a symptom of social illness.
Excellent work from the cast. Bruce brings a jaded, tired quality to Lolly, a fiercely protective mother with a wry wit, and an ineffective husband (invisible to us, but present in scenes of one-sided conversation). Heldt’s Deb is brash, irreverently funny and creative, an adoring wife throwing her energy into creating the perfect oasis at home. Keeley does a very nice job with Bill’s double life: a sweet and attentive husband at home; a misogynistic, homophobic bully of a commanding officer on the job, covering even darker activities in his personal time. Siddiqi brings a nicely layered quality to Detective De Souza, a good cop struggling with his personal, if not questionable, relationship with Izzy as he conducts the investigation. Brown’s Danielle is strong, cocky and direct, a woman of courage and conviction; and Cormier brings an intelligent, precocious charm to the adventurous Izzy. Chen does a lovely job with Bethany’s conflicted responses to her situation; a smart, imaginative and energetic teen – but, like her mother and aunt, the pressure of pretending that everything is alright becomes too much to bear and boils over.
DINK is an intense, startling and thought-provoking piece that reminds us to put our focus on the victims and their families – and cautions us on how we respond to the perpetrators and their families.