The impact of image on memory, identity & social change in the remarkable, moving, visually epic Reflector

Abraham Asto, Louisa Zhu, Michelle Polak & Michael Spence. Lighting & projection design by Laird MacDonald. Set design by Michael Spence & Laird MacDonald. Costume design by Melanie McNeill. Photo by Michael Cooper

 

Theatre Gargantua celebrates its 25th birthday with the world premiere of Reflector, conceived and directed by Jacquie PA Thomas, and written by Michael Spence—opening last night in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Mainspace.

Starring Abraham Asto, Michael Spence, Michelle Polak and Louisa Zhu, Reflector is a multimedia, multidisciplinary journey of sight, sound, memory and emotion as the storytelling explores the impact of image, tricks of the light and the perceptions of the mind’s eye. Combining physical theatre, poetry/spoken word, scenes and monologues with evocative soundscapes and a kaleidoscope of images, Reflector features projection and lighting design by Laird Macdonald, a set designed by Macdonald and Spence, sound design by Thomas Ryder Payne and costume design by Melanie McNeill.

We follow the interviews and experiences of three patients of psychologist/neuroscientist Dr. Haddad (Asto): photojournalist Declan (Spence), who took a Pulitzer prize-winning photo of a little girl who was killed among the charred ruins of her war-torn neighbourhood, and who now can’t identify everyday objects; Roula (Polak), a woman with hyperthymesia, who remembers every minute detail of everything she’s ever seen; and Kelly (Zhu), an Internet phenomenon who’s been living her life almost exclusively online, until one day she stopped doing so. All are poets; and this is reflected in the lyric language of monologues, rapid fire rap and spoken word, and the way these characters see the world, including themselves. Secret thoughts and inner conflicts emerge—even for Dr. Haddad, whose love of science is equalled only by his love of a childhood fascination with an art that at first betrayed him.

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Michelle Polak & Michael Spence (foreground); Louisa Zhu & Abraham Asto (background). Lighting & projection design by Laird MacDonald. Set design by Michael Spence & Laird MacDonald. Costume design by Melanie McNeill. Photo by Michael Cooper

The pacing and tone shifts back and forth, playing out opposites in a rich audio/visual tapestry of conflicting thoughts and emotions: calm and storm, light and shadow, break-neck speed and Sunday drive, fluid and erratic, soothing and jarring, cerebral and visceral. Movement matches sight and sound in evocative, innovative—and at times disturbing—ways.

Outstanding performances from the entire ensemble here, as the performers play out this story in a physical, vocal and emotional marathon. Asto brings a nice balance of warm, thoughtful professional and curious, child-like fascination to scientist Dr. Haddad— who gets an equally warm, child-like send-up from the other characters in a hilarious scene of self-reflection. Spence gives the tortured, frustrated Declan a fierce internal boil beneath the fragile, vulnerable surface. Polak’s Roula has a puck-like, wise-cracking frankness that belies inner turmoil and terrified grasping for identity. And Zhu’s got mad rapping skills, her mouth shooting words like a semi-automatic; then shows great debating chops as Kelly makes her argument for her virtual life—a life interrupted, but by what?

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Abraham Asto & Michael Spence. Lighting & projection design by Laird MacDonald. Set design by Michael Spence & Laird MacDonald. Costume design by Melanie McNeill. Photo by Michael Cooper

The impact of image on memory, identity and social change in the remarkable, moving, visually epic Reflector.

Reflector continues at TPM until November 18; get your advance tickets online .

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Rich tapestry of image, sound & dance tells a powerful story without words in remarkable Century Song

Neema Bickersteth in Century Song—photos by John Lauener

 

Nightwood Theatre partners with Volcano, Richard Jordan Productions UK and Moveable Beast Collective to present Century Song, opening last night in the Guloien Theatre at Crow’s Theatre’s home at Streetcar Crowsnest.

Created by soprano/performer Neema Bickersteth, choreographer Kate Alton and director Ross Manson, the multimedia, multidisciplinary Century Song tells the stories of women throughout the past hundred years, incorporating the music of composers Sergei Rachmaninoff, Olivier Messiaen, John Cage, Georges Aperghis and Toronto’s Reza Jacobs; and including accompaniment by Gregory Oh (piano) and Ben Grossman (percussion, computer). The show also includes stunning projected images—black and white, and colour portraits, visual art pieces, and evocative landscapes, cityscapes and environments—projection design by Torge Møller and Momme Hinrichs from Germany’s fettFilm; and featuring the works of numerous photographers and artists.

This is a show unlike any I’ve ever seen—and I’ve seen a lot of theatre—so how can I describe to you this beautifully moving, powerful and innovative piece of storytelling that is really best experienced on an emotional and visceral level, as opposed to a cerebral level (though it does leave you with plenty to think about).

Opening in 1915 with Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise, we see a woman corseted and engaged in repetitive action, evoking housework and an agricultural setting. Moving into the 1920s/1930s, she is now clad in a sleek golden gown, placed in a magical forest—the setting, sound and imagery changing as time shifts into the 1930s and 1940s, with increasingly intense and horrific renderings of social and economic upheaval, and the devastation of war.

Century_Song_7With projections covering both the back wall and floor, the zooming in on images provides the illusion of movement. This technical aspect takes on a playful effect as we journey from the 1950s through 1978, where we see multiple Bickersteths as a variety of characters in various living room settings. And it’s particularly cool when she returns to the stage, joining her projected, life-size selves.

The landscape gets intense again, as we’re whisked up a skyscraper and onto the roof where we see a vast, endless cityscape before us. It’s dark and stormy. Now dressed in a business skirt suit, she is caught up in a frenzy of chaos and speed—overwhelmed by the pace and bleakness of it all.

Century_Song_6Returning to a quiet moment, Bickersteth closes with Vocalise for Neema by Reza Jacobs, a piece commissioned specifically for Century Song; with a haunting, yet soothing, lullaby quality that shifts into bluesy and playful tones, it promises to bring some to tears as we return to the safe confines of the theatre space in the present time.

Bickersteth is a wonder up there, bringing a powerhouse performance that combines operatic vocals and dance. Taut and precise, flexible and present, her work is masterfully fluid and evocative as she travels through time and space—presenting the lives of these women, with all their joys, fears, challenges, successes and expectations as they play out their roles.

With shouts to the design team: Camilla Koo (set), Rebecca Picherack (lighting) and Charlotte Dean (costumes).

A rich tapestry of image, sound and dance tells a powerful story without words in remarkable Century Song.

Century Song continues at Streetcar Crowsnest until April 29; advance tickets available online. Get out to see it—this is theatre like you’ve never seen.

Department of Corrections: The original post contained a typo in director Ross Manson’s surname; that has since been corrected.

Hot Damn, it’s season 2 of Queer Slam!

queer slamBetter late than never. Due to the nature of this event, I need to confirm with the organizers that it’s okay to publish participants’ names. So, without further ado…

Hot damn, that was another fine Queer Slam at Supermarket on Wednesday night! I had the pleasure of attending back in December, when I was also invited to be a judge; I was asked to be on the judging panel again, and decided to focus on listening and taking notes – so no pics this time (except for the fabulous event poster image above).

Host Cathy Petch kicked off season two of the annual LGBTQ poetry slam with a whole lotta of love, support and energy – and played the queer national anthem “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on the saw. Queer Slam will tour various locales across Ontario, and winners from each event will compete in the finals in the spring at Buddies in Bad Times – and the ultimate slam champ will win a spot at the annual Capturing Fire slam event in Washington, D.C.

Wednesday night’s slammin’ festivities included two sets of open mic performances, two rounds of slam competition and feature performer Johnny Trinh. Queer Slam attracts an incredible pool of talented folks – and open mic performers were no exception, including fellow judge, Duncan Armstrong aka TOpoet.ca. – socially aware, bold, funny and moving, these poets inform, inspire and entertain.

Slam competitors included Vanessa McGowan, Georgia Wilder and Shawna Dimitry, with judges calibrating their scores with the work of the evening’s sacrificial slam poet Kay Kassirer. Kassirer set the bar high, with some timely, astute and poetic observational call-outs about trans rights and how Hollywood fucked up the Stonewall movie; and personal experiences of pain and frustration as a person who identifies as genderless, and their struggle to navigate others’ assumptions of their sex/gender – building up a protective “wall as shield” to confront and just live in the world.

The three slam participants didn’t make it easy for us either, each with a very distinct style, voice and tone. McGowan’s work is beautifully raw, irreverent and moving – from her piece on a violation of consent, to “On Other Chunks” (from her collection Divine Cockeyed Genius). Wilder’s work went from lyrical, gothic and visceral in her first piece, to playfully erotic and comical in her final piece on desire and donuts. Shawna’s pieces were heartfelt, bittersweet renderings of childhood/teenage memories – and the complex relationship dynamics between BFFs, and coming to terms with the nature of attraction and object of desire. In the end, McGowan took first place, with Wilder coming in second and Shawna third.

Feature slam poet Johnny Trinh charmed, moved and informed with works that touch on the personal and the political. A meditation on the honesty of the breath segues into a reflection on the meaning of “home.” The first of two multidisciplinary collaborations was a longing, aching piece about the long distance relationships (featuring the work of a singer, dancer and actor), with Trinh speaking over a soundscape collage of lovers’ conversations with an R&B love song layered underneath brought to the fore in words and song: “you cannot edit my heart,” “call my name, invoke all of me, see me.” A rhythmic indictment of systemic abusive power, racism, oppression and slavery (from his new chapbook We Are Weary) – followed by an insightful reminder, as he addressed the audience afterwards, to not give our present-day bigots, haters and trolls more media time and space by referencing them. A poetic activist, Trinh also takes aim at the 1% and the outcome of income inequality and unemployment, raging against social injustice “knowing that life, let love alone, is a battlefield.” And a final collaboration with recorded acoustic guitar and cello accompaniment was a heartfelt, heartbreaking piece from the POV of the Chinese lover of a white man – a lyrical, dysfunctional love poem full of hurt, as racism presents as a dynamic otherness, stereotyped exoticism and servitude. You can also follow Trinh on Twitter.

Keep an eye out for these remarkable artists. Queer Slam goes back and forth between Toronto (at its home at Supermarket) and the other cities – check The Circuit page for details; next Toronto show was confirmed as November 18 today.

SummerWorks 25 is coming!

sw_logo1Hey kids! I’ve been away from the blog for a bit, busy with summertime family and social gatherings, and getting some R&R in before the next big wave of events. And can you believe it’s August already?

Being August also means it’s time for SummerWorks, a juried, multidisciplinary performance festival which opens tomorrow (Thurs, Aug 6) and runs until Sun, Aug 16.

Like Toronto Fringe, SummerWorks uses multiple spaces/locations and each show runs at different times throughout the fest – check the 2015 festival schedule for what’s happening when and where; venues include The Theatre Centre, Factory Theatre and Theatre Passe Muraille, among others.

SummerWorks turns 25 this year, hence the SummerWorks 25 moniker – so that’s not a typo you’re seeing in the Twitter #SW25 hashtag.

I’ve decided to go minimalist this year and focus on theatre performances. I picked up my media pass yesterday – and here’s what I’ve booked so far:

An Evening in July
Better Angels: A Parable
Face Value: West
Lac/Athabasca
The Living
The Tall Building
Tough Guy Mountain: a play

To be confirmed:
Seams

So what are you planning on seeing at SummerWorks this year?

Reminder that cowbell is an unpaid, part-time, one-person operation; in addition, I don’t have time off my f/t office job during SummerWorks, so I’ll see as much as I can. If you’re working on one of the productions this year and if I can’t make it to your show, please keep in touch for your next production.

The power of the quantifiable meets the strength of the immeasurable in HER2

HER2-header-finalWhen you see an image of HER2, you’re struck at how remarkably – and surprisingly – beautiful it is, like a Valentine’s heart with a single foot on point. Feminine. Ballerina-like.

Maja Ardal’s HER2, directed by Kim Blackwell for Nightwood Theatre, opened its world premiere run at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre this week – the play named for the gene that plays a role in the development of a specific type of breast cancer, and set in a human clinical trial for a new drug.

Dr. Danielle Pearce (Nancy Palk) has had success in the lab treating mice, and has the green light and funding to start a human trial. She takes on PhD student Kate (Bahareh Yaraghi) as her research assistant and starts treating a group of specially selected women – women who have run out of treatment options. The play focuses on a subgroup of seven women; they come from various walks of life and ethnic backgrounds, and most are 40 to 60 years old. One is only 19.

HER2 is a multidisciplinary, multimedia production, incorporating projected images (by Denyse Karn) both real and magical – microscopic cells, female anatomy, CT scans, rays of light and photos of the participants – as well as choreographed movement (by actor Monica Dottor) that beautifully and expressively sets the process of examination and administration to motion.

Blackwell has a stellar cast for HER2. Palk brings a nice blend of humanity and wry humour to the prickly Dr. Pearce, a brilliant and ambitious clinician who’s better with rodents than she is with humans. Yaraghi’s Kate is bubbly and wide-eyed with youthful energy, highly intelligent and interested in the medicine, but particularly invested in the people – she is the bridge between the science and the human touch of the trial. Kyra Harper gives an earthy warmth to the pragmatic dairy farmer Frances, the participant with the most aggressive cancer who literally and figuratively becomes the touchstone of the group. Chick Reid gives a lovely layered performance as Naomi, the chilly and sharp-witted academic who finds she needs more than ciggies and scotch to get through this. Maria Vacratsis is irreverently funny and overflowing with positive vibes as Gloria, the group den mother. Diana D’Aquila is beautifully fragile and sweet as the child-like housewife Daphne, a joyfully expressive bundle of collegial dynamism. Brenda Kamino brings the spirit of open-minded wisdom and support to Melissa (Minnie), a natural medicine practitioner, when she’s not a trial participant – always willing to lend a hand and a cup of stinky herbal tea. Monica Dottor is wonderful as the vivacious and stubborn Charlene, an actress and mother of a young child who makes the risky decision of choosing the trial over a hysterectomy in hopes of having more children one day. Olunike Adeliyi does a remarkable job with the complex young Anya, the baby of the group – a hip and tough as nails, scared kid – full of rage, but willing to relinquish her lone wolf detachment to fully participate, and regain a sense of sociability and community. And Ellora Patnaik brings a spunky take-charge sass to Nurse Gabby; excellent at her job, unafraid of drawing boundaries – and full of surprises – as she suffers no fools on her turf, the treatment room.

What these women all have in common – patients and practitioners alike – is drive, fight, courage and hope. And the greatest of these is hope.

With shouts to Julia Tribe’s design: each participant is represented with a pedestal and microscope up along the catwalk, and each has a modular chair and IV pole, which Dottor also includes in the choreography. And a very effective use of voice-over, with a flat and clinical male voice, distant and detached, querying the participants on medical history and trial survey questions.

The power of the quantifiable meets the strength of the immeasurable as science and community join forces in HER2. Seriously – go see this.

In the meantime, take a look at some great profile pieces in the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star and NOW Magazine. You can also check out Nightwood’s YouTube channel for interviews with the HER2 folks – here’s the trailer:

HER2 continues at Buddies until February 1. Last night’s house was packed, so you may want to book ahead online. The production run also features Talkback Wednesdays (Jan 21 & 28) and panel conversations after the matinee performances (Jan 17 and 31). And HER2 has partnered with the Feminist Art Conference (FAC) to include a photography exhibit by Carol Mark.

Raw, real, funny & socially astute – Soup Can Theatre/safeword/Aim for the Tangent Theatre Co-pro Circle Jerk

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Playwright/director Brandon Crone (Maypole Rose – safeword)

Was back out to the Spadina/Queen West neighourhood last night to see the Soup Can Theatre, safeword and Aim for the Tangent Theatre co-production Circle Jerk at lemonTree studio (196 Spadina Ave., just north of Queen St. West).

Featuring four short, new plays, the production provided some interesting instructions to playwrights: they were to use selected lines of dialogue – submitted by the public (almost 300 submissions) – as the opening and closing lines of their plays (with the closing line of one play also serving as the opening line of the next play). The four selected lines were:

“Subtlety is not your specialty.”
“What’s Bulgarian for slut?”
“I think it’s time we talked about your filthy rituals.”
“I fucking hate potatoes.”

Throw in the tagline: Sex. Death. Bananas. and, along with the cyclical structure – a round robin of short plays that literally play off of each other, one tagging another – and there’s the title of the production.

Dust Peddling: Part II (Soup Can Theatre), by Scott Dermody and directed by Joanne Williams. Have you ever had an orgasm? A bed. A man. A woman. Erotic and poetic, physical theatre meets verse and prose in this beautifully edgy and lyrical hybrid piece, where the words are dialogue, foreplay and more. Lovely, candid work from actors Dermody and Lisa Hamalainen.

Sex and This (Aim for the Tangent Theatre), by Wesley J. Colford and directed by Jakob Ehman. What the actual fuck?! Two energetic young urban women getting ready for a themed costume party at a friend’s house are interrupted by some dire news. Facebook and text-reliant Millennials deal with communicating loss. Darkly funny, poignant and truthful performances from Tiffany Deobald and Carys Lewis.

Maypole Rose (safeword), written and directed by Brandon Crone. Two fags, a potent fatty and a bag of junk food. A young married, health-conscious gay couple indulge in stoned monkey lovin’ and junk food consumption. A frank fly-on-the-wall look at a relationship – workaday inanity, bedroom rituals, gender roles, secrets and all. Sexy, raw, tender and funny, with fabulous and honest performances from Alexander Plouffe and G. Kyle Shields.

The Session (Soup Can Theatre), written and directed by Justin Haigh. When under extreme pressure, everyone has his/her breaking point. A workplace counselling session goes to some very dark places as the plant therapist (Matt Pilipiak) and nuclear safety expert (Allan Michael Brunet) work through their introductory meeting. Brunet and Pilipiak do a remarkable job with the back and forth of power/control and vulnerability/fragility, as well as the dramatic tension and dark humour of the piece.

Circle Jerk also features live music inspired by the four lines of dialogue: Subtlety is not Your Specialty by Marla Kishimoto, What’s Bulgarian for Slut by Soup Can Theatre’s Music Director, Pratik Gandhi, I Think it’s Time We Talked About Your Filthy Rituals by Peter Cavell, and I Fucking Hate Potatoes by Patricia Stevens. Directed by Gandhi, the five-piece mini-orchestra includes an upright bass, cello, clarinet, flute and keyboard. The pool of musicians includes Katie Saunoris, Subrina Sookram, Ainsley Lawson, Rachel Gauntlett, Cory Latkovich, Matteo Ferrero-Wong, Brandon Sked and Susan Kim. Lighting on intense, whimsical and cultural flavour – from a piece featuring a hilariously bad (on purpose), yet passionate, clarinet solo to a jolly Irish-inspired tune that turns into a meltdown – the music mirrored and enhanced the theatrical content perfectly.

Sometimes a banana isn’t just a banana. Circle Jerk is a raw, real, darkly funny and socially astute set of short new plays, combining a trio of fine local indie theatre companies with crowd-sourced creativity and multidisciplinary talent. So get yourself out to lemonTree studio and go see this.

Circle Jerk continues its run at lemonTree studio tonight (Nov 15) and tomorrow (Nov 16), and this coming week from Nov 21 – 23; all performances at 8 p.m.