Toronto Fringe: Millennials surviving working & adulting in the lighthearted, satirical Above & Beyond

Seated: Tatyana Mitchell & Natasha Ramondino. Standing: Felix Beauchamp, Rabiya Mansoor, Andrea Irwin & Francis Masaba. Set and costume design by Jules Mendoza. Photo by Angela Sun.

 

JackieTol Productions gives us a lighthearted, satirical look at slogging it out in an office cubicle as two Millennial pals try to survive working and adulting in Jaclyn Toledano’s Above & Beyond, directed by Rebecca Ballarin and running in the Robert Gill Theatre.

BFFs Jamie (Tatyana Mitchell) and Nicole (Natasha Ramondino) are sales reps at Bright Star Tours, a travel agency that specializes in educational tour packages for schools. Former employees of Oyster Tours, Bright Star’s biggest competitor, Jamie is killing it at their new company, while Nicole—who used to also rock—is now struggling. Both are dying of boredom at this dead-end job, but Jamie’s able to play the game; Nicole not so much.

Added to the mix are their warm, technically-challenged boss Tracey (Andrea Irwin), and colleagues Steph the go-getter (Rabiya Mansoor), macho dude Brett (Francis Masaba) and charmer Jared (Felix Beauchamp). We also get a glimpse into Oyster Travel, a larger organization with a more corporate vibe, and their shark-like staff (played variously by Mansoor, Irwin, Beauchamp and Masaba)—who are stunned and perplexed that smaller fish Bright Star is outperforming them. Could it be that former employees Jamie and Nicole are now Bright Star’s secret weapons? And what’s the deal with Tracey’s hard-ass replacement Andrea (also played by Irwin)?

From soul-destroying moments on the job, to presentations, holiday parties and advice on Tinder swiping, anyone who’s worked in a cubicle farm will certainly recognize these characters and workplace situations—and shouts to the cast for their sharply drawn work. Mitchell and Ramondino are nicely matched, with Mitchell’s chill Jamie taking their situation in stride, her friendly out-going nature endearing her to the teachers she pitches to. But being too easy-going can land you in trouble sometimes. Ramondino’s Nicole is reminiscent of Anna Kendrick in Pitch Perfect; wry-witted and cynical, she’s wondering WTF she’s doing there and if it’s the right place for her—and if she’ll ever get her sales groove back.

Outstanding character work from Irwin, switching from the amiable, supportive boss Tracey, to the sharp corporate Oyster employee, to the scary mean girl boss Andrea and the sweet, protective teacher Helen. Mansoor brings big LOLs as Steph the uber keener; you know the type, and you’re never quite sure if it’s all a put-on or if they’re really that into their job. Masaba also brings the comedy as the office’s bro about town Brett; full of himself and utterly clueless about how he comes across, Brett is clearly enjoying his cruise through work and life. And Beauchamp is adorably charming as Jared, bringing just the right amount of slick to make you wonder if he’s actually a good guy or not.

It’s fun, it’s relatable—and you may find yourself asking if you’re living to work or working to live. And sometimes, it takes a little while to get your work groove back.

Above and Beyond continues at the Robert Gill Theatre to July 13. Check the show page for exact dates/times and advance tickets.

Hearts & minds poisoned to a tragic conclusion in Shakespeare BASH’d powerful, intimate, thought-provoking Othello

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.

Check out this great interview on the debate on Othello being a racist play or a play about racism with actors Smith and Rainville by Arpita Ghosal on Sesaya.