FireWorks Festival: Navigating the media circus in the face of profound loss in the moving, razor-sharp, thought-provoking Grief Circus

Bronson Lake & Alison Dickson. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Paige Foskett. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Bruce Peters.

 

Alumnae Theatre opened its second week of the FireWorks Festival last night, with Crystal Wood’s Grief Circus, directed by Paige Foskett. As moving as it is razor-sharp, this timely multimedia piece holds up a mirror to society’s morbid fascination, involvement and sharing in the death of strangers. A family has lost a beloved daughter and sister, an event that becomes fresh meat for the news and social media feeding frenzy. As they navigate the media circus that follows, mother and sister take very different paths to work through their grief.

Leah (Alison Dickson) speaks to us directly, our host and narrator as we witness scenes—sometimes in flashback—around the events of her older sister Jesse’s (Claire MacMaster) disappearance. Jesse’s body was later found in a ravine, and both Leah and her mother Carol (Bernadette Medhurst) find themselves in the spotlight of an often intrusive, uncaring news media—even confronted by a photographer (Jack Everett) on the steps of their small-town church when they attend Jesse’s funeral. In the aftermath, while Leah finds herself slogging through a callous, click bait world of modern news and social media, bombarded with ignorance and cruelty as she struggles to work through grief and loss, she is appalled to find her mother joining in—writing a book about the experience of losing her daughter, and working with PR folks to book interviews.

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Alison Dickson & Claire MacMaster. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Paige Foskett. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Bruce Peters.

Alternating between past and present, we see a 15-year-old Leah interacting with Jesse, who is her best friend, advisor, confidante and go-to source of info on the state of their parents’ shaky marriage; then a few years later being invited to a party with Jesse and her friends in Toronto, where Jesse disappears after leaving on her own. We see Leah go head to head with Carol over Carol’s making an industry of Jesse’s death; and the battle for Leah’s participation in a television interview, taking place the same day as her first day at university. And Leah has a meet cute with Charlie (Bronson Lake), an awkward but sweet university student; they go on a sort of date, but his motives are called into question when an altered recording of a chat he had with their server (Everett) turns up on the news, showing Leah in the worst possible light as the troubled sister of a famous dead girl.

Lovely work from the cast in this timely, moving and razor-sharp exploration of how news and social media can intrude upon and dishonour the departed, and have a profound impact on their loved ones. Dickson gives a stand-out performance as the whip-smart, introverted, wry-witted Leah; precocious, irreverent and wise beyond her years, Leah can be her own worst enemy as she keeps herself informed about world events—events that spark deep anxiety over the possibility of catastrophe. Conflicted about engaging with the Internet following Jesse’s death, what she finds there only serves to make her journey through grief more difficult.

MacMaster gives an energetic, luminous performance as the bubbly extrovert Jesse; the best big sister Leah could have, she’s super supportive and encouraging—balancing a respect for Leah’s boundaries with gentle pushes outside her comfort zone. Medhurst does a nice job with the conflicted Carol; a mother who’s lost her daughter, she deals with her grief the only way she knows how—honour Jesse’s memory so she won’t be forgotten. Lake gives an adorably awkward performance as the bashful Charlie; somewhat of an introvert himself, Charlie is interested in Leah, but unfortunately not very media-savvy. And Everett offers a great range of news media folk, from the intrusive jerk photographer at the funeral, to serious CTV reporter, to sleazy “journalist”.

Timely, moving and sharply funny, Grief Circus incorporates video and projected social media messaging (video design by director Foskett) to illustrate the scope of the family’s loss of a wonderful, energetic young woman—and the inappropriate, at times heartless, thoughtless and intrusive, response of the public. Strangers turning up at the funeral, or making comments in person or online; and, worst of all, the anonymous social media posters who cast negative, clueless aspersions about Jesse’s character—especially the trolls who say that Jesse had it coming.

Grief Circus continues in the Alumnae Studio Theatre until November 17; get tickets online, by calling 416-364-4170 (ext. 1) or in-person at the box office one hour before curtain time (cash only). There will be a post-show talkback with the director, playwright and cast following the Saturday, November 16 matinée performance.

FireWorks continues its three-week run until November 24, presenting a new show each week. The festival closes with Genevieve Adam’s If the Shoe Fits, directed by Heather Keith (Nov 20-24).

 

SummerWorks: Confronting white supremacy in the searing, timely, tension-filled White Heat

Tim Walker. Photo by Graham Isador.

 

Pressgang Theatre presents a workshop production of Graham Isador’s White Heat. Based on real events, it takes us into the incendiary, tension-filled conflict between an alt-right podcaster and a digital media reporter in a searing, timely look at the dangerous consequences of white supremacist views, inciting harassment and violence against racialized people, non-Christian religions and LGBTQI communities—and the news media outlets that shine a light on their hateful, bigoted words and actions. Directed by Jill Harper, White Heat opened its three-performance run in Longboat Hall at the Great Hall last night.

Inspired by, and drawn from, work by Scaachi Koul, Aamer Rahman, Manisha Krishnan, Mack Lamoureux, Kim Kelly and The Good Fight, White Heat is told from reporter Alice Kennings’ (Makambe K Simamba) point of view, as she relates the events leading up to and including her meeting with the alt-right voice behind the White Heat podcast, a man known only as The Captain (Tim Walker). Disturbed by the increasing presence, influence and violence perpetrated by white supremacist and Nazi groups—and encourage by her editor to produce pieces with her own distinct voice—Alice writes a piece about punching Nazis. The piece goes viral, and the subsequent blow-back of hate messages via email and social media are shocking, to say the least—and as she’s a Black woman, the messages are sexually violent or tell her to go back where she came from. Of course, The Captain has his say as well, and encourages his listeners to show their appreciation. Then, three bikers with 1488 bandanas masking their faces show up at her office and threaten to stop by her home, shouting “White Heat” as they exit.

Disturbed and frightened, but not backing down, Alice and her editor launch an investigation to uncover the identity of The Captain; and while they find some unsurprising clues regarding his trajectory toward the sneering, bigoted podcaster he is today, the discovery of his family situation puts Alice in a moral and ethical dilemma, forcing her to reconsider whether they should out him.

Outstanding performances from Simamba and Walker in this electric, compelling and important examination of the growing, out and proud movement of white supremacy; and the real and present danger for those they target, and those who oppose and call them out. Simamba gives a fiercely passionate, sharply funny performance as Alice—balancing cerebral and visceral responses as Alice continues to go after this story even in the face of terrifying threats. A dedicated professional who loves her job, Alice is devoted to reporting the facts and is damn good at it; faced his personal information, she finds empathy for The Captain—but will she be able to use that to reason with him? Walker’s Captain is a fascinating and disturbing portrait of an ordinary white guy who’s confused, angry and bitterly disappointed by a series of life-changing events that were largely out of his control. Now he’s feeling oppressed a white male, targeted and blamed for all the bad in the world—and he’s pushing back and looking for someone to blame for his predicament. He’s not an evil man, but a profoundly human, downtrodden and misguided one—and it’s that humanity that Alice tries to reach.

In the presence of conflicting pieces of conventional wisdom that tell us ‘don’t feed the trolls’ and ‘stand up to bullies’, in this case you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Pushing back against alt-right and Nazi bullies can escalate their push-back and grow their audience—and hate-filled words and threats can easily manifest as violent actions against the communities they target and those who call foul.

White Heat continues in Longboat Hall at the Great Hall for just two more performances: tonight (August 12) at 9:30 p.m. and August 14 at 6:00 p.m. Tickets available online or in person at the box office; it’s a very short three-show run, and last night was packed, so advance booking strongly recommended.