NSTF: Giving the last word where last word’s due in the startling, sharply pointed, satirical JONNO

Jason Deline and Erica Anderson in JONNO. Costume design by Christina Urquhart. Set design by Chandos Ross. Lighting design by Steve Vargo. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Rabbit in a Hat Productions presents Alix Sobler’s JONNO, directed by Paul Van Dyck for the Toronto Fringe Next Stage Theatre Festival, running now at Factory Theatre.

JONNO was inspired by a famous sexual assault case that saw a popular Canadian radio personality put on trial—we all know who—and comes in the wake of subsequent sexual harassment and assault scandals that have called out Hollywood celebrities and, most recently, a prominent Canadian theatre artistic director. Delving into the mind of the perpetrator and providing a platform for the myriad complex responses from, and impact on, the survivors—the play speaks beyond any one particular case.

Jonno (Jason Deline) hosts a popular talk radio show; his rich, full tones open the episode with a spoken word essay, and his charming interview style doesn’t shy away from confrontation. One by one, we see his romantic encounters with women turn violent: feminist blogger Marcy (Erica Anderson), singer/songwriter Dana (Parmida Vand) and sex worker Bernadette (Glenda Braganza). The only witness is Mr. Donkey Long Ears (Allan Michael Brunet), a stuffed toy from his childhood who he shields from seeing too much.

When word of his actions goes public, he is visited by Maureen (Alanis Peart), a corporate rep from his employer who has some exploratory and pointed personal questions to ask. A self-professed feminist and lover of women, Jonno genuinely sees nothing wrong with what he’s done—he sees his sexploits as being simply imaginative and out of the ordinary.

The women he choked, hit, kicked and coerced into sexual activity would say otherwise. But, unlike Jonno, who’s perfectly clear and happy to rationalize the events surrounding the encounters, the women are left wondering what the fuck happened and try to make sense of it all as they second guess, struggle with self-doubt and give him second chances. And while the responses of the women are different, all are valid as they play over events in their minds and debate the situation with each other.

The shocking moments of sexual violence are balanced nicely by satirical scenes of corporate investigation, surreal conversations between Jonno and Long Ears, and some darkly funny girls’ night out debates over wine. And the imaginative, effective staging aptly illustrates the serial nature of Jonno’s behaviour, while creating space for the more playful, theatrical elements of the piece.

Amazing work from the cast on this sensitive and infuriating subject. Deline does a great job with the public and private faces of Jonno: the smooth-talking, accomplished, pro-woman radio host and the callous, violent and sociopathic misogynist. Brunet makes an excellent Long Ears; inspired by Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh, he is sweetly droopy and sulky—and acts as both witness and counsellor to Jonno’s actions. A childhood toy/imaginary friend, he is Jonno’s displaced conscience and child-like innocence—even, perhaps, humanity.

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Alanis Peart, Jason Deline & Allan Michael Brunet in JONNO. Costume design by Christina Urquhart. Set design by Chandos Ross. Lighting design by Steve Vargo. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

The women in the cast make for a powerful unit of their own. Like Jonno, these characters are attractive, intelligent and accomplished in their own right—and each takes the journey from victim to survivor in her own way. Philosophical and lyrical, Vand’s Dana strives to gain an understanding through conversation with Jonno. Anderson’s wide-eyed activist Marcy thrives in dialogue with fellow survivors—and finds her inner warrior as a result. Braganza’s Bernadette is sensuous, irreverent and outspoken; surprisingly conservative, Bernadette is a reminder to not judge a book by its cover. And Peart is a hilarious powerhouse as the mercurial, assertive Maureen, who fights fire with fire when she puts Jonno in the hot seat.

With shouts to the creative team for bringing this starkly real and magical world together: Christine Urquhart (costume), Chandos Ross (set), Steve Vargo (lighting), Richard Feren (composer and sound), and Jade Elliot (fight and intimacy coordinator).

In the end, while we may be able to muster a modicum of sympathy for the devil, we believe the women—and whatever personal history or demons Jonno may have do not excuse his actions.

Giving the last word where last word’s due in the startling, sharply pointed, satirical JONNO.

JONNO continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace till January 14; for exact dates/times and advance tickets, visit the show page.

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NSTF: Opposing forces battle for supremacy in the underworld of audience influence in the diabolically charming Clique Claque

Pea Green Theatre Group brings its own brand of dark period comedy/melodrama with Mark Brownell’s Clique Claque, directed by Sue Miner; running now in the Factory Theatre Mainspace as part of the Toronto Fringe Next Stage Theatre Festival (NSTF).

Clique Claque takes us to 1880s Paris, where we meet Madame Clothilde, aka the Chef de Claque (Michelle Langille), and her husband Yannick (Robert Clarke), who run a group of professional clappers paid to manipulate audience response to theatrical performances. They can turn a bad play into a smash hit and mediocre actors into stars. Their ingénue employee Clemantine (Thalia Kane) may seem to be the picture of naiveté and innocence, but she’s a veteran of the game; though all is not well for her.

Enter young Victor (Victor Pokinko), a one-time music prodigy and current out of work musician, newly arrived from Canada, and looking for inspiration and a job. The Claque takes him on and he proceeds with his education, and in more ways than one. As he becomes instrumental in the Claque’s plan to overthrow an opposing gang of audience influencers—a group called the Clique, led by mature student Dubosc (Ron Kennell), who brutally heckle bad performances—Victor finds he may be in for more than he bargained for. Ultimately, he must choose between what is true and right, and the bitch goddess Fame.

Incorporating some cheeky but gentle audience participation, Clique Claque is an entertaining and engaging show, featuring a stand-out cast. Langille is mesmerizing as Clothilde, the seductive mistress of manipulation. Good cop to husband Yannick’s decidedly bad cop, she may be the wife in the marriage, but one gets the distinct impression that it’s she who wears the pants. Clarke is the villain you love to hate as devilishly devious, cynical and thuggish as Yannick; he represents the dark, seedy underbelly of the Claque’s endeavours, while Clothilde brings the illusion of respectable professionalism.

As Clemantine, Kane brings some lovely layering and conflict; a young woman of some experience, she knows the harshness of the world too well and feels trapped in the Claque. There’s a lost, wistful sense of longing for something better. Pokinko’s Victor is a great combination of wide-eyed innocent and game lad; disillusioned with the world of art himself, he starts out just wanting to eat, but finds himself seduced by the prospect of money and fame. Kennell’s Dubosc is a sophisticated picture of art and academe. A man with a quick, wry wit and unexpected talents, Dubosc is a fierce crusader with a deep appreciation of the good life and that which is beautiful, especially beautiful young men.

With shouts to Nina Okens for the stunning period costumes.

Opposing forces battle for supremacy in the underworld of audience influence in the diabolically charming Clique Claque.

Clique Claque continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until Jan 15. Get your advance tix and passes online; and check out the full NSTF schedule.

Photo: Michelle Langille and Robert Clarke – by Mark Brownell

NSTF: Story time for grown-ups with three solo tales—and one is a big fat lie—in the funny, frank Two Truths & a Lie

Pressgang Theatre serves up some storytelling meets game show fun with Two Truths and a Lie, created by and featuring Graham Isador, Helder Brum and Rhiannon Archer, and directed by Tom Arthur Davis. The action is happening at the Toronto Fringe Next Stage Theatre Festival (NSTF), upstairs in the Factory Theatre Antechamber.

Think you’re good at spotting a tall tale that’s way too unbelievable to be true? Test your skills and enjoy some good times as Archer, Brum and Isador share personal anecdotes. Two of them are telling the truth and one is lying to your face.

Over the course of 30 minutes, each storyteller serves up a hilarious, supposedly true, story of determination, patience and heartache. Each performer has a distinct presence and delivery style. Archer is a high-energy delight and an unapologetically ambitious firecracker in her story. Brum is endearingly self-deprecating and hilariously frank as he takes us on his journey. And Isador has a wry, introspective, edgy energy as he delivers his personal tale of experience and growth. And one lucky audience member has a chance to win a prize if he/she can determine who’s lying.

Storyteller Jillian Welsh will be joining the gang at the end of the run, on Jan 13-15.

Story time for grown-ups with three solo tales—and one is a big fat lie—in the funny, frank Two Truths and a Lie.

Two Truths and a Lie continues in the Factory Theatre Antechamber until Jan 15. Get your advance tix and passes online; and check out the full NSTF schedule.

Photo: Graham Isador – by Tanja-Tiziana

NSTF: Past & future collide with biting political satire in the hilariously trippy The Death of Mrs. Gandhi & the Beginning of New Physics (a political fantasy)

Everything but the Bard takes us on a time travelling, feminist political fantasy in Kawa Ada’s The Death of Mrs. Gandhi and the Beginning of New Physics (a political fantasy). Directed by Ada and overseen by artistic producer Renna Reddie, The Death of Mrs. Gandhi is currently running in the Factory Theatre Mainspace during the Toronto Fringe Next Stage Theatre Festival (NSTF).

In 1984, a group of female political heavyweights meet for Indira Gandhi’s funeral: Margaret Thatcher (Elley-Ray Hennessy), Benazir Bhutto (Tennille Read), Imelda Marcos (Nina Lee Aquino) and a young go-getter intern named Kim Campbell (Trenna Keating). When their gathering is interrupted by a mysterious woman named Malala (Ellora Patnaik), they find themselves trapped in a quantum bubble. The new arrival claims to be from 2030, and she has some information and instructions for them to get back to their time and space—and save the world!

Outstanding work from the cast, serving up sharp and darkly funny renderings of these women. Hennessy is hilariously imperious as Thatcher; condescending and imperialist to the core, the Iron Lady has a soft spot for “boyfriend” Ronny Reagan. Read does a lovely job with the ambitious young Bhutto; vain and privileged, she’s a favourite of Thatcher, who’s taken the young leader in waiting under her wing to be her mentor. Aquino gives an LOL turn as Marcos; cluelessly decadent, fancying herself a modern-day Marie Antoinette and crazy like a fox, she’s the penultimate 80s material girl.

Keating is adorkably mousy as the anxious young intern Campbell; super apologetic and deferring to Thatcher in all things, she shows her teeth when she comes to realize that Malala has something important to say. Patnaik gives us a sassy and determined grown-up Malala; brutally honest and ballsy, she stands her ground with this group of impressive, powerful women to fulfill her mission. And she has some startling and unusual ideas to save the future.

Featuring intrigue, espionage, top secret machinations and some wacky new physics, The Death of Mrs. Gandhi lampoons sexism, racism, imperialism and political propaganda.

Past and future collide with biting political satire in the hilariously trippy The Death of Mrs. Gandhi and the Beginning of New Physics (a political fantasy).

The Death of Mrs. Gandhi and the Beginning of New Physics (a political fantasy) continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until Jan 15. Get your advance tix and passes online; and check out the full NSTF schedule.

Photo: Tennille Read and Elley-Ray Hennessy – by Cylla von Tiedemann

Top 10 theatre 2016

Hope everyone’s been enjoying the holiday season. As we say goodbye to 2016 (for better or worse), it’s time for the annual top 10 theatre list. As usual, this is always a challenging endeavour, so I’ve added a few honourable mentions (in alphabetical order):

Top 10 theatre 2016

Blind Date (queer version): Spontaneous Theatre & Buddies in Bad Times Theatre

Chasse-Galerie: Kabin, Storefront Theatre & Soulpepper

Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen: Theatre 20, The Firehall Arts Centre & Theatre Passe Muraille

The Harrowing of Brimstone McReedy: Eldritch Theatre

The Hogtown Experience: The Hogtown Collective & Campbell House Museum

Late Night: Theatre Brouhaha & Zoomer LIVE Theatre

Mouthpiece: Quote Unquote Collective & Nightwood Theatre

The Queen’s Conjuror: Circlesnake Productions

She Mami Wata and the Pussy Witchhunt: The Watah Theatre

The Summoned: Tarragon Theatre

Honourable mention

The Clergy Project:  SOULO Theatre

Killer Joe: Coal Mine Theatre

The Taming of the Shrew: Driftwood Theatre Group

Three Men in a Boat: Pea Green Theatre

Up next: The Next Stage Theatre Festival (NSTF), running January 4 – 15, 2017 at Factory Theatre.

Happy holidays 2016!

And with my final post of 2016 – on Second City’s big fun sketch comedy/improv production of Twist Your Dickens, the cowbell blog signs off for the year.

Stop by for a visit in early January, when I’ll be covering some shows featured in the 2017 Next Stage Theatre Festival (NSTF), which will be celebrating its 10th birthday at Factory Theatre.

In the meantime, stay tuned for my top 10 theatre productions of 2016, which I’ll be posting at the end of December.

Happy holidays to you and yours – and all good things for 2017!

NSTF: Joke packs a powerful, thought-provoking punch in A Man Walks into a Bar

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Rachel Blair in A Man Walks into a Bar – photo by Tanja Tiziana

Saw another remarkable Toronto Fringe remount last night: Circle Circle’s production of Rachel Blair’s meta theatre social commentary A Man Walks into a Bar, directed by David Matheson, now playing at the Factory Theatre for the Next Stage Theatre Festival (NSTF).

A Man (Blue Bigwood-Mallin) helps a Woman (Blair) tell a joke – and the narrative weaves in and out of role playing as they become a man and a waitress in a bar. It all starts off amiably enough, then the tone shifts to something decidedly different as the Man’s initial helpful demeanour becomes something else.

Bigwood-Mallin and Blair do an amazing job of navigating the scenarios, playing out complex, layered and socially relevant interactions with candor and humour. Blair’s Woman is adorably shy and awkward as she sets up the joke, confessing her nervousness at doing something completely new. As the Man, Bigwood-Mallin is charming and good-humoured, approaching the situation in the spirit of support and assistance. The intensity of their banter, light and punchy in the beginning, builds to a startling conclusion.

I’ve been struggling with what to write here, as I a) don’t want to drop any spoilers and b) realize that my experience of this particular play won’t necessarily be the same as that of others. Here’s what stood out for me. The Man says he wants to be helpful and supportive, but proceeds to continually interrupt the Woman, telling her how to tell the joke. This dynamic initiates a loop of sorts – the repetition of the unheard – and highlights things that guys just don’t get about women’s daily lives, where women have to be on their guard, even with apparently “average,” “nice,” “normal” men. It’s an indictment of a world where women are trying to find their voices and be heard, but men are hijacking the conversation (reminding me of Sen. Claire McCaskill’s famous quote that men should “just shut the hell up”). In addition, men are the ones making the rules, but they get pissed off when women play by those rules and things don’t go the way they expected. Miscommunication and misunderstanding aren’t the same as manipulation and harassment, yet the lines between them get blurred – by mistake or on purpose.

In 2016, when it comes to sexual politics and equality, the joke’s on all of us. And the joke packs a powerful, thought-provoking punch in A Man Walks into a Bar.

A Man Walks into a Bar continues at the Factory Theatre Studio until Jan 17, with a talk back following tonight’s performance (Jan 10) at the Hoxton. Advance booking is strongly recommended – this show was also sold out last night.

To book tickets in advance, call 416-966-1062 or purchase tix online; or you can purchase tickets in at the box office, which opens one hour before the first show of the day. Click here for full ticket/pass info.