Women’s stories across the ages in the sharp-witted, illuminating & timely Top Girls

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.

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Naomi Koven (Kit), Nyiri Karakas (Joyce). Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Bec Brownstone. Lighting design by Jay Hines. Projection design by Madison Madhu. Photo by Bruce Peters.

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.

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A big fun, magical ride for kids of all ages with the imaginative, wonder-filled Peter Pan

Clockwise, from the top: Matt Pilipiak, Victor Pokinko, Fiona Sauder, Lena Maripuu & Landon Doak. Production design by Amy Marie Wallace. Lighting design by Ken MacKenzie. Photo by Nicholas Porteous.

 

Bad Hats Theatre returns to the Young Centre, adding a sprinkle of magic fairy dust to the holidays with its Dora award-winning stage adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Adapted by Fiona Sauder and Reanne Spitzer, directed by Severn Thompson, with choreography by Reanne Spitzer, music by Landon Doak, and arrangements by Nathan Carroll and the company, this low-tech, highly imaginative version of the beloved children’s classic promises magic, fun and wonder for kids of all ages.

From its genesis as Co-Artistic Director Fiona Sauder’s dream project, first produced by Bad Hats at the Old Flame, a brewery in Port Perry, to a five-brewery tour in Toronto the following winter, Peter Pan first landed at the Young Centre in 2017, when Soulpepper invited the company to perform in its holiday time Family Festival. The production went on to win Dora awards for Outstanding Ensemble, Direction and Production.

Part story time, part dress-up, part musical—all magic and imagination—Peter Pan draws us in with joy, make believe and a child-like sense of play that starts before the show gets underway, with the ensemble emerging for some live music and fun with the kids sitting on the mats along the front of the horseshoe seating arrangement. Best. Pre-show. Ever.

Our grown-up narrator (Matt Pilipiak, with fun in his heart and a twinkle in his eye, going on to play the shy, soft-spoken Mr. Smee) sets the stage; and we watch as Peter (Fiona Sauder, with boyish swashbuckling bravado and impish mischief) enters the Darling home through the nursery window in search of his AWOL shadow. A lover of stories, he’s been listening at the window as Wendy (played with a lovely combination of grown-up earnestness, and childhood fun and romance by Lena Maripuu) tells stories and plays games of dress-up adventure with her younger brothers John (little gentleman, full of fun Victor Pokinko) and Michael (Richard Lam, brimming with adorable wide-eyed wonder, in the role till Dec 16; followed by Landon Doak in the role).

A sprinkle of fairy dust and a happy thought send the Darling children into flight with Peter and his fairy BFF Tinkerbell (the spritely, feisty, don’t you dare cross her Reanne Spitzer, who also plays Mrs. Darling and a Pirate) to their address at second star to the right and straight on till morning: Neverland. Joining the Lost Boys (great high-energy, comic fun turns from Jocelyn Adema, Andrew Cameron, Matthew Finlan and Tal Shulman, who all double as the rough and tumble, fun-loving Pirates), Peter and the Darling boys adopt Wendy as their new storytelling mother. Meanwhile, Captain Hook (played with hilariously evil camp by Graham Conway, who does double duty as Mr. Darling) is out to avenge his lost hand, and plots to find Peter Pan’s secret hideaway, and kidnap his friends to lure him into a trap. All the while, Hook is pursued by the crocodile that ate his hand, its whereabouts given away by the tick tock of the clock it also managed to swallow.

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Fiona Sauder & Graham Conway. Production design by Amy Marie Wallace. Lighting design by Ken MacKenzie. Photo by Nicholas Porteous.

Sword fights, a jealous fairy turned hero and a stalking, hungry croc ensue—and good prevails over evil, with determination, pluck and ingenuity. And it’s a bittersweet moment when the Darling children return home to the nursery, in part because it also signals the end of this magical journey for us. The kids in the audience are a huge part of the fun of this show; and one or two even get a chance to get in on the fun. I dare you to not stomp your feet along with the music—and believe in magic and fairies.

Peter Pan continues at the Young Centre into the New Year, until January 5. Get advance tickets online or call the box office: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188. Booking in advance is strongly recommended to avoid disappointment. Bringing a kid isn’t mandatory, but it will ramp up your fun if you’re joined by a young friend. Go see this!

Check out the trailer, featuring highlights from this multi-talented, energetic ensemble:

 

Keep an eye out for Bad Hats Theatre, who are cooking up a new children’s tale for an upcoming musical brewery tour; check out their website for details, and give them a follow on their social media channels.

 

FireWorks Festival: Plotting cold, sweet revenge in the darkly funny, chilling The Pigeon

 

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Graphic design by Suzanne Courtney

Alumnae Theatre opened its annual FireWorks Festival of new works with a tale of unlikely partners and a plot for revenge against a common enemy in Chloë Whitehorn’s darkly funny, chilling The Pigeon—directed by Victoria Shepherd and assistant director Nicole Entin, and running in Alumnae’s Studio theatre.

 

Jegger (John Shubat), a tough-looking young man in black, and Malone (Liz Best), a prim, sharply dressed woman old enough to be his mother, have little in common—other than a common enemy and a decision to join forces to exact revenge, that is. Every day, they meet for lunch on a park bench to hatch their plan.

On the other side of Jegger’s life is his pregnant girlfriend Amy (Marina Gomes); and while Malone schools him on the fine art of vengeance, Amy has taken up educating him about babies. Excited and anxious about the prospect of being a father, Jegger starts to have second thoughts about the revenge plan. Malone has a back-up plan and he will be the messenger—and their relationship will never be the same.

Stellar, compelling performances from the cast in a series of two-hander scenes that play back and forth across the stage, from the park bench to Jegger and Amy’s apartment. Shubat and Best have a tight, razor-sharp rapport as Jegger and Malone; Shubat’s digital-age, sullen, socially aware Jegger and Best’s old-school, acerbic, “culturally insensitive” (i.e., racist) Malone are perfect foils and fine complements. These two characters met only recently and have relatively nothing in common other than a flair for detailed observation and mercurial wit—and an appetite for revenge, coincidentally for the same individual. Gomes’s bubbly, positive and protective Amy is the lighter side of Jegger’s relationships here, providing a sharp contrast to the tone of his relationship with Malone. Amy acts as Jegger’s conscience; and is instrumental in his decision to back out of the revenge plot as she seeks to intervene for the good of their future as a young family.

Over the course of 65 minutes, it’s a slow burn; the bubbles playfully popping to the surface until they reach a boiling point. It’s interesting to see the different aspects of Jegger’s personality that emerge with the two women. A stand-up guy in any case, he takes on a darker, more malevolent vibe with the bitter Malone, who brings out his rage; and a lighter and optimistic jam with the sweet Amy, who provides a safe place for him to unpack his hurt and vulnerability. It clearly troubles him when the dark seeps into the light—and while Jegger is happy to stay on board Malone’s scheme as a messenger, he has no idea what the message will be.

Last night’s post-show talkback featured sound designer/composer John Stuart Campbell, a long-time friend and colleague of Shepherd’s, who spoke about the process of incorporating music into a play. Campbell described music as “a howl at the moon” and an “emotional shorthand,” wherein the sound design/composition is informed by the text, and mindful in its respect for the actors and overall production design. Choosing from a tool box that includes picking an instrument for each character, everyday ambient sound recordings, writing themes for characters or incorporating popular music—with arrangements tailored to the production—Campbell creates a soundtrack that supports and highlights the action. In the case of The Pigeon, he decided to largely forego scene change music, given the flow of the play and split scene staging. He did, however, use an eerie version of On the Street Where You Live (vocals by Vivien Shepherd) to open the play, with Every Breath You Take (The Police) in the pre-show; spooky and sweet, and both underscoring the creepy, stalker vibe of the revenge plot.

The Pigeon continues in the Alumnae Theatre Studio until November 11. Get advance tickets online, by calling the box office: 416-364-4170, ext. 1 or in-person at the door (cash only); box office opens one hour before curtain time. All FireWorks performances run Wednesday – Saturday at 8 pm, with matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 pm.

Check out the trailer for The Pigeon—by Nicholas Porteous.

The three-week long FireWorks Festival continues to November 25, with two more productions (one each week):  Elmar Maripuu’s Moving On (Nov 14-18) and Romeo Ciolfi’s Animal (Nov 21-25).

Keep up with Alumnae Theatre on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

New Ideas: The chaotic metaphysics of life, love & monsters in the water in the funny, moving, poetic Week 3 program

Alumnae Theatre Company continues its 30th annual New Ideas Festival (NIF) of short new works, opening the Week Three program last night. It’s the final week of the festival, running up in the Alumnae Studio.

The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea by Natalie Frijia, directed by Kay Brattan. In 1882 Toronto, 39 people have mysteriously drowned in Lake Ontario—and rumour has it there’s a monster beneath the slate blue water. Rookie reporter Marjorie May (Emma Tse) is determined to get the story, visiting Mary-Anne’s (Stella Kulagowski) pub down by the docks to gather some information. Things get real when they’re joined by the terrified Captain O’Connell (Shawn Lall), who’s barely escaped with his life. As the incoming storm batters the pub, there’s something else out there in the night. Is the creature coming after the Captain to finish what it started?

Nice work from the cast building the intrigue and tension in this 15-minute piece of exaggerated Toronto history. Tse brings a youthful sense of feisty defiance to the young reporter, while Kulagowski is fiery and cynical as the voluptuous barkeep; and Lall’s Captain runs the gamut from frozen terror to gritty resolve as the three stand together in the end.

Marty and Joel and the Edge of Chaos by Camille Intson, directed by Lorna Craig. Chaos theory meets romantic dramedy in this delightful and poignant two-hander played out by four actors. You’ll see what I mean. A couple—Marty (Allison Shea Reed/Kim Croscup), a physicist, and Joel (Simon Bennett/Ryan Bannon), a photographer—occupies the same space in two different times: the day they met and the day of Joel’s second marriage some 20 years later. Constructing and deconstructing the relationship, we see them go from first love to finally working toward some closure.

Beautifully acted and staged. Shea Reed and Bennett are adorably awkward as two 20-somethings getting to know, and falling for, each other. Marty and Joel seem to be perfect complements to each other, with Marty’s adventurous nature and nerdy science knowledge, and Joel’s creative, intuitive sensitivity. As older, more world-weary and disillusioned versions of their former selves, Croscup’s Marty is frustrated and angry, still looking for the answers; and Bannon’s Joel has moved on, but still cares deeply for Marty and treasures their relationship.

The Officiant by Francesca Brugnano, directed by Paige Foskett. It’s 1938, and Shirley (Brianna Riché) and William (Jordan Kenny) have stolen off into the woods, where Shirley has decorated a clearing for them to be secretly married. But when the Officiant (Lisa Kovack) arrives, the wedding service gives them a glimpse into their future together, making them think twice. Is it worth all the pain and suffering?

A lovely, poetic dance of text and movement to tell this story, with moving work from the cast. Riché is brave, romantic and practical as Shirley; and Kenny brings an earnest boyish charm to William. Kovack gives the Officiant a witch-like air of mystery and foresight; cruel to be kind, she means to get real with this couple.

Mourning after the Night Before by Chloë Whitehorn, directed by Heather Keith. When Lucy (Mary Wall) and Drew (Dave Martin) decided to move to a small town, they did it to make to make a quieter, more peaceful home for their family. Making friends with brother and sister Everett (Conor Ling) and Fenwick (Tiffany Deobald), locals who help them get settled, Lucy struggles with her relationship with her daughter Pippa (Grace Callahan), as well as emerging feelings for Everett. Everett is falling in love—but is it with Lucy or Pippa? Drew and Fenwick are trying to keep their respective families safe. Did Lucy miss something in Pippa’s dark, teen angst-filled poems?

Lovely work from the cast in this haunting, lyrical family drama. Wall is wounded and desperate as Lucy; heartbreaking in a life adrift and grasping for a sense of self. Martin’s Drew is heart-wrenching to watch; sensitive and supportive, Drew doesn’t know what to do—and finds himself drifting farther from his family. Callahan gives Pippa an ethereal, creative spirit; a somewhat wild and rebellious teen, she finds solace in writing. Ling brings a sweet, shy romantic edge to Everett; while seeing anew with these new relationships, Everett’s eyes may not be wide open. Deobald is an irreverent charmer as Fenwick; tasked with raising Everett after they were orphaned, Fen is just trying to keep it together, but shows genuine concern for the rift between her new friends Lucy and Drew.

The NIF Week Three program continues in the Alumnae Theatre Studio until March 25. Get advance tickets online or by calling the box office: 416-364-4170, ext. 1 (cash only at the box office). Performances run Wednesday – Saturday at 8 pm, with matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 pm.

Coming up: Week Three staged reading on Saturday, March 24 at noon. Animal by Romeo Ciolfi, directed by Liz Best; featuring actors Alexandra Milne, Anton Wasowicz, Steven Vlahos and Michele Dodick.

It’s a very popular festival and an intimate venue, so advance booking is strongly recommended. In the meantime, check out the Week Three trailer by Nicholas Porteous:

 

 

New Ideas: Alternate perceptions, unexplained events & magical connections in the haunting, hilarious, heartfelt Week 2 program

Alumnae Theatre Company opened its 30th annual New Ideas Festival (NIF) of short new works last week; the three-week festival presents a different program of plays each week, plus staged readings on Saturdays at noon. I caught the Week Two program up in the Studio last night.

Sweet Mama and the Salty Muffins by Ciarán Myers, directed by Kendra Jones. Haunted by a catchy Appalachian folk song that sends her back to the moment her three-year-old daughter disappeared at an outdoor concert, a mother (Lisa Lenihan) tries to make us see the sense of her account of the inexplicable aftermath of the event. Do we believe her? Is it all in her mind?

Lenihan is quirky and heartbreakingly lonely as the mother in this 15-minute solo piece. Desperate for someone to believe her and neurotically self-conscious of sounding mentally ill, the mother is confident in what she saw. And she realizes it sounds beyond strange and impossible, but she believes it with all her heart. Maybe because she has to.

If Socrates were in My Shoes by Donna Langevin, directed by Carl Jackson. Set in 1930, Jean (Nicholas Koy Santillo), who’s gained fame as a daredevil, meets down on his luck writer George (Andreas Batakis), who’s working as a cook to pay the bills. George is despondent over not being able to find a publisher for his book and Jean suggests a death-defying stunt to get publicity: going over Horseshoe Falls in a barrel. How far is George willing to go to self-publish his book?

Nice work from the actors in this metaphysical dramedy. Santillo brings an affable charm and cockiness, with a touch of con artist, to Jean; a man with a wife and six kids to feed at home, Jean does what he needs to do to make ends meet. Batakis gives George an interesting combination of melancholy and driven, earnest and fanciful, pensive and desperate. There’s an air of dark, edgy mystery around George. What is the true nature of his intense relationship with the teachings of Socrates?

Stars by D.J. Sylvis, directed by Gillian Armstrong. Two lives revolve around each other thousands of miles apart in this lovely, cosmically magical two-hander. Akia (Alexa Higgins) and Ren (Katherine Cappellacci) have never met, but they’re falling in love in a long-distance relationship as they gaze at the stars during a cellphone conversation.

Playing out this beautifully tender, funny and heartbreaking romance—all in 15 minutes—Higgins and Cappellacci have great chemistry, complementing each other perfectly with this pair of opposites. Higgins is a starry-eyed romantic as the astronomy nerd Akia; and Cappellacci is earthy and cynical as the sci-fi dork Ren.

Moving On by Elmar Maripuu, directed by Helly Chester. Kyle (Michael Ricci) has a brilliant software idea and Shelley (Lena Maripuu) is helping him find an investor. Trouble is the investor she’s putting forward is under suspicion of absconding with Kyle’s small home town pension fund. This problem of conscience is comically compounded by the appearance of Jodie (Rachelle Mazzilli), Kyle’s high school sweetheart.

Equal parts hilarious and heart-wrenching, this three-hander cast does a great job. Ricci’s Kyle is a visionary, and also loyal, good-humoured and sweet. He longs to bring his plans to fruition, but is torn about aligning himself with the man who may have swindled his friends and family back home. Maripuu is a big bundle of madcap fun as Shelley; possessing boundless energy and talking a mile a minute, there’s more than meets the eye as we get a glimpse into Shelley’s past and secret desires. Mazzilli is adorably irreverent and cocky as Jodie; playfully seductive, Jodie isn’t quite sure what’s up with this visit with Kyle. Are old fires lighting up again or are they just riding a wave of memory?

The Week Two program also includes a staged reading on Saturday, March 17 at noon, followed by a talkback. Mirage: The Arabian Adventures of Gertrude Bell by Laurie Fyffe; featuring actors Fallon Bowman, Rosey Tyler, Saphire Demitro, May Tartoussy, Arun Varma, Ethan Saulnier, Sean Dwyer, Matthew Olivier and Erin Humphry.

The NIF Week Two program continues in the Alumnae Theatre Studio until March 18. Get advance tickets online or by calling the box office: 416-364-4170, ext. 1 (cash only at the box office). Performances run Wednesday – Saturday at 8 pm, with matinees on Saturday (with a post-show talkback) and Sunday at 2:30 pm. Check out the Week Three program, running March 21 – 25.

It’s a very popular festival and an intimate venue, so advance booking is strongly recommended. In the meantime, check out the Week Two trailer by Nicholas Porteous:

 

Toronto Fringe: A most outrageously funny mashup in Romeo & Juliet Chainsaw Massacre

romeo_and_juliet_and_a_chainsaw-wielding_maniac

Bain & Bernard Comedy has cooked up one helluva theatrical mashup for Toronto Fringe with its production of Matt Bernard’s Romeo and Juliet Chainsaw Massacre, directed by Bernard and running to packed houses at the Randolph Theatre.

Inspired by a variety of horror films throughout the decades, particularly The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, Friday the 13th, Scream and The Tower of London, we find Romeo and Juliet’s Verona under advisement (via 1950s radio-style broadcasts) that a deranged killer is on the loose after escaping from a local asylum. Dialogue from Romeo and Juliet is combined with modern language to great comic effect, and all hilarious hell breaks loose during the campy fun scenes of stalking and dismemberment.

The kick-ass ensemble has excellent comic timing, and does an amazing job with the hybrid language, chainsaw mayhem SFX and fight scenes. Stand-outs include Sarite Harris’s feisty Nurse; Michael Iliadis’s dramatic Mercutio; Brittany Kay’s sassy Juliet; Jeremy Lapalme’s saucy Peter the Illiterate Servant; Victor Pokinko’s slapdash Benvolio; Nicolas Porteous’s serious, misunderstood Romeo; and Scott Garland’s cocky, sleazy County Paris.

All the key plot points of an abbreviated Romeo and Juliet plus the over-the-top gruesome fun of horror schlock. What more could you ask for?

Star-crossed lovers! Codpieces! Chainsaws! A most outrageously funny Shakespeare/horror film mashup in Romeo and Juliet Chainsaw Massacre.

Romeo and Juliet Chainsaw Massacre continues at the Randolph Theatre until July 10; get your tickets in advance for this one, kids, these guys are packing them in there. For ticket info and advance tickets/passes, check out the Fringe website.

Casual cruelty & family secrets in ferociously funny, devastatingly poignant August: Osage County

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Marie Carriere Gleason (foreground), with Paul Cotton, Kelly-Marie Murtha, Melinda Jordan, Pearl Ho & Andrew Batten – photos by Bruce Peters

Alumnae Theatre Company cordially invites you to attend a family gathering at the home of Beverly and Violet Weston in Pawhuska, Oklahoma.

Alumnae opened its production of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County on the mainstage last night. Directed by Victoria Shepherd and featuring a talented ensemble, this is family dysfunction at its grittiest, no holds barred best.

When the Weston family patriarch (Thomas Gough) goes missing, middle daughter Ivy (Andrea Lyons) – the only child who stayed in town – rallies the family around her ailing mother Violet (Marie Carriere Gleason). Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Carol McLennan) and husband Charlie (Rob Candy) are the first to arrive, and we get a sense of the estrangement that underpins the family dynamic. The Weston’s oldest daughter Barbara (Kelly-Marie Murtha) is the most wanted – but least wanting – to be there; she arrives from Colorado with husband Bill (Paul Cotton) and 14-year-old daughter Jean (Melinda Jordan) in tow. Add to this mix youngest Weston girl Karen (Kathleen Jackson Allamby) and fiancé Steve (Chris Peterson), and cousin Little Charles (Neil Cameron), and the family circus is complete – occasionally witnessed from the outside by housekeeper/caregiver Johnna (Pearl Ho) and Sheriff Deon Gilbeau (Andrew Batten). The atmosphere becomes rife with nostalgia (for better or worse), secrets and schemes as things fall apart and come together only to fall apart again and again.

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Marie Carriere Gleason & Andrea Lyons

Nice work all around from this large, engaging cast. The play runs two and a half hours, plus intermission, but doesn’t feel like it. The Weston family women anchor this story – and the cast is particularly strong here. Gleason’s Violet is a complex puzzle of illness, addiction and survivor; quick to offer unsolicited – and decidedly not feminist – advice to the women in her life, her brutal honesty is shockingly unforgiving. Moments of manipulation and Hollywood-calibre drama queen can turn (seemingly) into flashes of genuine tenderness. Lyons gives a lovely, multi-layered performance as the put-upon Ivy; a character that could easily become a one-dimensional family doormat, she pushes back with a sharp wit and dark sense of humour. She has a pure heart and the patience of a saint, but as the main butt of her mother’s criticism, even she has her limits. Murtha’s Barbara is the picture of a woman on the edge, struggling with a complex set of emotions as her whole world is crumbling around her. The family rock, she strives to keep things together even as she’s falling apart herself – by turns angry, exasperated, protective and acerbically funny, putting out one fire as another appears. Allamby’s Karen is a beautiful contradiction; a high-energy chatterbox, Karen strives for self-awareness and adulthood, but comes off as flakey and deluded, with a poignant, child-like quality to her rose-coloured family nostalgia, born of selective memory. McLennan’s Mattie Fae, like her sister Violet, is a complex woman of contradiction – as cruel in her judgemental criticism (in her case, aimed at her son Little Charles) as she is fiercely protective of her family, including her son. And Jordan brings a precocious, wise child edge to Jean; a self-possessed young film buff coming into herself as she deals with her parents’ relationship issues.

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Pearl Ho & Thomas Gough

Other stand-outs include Gough’s wry-witted, melancholy alcoholic Beverly; a lauded poet and academic at the end of his rope, we only see him at the top of the play, but his presence resonates and stays with us. Batten brings an understated, quiet and boyish bashfulness and sense of anticipation to the Sheriff, a former beau of Barbara’s. And Peterson’s Steve is both charming and skeevy; a smooth operator under that sweet, helpful exterior.

It’s like watching a train wreck – and you can’t look away. The high drama of this family gathering is tempered by sharp-edged, dark humour – which the family uses for both self-protection and sniper attacks – and occasional moments of genuine, loving connection. Nothing brings out a family’s true colours like tragedy.

With shouts to set designer Alexis Chubb’s minimalist, multi-level set, with its inventive and effective multiple playing areas and nooks for the various family vignettes. And to John Stuart Campbell for the sound design and original composition; his song “Can’t Run Far Enough” features vocals by Vivien Shepherd and Ron Smith on harmonica – and haunting, wistful western sounds.

Casual cruelty and family secrets abound in Alumnae’s ferociously funny, devastatingly poignant production of August: Osage County.

August: Osage County continues on the Alumnae mainstage until April 23; check here for ticket purchase/info. Performances include a pre-show chat with the design team at noon tomorrow (Sun, Apr 10); and a post-show talkback with the cast and crew on Sun, Apr 17.

Related trivia/info: Former Alumnae President (and damn fine actor) Dinah Watts is in a London Community Players’ production of August: Osage County in London, ON right now. Lett’s first play Killer Joe is in production at Coal Mine Theatre till April 24 (I’m seeing it on Tuesday). And founder/playwright at Cue6 Theatre Sarah Illiatovitch-Goldman (who was in Alumnae’s production of Wit, and has play We Three running now at Tarragon) is on the Steppenwolf Theater Company’s literary team for the world premiere of Letts’ play Mary Page Marlowe.

Oh yeah, and here’s the awesome trailer for the Alumnae production of August: Osage County (video by Nicholas Porteous):