Putting the spotlight on who gets to tell the story in the hilarious, gut-wrenching, deeply moving BANG BANG

Karen Robinson, Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah, Richard Zeppieri, Jeff Lillico & Sébastien Heins. Set design by Nick Blais. Costume design by Lindsay Dagger Junkin. Lighting design by Oz Weaver. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography.

 

What happens when a white playwright’s play, inspired by the shooting of an unarmed young Black man by a Black female cop, becomes a huge success destined for a Hollywood movie adaptation?

Factory Theatre presents the world premiere of Kat Sandler’s BANG BANG, directed by Sandler, assisted by Kwaku Okyere, with dramaturgy by Donna-Michelle St. Bernard. Inspired by all too common headlines of innocent lives lost, the play turns a spotlight on how these stories are told and who gets to tell them.

Suspended from the force two years ago, former rookie police officer Lila (Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah) now lives with her mother Karen (Karen Robinson), a psychologist, and the memory of her deceased cop father. Lila’s story—and that of Derek Chambers, the young man she shot—is of particular interest to playwright Tim (Jeff Lillico), who wanted to write an important, socially relevant piece about excessive and deadly police force; and this case is unusual—and dramatically juicy—in that it involved a Black female police officer.

When Tim shows up unexpectedly at Karen’s door to see Lila one rainy day, the reason for his visit is even more of a surprise than his arrival. His play Hands Up was a huge success and is being turned into a Hollywood movie. And they’re about to have another surprise visitor: actor Jackie (Sébastien Heins), who’ll be playing the police officer—and whose arrival is abruptly heralded by security detail Tony (Richard Zeppieri). And just when you thought things couldn’t get any weirder, amidst a morning of day drinking (all except Karen), Lila decides that they need to do selected readings of the play, insisting that this will be helpful for her. And that’s when shit gets really real.

Outstanding work from the ensemble on this roller coaster ride of ideas, emotions and storytelling. Robinson brings both ferocity and vulnerability to Karen, a protective mother and a sharp, wry-witted professional. Willing to do whatever’s necessary to shield her daughter from harm, Karen also struggles with how Lila’s actions reflect on her. As Lila, Roberts-Abdullah rides the edge of good-humoured self-deprecation and hopeless despair. Lost and isolated, and putting on as brave a face as she can, Lila is haunted by the shooting, nursing her pain with outbursts of edgy humour and sliding into day drinking as she tries to make it through the day.

Lillico’s multilayered performance as Tim gives us a driven, ambitious and socially awkward young man who longs to make a name for himself as much as he wants to make a social statement. Although he has no ties to the community or profession that are key components of the story, Tim feels entitled to tell it—and feels justified in researching the finer details through Google and interviews. Caught up in his own growing celebrity, does he even know who or what he’s writing this for anymore?

Heins is an energetic ball of fire as Jackie—and does an excellent job with the public and private faces of celebrity. An extroverted master of put-on sincerity, and referring to himself in the third person on the one hand, Jackie also gives a genuinely passionate account of a play he saw that also tells the story of a police shooting of an innocent Black youth. Driven and ambitious like Tim, Jackie is also biracial and more socially astute than his former Disney child star turned wannabe serious actor persona might indicate. Zeppieri is an irreverent, foul-mouthed delight as Tony; a former cop himself and a bull in a china shop socially speaking, Tony has some surprisingly gentle qualities beneath that gruff, macho exterior. And he gives a hilarious read of the Hands Up stage directions.

Who gets to tell these stories—and how and when? And what kind of impact will the telling have on the immediate audience and the public at large? Rarely do you get to see a play that makes you think, laugh, puts you on the edge of your seat and moves you to tears like BANG BANG.

The design team has created a marvelous, theatrical environment for this play within a play journey: from the visible props tables in the unmasked wings that flank the gorgeous living room set (set by Nick Blais) and lighting scaffolding (lighting by Oz Weaver), to the snippets of epic, sweeping soundtracks that emerge throughout (sound by Verne Good).

BANG BANG continues in the Factory Theatre mainspace until February 18; advance tickets strongly recommended.

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Giving a voice to the brave, resourceful women of The Odyssey in the engaging, theatrical The Penelopiad

The ensemble in The Penelopiad—photo courtesy of George Brown College

The George Brown Theatre School class of 2017 closes its 2016-17 season with Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad (directed by Sue Minor) and David Ives’ new version of Georges Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear (directed by Todd Hammond and Jordan Pettle) in the Michael Young Theatre at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, located in Toronto’s Distillery District. I caught The Penelopiad last night.

The Penelopiad is a retelling of The Odyssey from Penelope’s point of view, told with an all-female cast. Featuring the overlooked, abandoned and condemned women usually relegated to the background while Odysseus and his band of brothers are off for 20 years, fighting in the Trojan War, and having scrapes and adventures with various gods and monsters, it also provides a perspective of the 12 maids, executed for their licentious behaviour with Penelope’s would-be suitors.

Speaking to us from the Underworld after her death, Penelope (Kyrah Harder) starts her tale with the foot race for her hand, won by the short-legged Odysseus (Gabriella Albino), who thwarts his opponents by getting them drunk before the event. Brought into his parents’ household, she finds herself ruled by his disapproving mother Queen Anticlera (Emily Cully) and fastidious nursemaid Eurycleia (Lucy Meanwell). With the running of the house—and even the raising of her child Telemachus (Kayla Farris)—taken over by others, she resorts to weaving to pass the time.

Penelope’s role changes when Odysseus’s time away grows longer, his mother dies and his father King Laertes (Morgan St. Onge) wanders off, losing his mind; and finds herself forced to take over the running of the kingdom and Odysseus’s business affairs as she patiently awaits his return. When 10 years turns to 20, various suitors appear on her doorstep, circling like vultures and making themselves at home without invitation. Taking the 12 youngest maids into her confidence, she hatches a plan to keep the aggressive young men at bay. She tells the men she will choose a husband once she’s finished her father-in-law’s burial shroud. Each day, she and her 12 maids weave; each night, they undo their day’s work. The maids distract the suitors with attention and flirting; and when the suitors take out their frustrations by raping the maids, Penelope entreats them to hold fast—buying time until Odysseus returns.

Not apprised of Penelope’s plan, Telemachus and Eurycleia are mortified at the goings-on in the palace. And when Odysseus returns, he takes his revenge on the suitors; also unaware of what Penelope and the maids have been doing out of loyalty to him and to keep his kingdom safe, he punishes the maids. It is only through Eurycleia’s entreaty that he doesn’t execute all the maids—but just the 12 closest to Penelope.

While Penelope and her 12 maids prove themselves as cunning and steadfast as any man, in the end they are subject to the will and whims of men, who ultimately hold the balance of power.

A masterful piece of storytelling from a feminist perspective, the ensemble captures the edgy humour and despairing tragedy of this journey. Harder does a lovely job with the wry wit, desperate longing and firm resolve of Penelope. Haunted by her failure to protect them, she is shunned by the maids even after death. Lovely chemistry with Albino’s charming, wily and adventurous Odysseus; it is a complex relationship, for while Odysseus treats her with tender respect, he can’t help but succumb to the wanderlust that draws him away from her—even after death.

Stand-outs include Caroline Bell’s vain and flirty Helen (yes, that Helen and Penelope’s cousin) and Justine Christensen’s watery, ethereal Naiad (Penelope’s mother). Emily Cully brings in icy imperiousness to Queen Anticlera (Odysseus’s mother) and Tymika McKenzie-Clunis gives a hilarious turn as her pet goat. Lucy Meanwell also brings some comedy as Odysseus’s doting, gossiping and well-meaning but bossy nursemaid.

With shouts to the design team for bringing this otherworldly environment to life: Jackie Chau (set), Erin Gerofsky (costumes) and Nick Blais (lighting); and to the ensemble for arranging the music to Atwood’s words, in song and soundscape.

Giving a voice to the brave, resourceful women of The Odyssey in the engaging, theatrical The Penelopiad.

The Penelopiad continues at the Young Centre in the Michael Young Theatre until April 22; click here for ticket and pass info or book by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.  A Flea in Her Ear also runs until April 22; online tix available. It’s a great chance to see emerging acting talent before they head out into their careers.

You can also keep up with George Brown Theatre’s class of 2017 on Twitter and Facebook.

And check out the trailer for The Penelopiad here: