It’s Thanksgiving Monday here in Canada and I’ve been thinking about what I’m grateful for this year: friends, family, my colleagues at Nightwood Theatre—and you, dear reader.
I came out of hiatus in early September to cover INpulse Theatre Co’s production of Mockingbird Close at Red Sandcastle Theatre. Officially back, the cowbell blog will be operating in a reduced capacity for the next little while. Fall is a busy time for theatre companies—and, as I’m now working at a theatre company… You get the picture.
Although I’ll be covering fewer shows, I’ll still be shouting out the work on Twitter and Facebook, so please give me a follow if you haven’t already done so.
As you may have heard, I started a new job this month, joining Nightwood Theatre as its new Marketing & Outreach Coordinator. I spent the first week of July training with Nightwood’s former Director of Communications and Outreach, Taylor Trowbridge, who will be performing in Lewis Black’s playOne Slight Hitch at Upper Canada Playhouse this summer, then heading off to York University to do her MFA in theatre. And, now, I’m it.
I’m very excited to be working with Nightwood; there’s a lot to learn and do—and I’m happy to be working with this amazing, creative group of women.
In order to focus time and energy on the new position, I’m putting the blog on hiatus again. I’ll still be seeing shows, and shouting them out on social media, but not posting on the blog for a while. Once I get a better handle on my schedule, I’ll be back with a scaled-down life with more cowbell blog.
Till then, enjoy all the amazing arts events this big, beautiful City of Toronto has to offer—and please support local artists.
Created by soprano/performer Neema Bickersteth, choreographer Kate Alton and director Ross Manson, the multimedia, multidisciplinary Century Song tells the stories of women throughout the past hundred years, incorporating the music of composers Sergei Rachmaninoff, Olivier Messiaen, John Cage, Georges Aperghis and Toronto’s Reza Jacobs; and including accompaniment by Gregory Oh (piano) and Ben Grossman (percussion, computer). The show also includes stunning projected images—black and white, and colour portraits, visual art pieces, and evocative landscapes, cityscapes and environments—projection design by Torge Møller and Momme Hinrichs from Germany’s fettFilm; and featuring the works of numerous photographers and artists.
This is a show unlike any I’ve ever seen—and I’ve seen a lot of theatre—so how can I describe to you this beautifully moving, powerful and innovative piece of storytelling that is really best experienced on an emotional and visceral level, as opposed to a cerebral level (though it does leave you with plenty to think about).
Opening in 1915 with Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise, we see a woman corseted and engaged in repetitive action, evoking housework and an agricultural setting. Moving into the 1920s/1930s, she is now clad in a sleek golden gown, placed in a magical forest—the setting, sound and imagery changing as time shifts into the 1930s and 1940s, with increasingly intense and horrific renderings of social and economic upheaval, and the devastation of war.
With projections covering both the back wall and floor, the zooming in on images provides the illusion of movement. This technical aspect takes on a playful effect as we journey from the 1950s through 1978, where we see multiple Bickersteths as a variety of characters in various living room settings. And it’s particularly cool when she returns to the stage, joining her projected, life-size selves.
The landscape gets intense again, as we’re whisked up a skyscraper and onto the roof where we see a vast, endless cityscape before us. It’s dark and stormy. Now dressed in a business skirt suit, she is caught up in a frenzy of chaos and speed—overwhelmed by the pace and bleakness of it all.
Returning to a quiet moment, Bickersteth closes with Vocalise for Neema by Reza Jacobs, a piece commissioned specifically for Century Song; with a haunting, yet soothing, lullaby quality that shifts into bluesy and playful tones, it promises to bring some to tears as we return to the safe confines of the theatre space in the present time.
Bickersteth is a wonder up there, bringing a powerhouse performance that combines operatic vocals and dance. Taut and precise, flexible and present, her work is masterfully fluid and evocative as she travels through time and space—presenting the lives of these women, with all their joys, fears, challenges, successes and expectations as they play out their roles.
With shouts to the design team: Camilla Koo (set), Rebecca Picherack (lighting) and Charlotte Dean (costumes).
A rich tapestry of image, sound and dance tells a powerful story without words in remarkable Century Song.
Given the upcoming presidential inauguration and the accompanying Women’s March events, as well as ongoing changing attitudes towards religion, its treatment of women and LGBTQ people, and its place in our world, Unholy is a timely piece. It asks the question: Should women abandon religion?
Inspired by the 1989 documentary Half the Kingdom, Unholy is set as a TV debate, with host/moderator Richard Morris (Blair Williams) and debate teams of two women. On the pro side of the question are atheist lesbian pundit Liz Feldman-Grant (Diane Flacks) and excommunicated nun Margaret Donaghue (Barbara Gordon); on the con side are Orthodox Jewish spiritual leader Yehudit Kalb (Niki Landau) and progressive Muslim lawyer Maryam Hashemi (Bahareh Yaraghi).
Each woman is allowed two minutes at the podium to present her argument, followed by discussion and debate. This is an unapologetic, gloves off affair as arguments cover religion’s culpability for violence against women, women’s physical separation from male congregants, the niqab, family, sex, LGBTQ and women’s reproductive rights, and justice for pedophile priests. It is a battle of scripture interpretation, points of religious and secular law, wit and conscience—conducted with sharp intelligence and humour.
Woven into the debate scenes are some revealing monologues and tender, intimate two-handers; through these, we get glimpses into the private lives of these four women. Liz rejected Judaism when her now deceased partner Stacey received a terminal diagnosis. Margaret, in her role as a nurse and administrator at a Catholic hospital, made a decision the Catholic Church couldn’t abide. The love of Yehudit’s life married someone else. Maryam found strength in family tragedy, and love and acceptance in her family’s new life in Canada. As private and public lives collide, and the debate heats up, of course all hell breaks loose.
Flacks’ powerful script is matched by an equally strong cast that brings these fully drawn, complex women to life in this nicely staged, multi-media piece. As the atheist Liz, Flacks is a fierce, mercurial and determined debater; seeing the world of organized religion in black and white terms, Liz rejects the notion that religion can be a positive force in the world. Deeply wounded by the loss of her partner, out of her grief she became mad as hell at the state of organized religion and its impact on women—and chose her battle. Gordon brings a lovely, understated quietude to the soft-spoken ex-nun Margaret; beneath the surface, though, is a heart of strength, hope and courage. Not entirely convinced of her official debate argument, she is a disillusioned former soldier of the Catholic Church who disobeyed orders to follow her own conscience.
As Yehudit, Landau is both comic and poignant; shifting from a willful young woman to dutiful adult, she serves her family and community with strength and stand-up comic good humour. Circumspect in her interpretations of her Orthodox Jewish faith, she sees room for growth and change; this includes space for women to play a significant leadership role. Yaraghi is sharp and passionate as Maryam, and an excellent foil for Flacks’ Liz. Like her debate partner Yehudit, Maryam is hopeful and believes in a progressive Islam as she strives to break the barriers of stereotype and ignorance in a post-9/11 world where extremists are continually making headlines.
Turnabout is fair play for the male moderator. As women are largely relegated to the sidelines in day-to-day life, especially religious life, it is he who stands off to the side as the studio is dominated by the four women. Williams does a nice job with the affable Morris; as the women take the podium, he rides the fine line of refereeing authentic discourse and the desire to create gripping television.
Each of the women is an archetype: the wounded Fighter, the Lover with a patched up heart, the heartbroken Mother and the haunted Healer. Although each is broken-hearted and struggling with a crisis of faith, each is passionate, strong, wise and loving as she strives to stay hopeful and work towards a better world.
Serious issues, but Unholy makes you laugh a lot—and it’s going to stay with you well after you leave the theatre. It may even change your mind.
Women of wit and wisdom debate religion in the compelling, funny, thought-provoking Unholy.
Due to popular demand, Unholy has extended its run at Buddies to February 5; you can book tix in advance online or by phone. The run also includes several scheduled talkbacks:
Friday, January 20 – Gretta Vosper: as an atheist and a minister with the United Church of Canada, Gretta’s self-proclaimed motto is “Irritating the church into the 21st century.” SOLD OUT
Monday, January 23* – Nightwood Theatre Young Innovator Michela Sisti hosts a panel discussion about women in religion as part of Brave New Theatre’s response to Unholy. Joining her will be playwright Diane Flacks, Raheel Raza (journalist and inter-faith consultant) and Andrea Budgey (Humphrys Chaplain, freelance writer and environmental activist).
*Please note: there are no performances of Unholy on Mondays. For more information on Brave New Theatre, please visit their Facebook page.
Wednesday, January 25 – Stay post-show for a Q & A with the stellar cast members of Unholy.
Friday, January 27 – Lynn Harrison: a Reverend with First Toronto Unitarian, an interfaith, non-denominational congregation with its roots in social justice and inclusion.
Thursday, February 2 – Due to popular demand, atheist minister Gretta Vosper will return to share her insights on women in religion and inclusive atheism.
You can keep up with Nightwood Theatre on Twitter and Facebook. In the meantime, check out the trailer for Unholy:
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):
Mouthpiece is a Dora award-winning Quote Unquote Collective production; created and performed by Norah Sadava and Amy Nostbakken, and directed/composed by Amy Nostbakken, it was featured as part of The RISER Project last year. I missed that production and was so glad I got to see it this time around.
A unique piece of theatre that combines a cappella harmony, dissonance, dialogue and physical theatre, the two performers tell the story of Cassandra, who awakes one morning to discover she’s lost both her mother and her voice. She must pick a casket, flowers and a dress to bury her mother in – and write and deliver the eulogy. And she can’t seem to get out of the tub.
Both performers often play a single character, at times speaking in unison; and, in Cassandra’s case, create a dialogue with herself. From the hauntingly beautiful a cappella harmonies, to unison voice characterizations, and socially apt insertions of fashion magazine titles, ad copy and modern-day references to violence against women, the audience is both moved and tickled as Cassandra struggles with conflicting emotions, inner turmoil and a funeral fashion crisis. How well did she – or anyone – really know her mother? Her grasping for words, as well as her voice, opens up into the broader search for women’s voices. How women speak. How women are heard. How women are perceived.
Sadava and Nostbakken give compelling and entertaining performances. Shifting seamlessly from moment to moment, they execute gorgeous, fluid a cappella harmonies, unison spoken word and expressive movements. Conveying tenderness and ferocity, their work makes for a truly engaging and evocative piece. And they pull off some fabulous celebrity impersonations too, as well as some fun audience participation.
The search for a woman’s lost voice in the vocal, physical, emotional tour de force Mouthpiece.
Mouthpiece continues at Buddies until November 6. You can see it in the double bill with Quiver or on its own. Tickets are sold separately; you can book in advance online or by phone.