The struggle for normalcy in the wake of a horrific past in the haunting, disturbing Strangers, Babies

Jeff Lillico & Niki Landau in Strangers, Babies—photo by Neil Silcox

 

Theatre PANIK presents its immersive production of Linda McLean’s Strangers, Babies, directed by Paul Lampert, assisted by Sadie Epstein-Fine, this past week. A Canadian premiere, the show opened this past week at Artscape Sandbox.

As we enter the space, projected text welcomes us and invites us to wander around and take in the five exhibits; at this point, we see only the five men, each one occupying an exhibit. There are no paper programs (you can access the program online), but there are labels with brief descriptions accompanying each exhibit, as well as binders on the benches (the kind you see at an art gallery, containing descriptions of the art). There are spaces to sit or stand in and around each exhibit; only the final exhibit is an enclosed room that we must peer into from the outside.

When May (Niki Landau) enters, we follow her on a series of vignettes from her life, unfolding over the course of a couple of years. What makes this journey remarkable is the art gallery layout of the space, where each exhibit contains a scene. Starting in May’s condo, where she lives with her husband Dan (Richard Ausar Stewart), we see her fretting over a bird that’s flown into their window and is now lying motionless on the balcony. She wants to save it and Dan thinks it should be euthanized. Clearly a lover of nature and animals, May longs for a garden and they ponder switching to a house.

We then follow May on a visit to her dad Duncan (David Schurmann) at a hospice. Here, we get a glimpse of a troubled childhood and a desire for a normal life. Hints of violence and a longing for connection continue during May’s trip to a hotel room to meet Internet hook-up Roy (Richard Lee); and flash again to the past, with warnings for the future, when she meets with her brother Denis (Jeff Lillico) in a park. In the final scene, May’s social worker Abel (Edmund Stapleton) has come by for a spot check; he’s monitoring the welfare her young son and makes extensive notes in order to report his findings.

7 Strangers Babies - Niki Landau and Ausar Stewart - Credit Neil Silcox
Richard Ausar Stewart & Niki Landau in Strangers, Babies—photo by Neil Silcox

Compelling work from the cast on this uniquely immersive production; each actor adeptly mining the opposing sides of their characters’ personalities. Landau is both heartbreaking and eerie as May, whose delicate, nervous and vulnerable personality and flat aspect both reveal and conceal a troubling inner turmoil. Stewart’s Dan is the perfect emotional foil; precise, fastidious and mildly patronizing, Dan is a loving and patient husband to his kind-hearted wife. Schurmann brings a cantankerous and regretful edge to Duncan’s fragility; confused by pain and age, and befuddled by morphine, Duncan lashes out with biting rage in his impatience—then melts into reminiscence and guilt as the drug takes hold.

Lee gives a complex performance as Roy, who like May, is in a passionless marriage and needs to step out to feel lusty excitement; his nervous awkwardness is a mask of repressed violent urges. Lillico’s Denis is both heart-wrenching and menacing; clearly a tortured soul and sharing in May’s horrific history, Denis is like a caged, scared animal growling out warnings. Stapleton’s Abel is affable, firm-handed and wary as he interviews May; a young social worker with a serious task at hand, he must balance respect for his client with a thorough examination of her situation—especially regarding the safety of her child.

Rage and calm, violence and tenderness. A life on display—each scene (exhibit) is a piece of May’s puzzle, played out across space and time. Ultimately, Strangers, Babies is profoundly human.

With shouts to the design team for their work on creating this fascinating and unique experience: Michael Gianfrancesco (set), Ming Wong (costume), Bonnie Beecher (lighting), Christopher Stanton (sound), Cameron Davis (video) and Kate Alton (movement).

The struggle for normalcy in the wake of a horrific past in the haunting, disturbing Strangers, Babies.

Strangers, Babies continues at the Artscape Sandbox till May 28; get advance tickets here. Advance booking strongly recommended due to the unique staging and popularity of this production.

Check out the trailer:

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Women of wit & wisdom debate religion in the compelling, funny, thought-provoking Unholy

Nightwood Theatre continues its 2016-17 season of groundbreaking theatre with Diane Flacks’ Unholy, directed by Nightwood A.D. Kelly Thornton, opening at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre last night.

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.

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Diane Flacks & Barbara Gordon in Unholy – all photos by John Lauener

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.

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Niki Landau & Bahareh Yaraghi in Unholy

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: