The bittersweet rhythms of life in the wistful, nostalgic, entertaining Dancing at Lughnasa

Opening its 2018-19 season at Alumnae Theatre last night, the Toronto Irish Players take us to 1936 Donegal, and the rural home of the Mundy family as they struggle with life, love and changing times, in their wistful, nostalgic and entertaining production of Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa, directed by David Eden.

A bittersweet memory play, we’re hosted by narrator Michael (Enda Reilly), who was raised by his single mother, spirited, irreverent Christina (Lauren McGinty) and her four sisters. Their parents dead, the eldest resident sibling and local school teacher, the prim and proper Kate (Erin Jones) is the de facto matriarch; family clown Maggie (Rebecca De La Cour) looks after the small family farm; and the quiet Agnes (Donna O’Regan) and simple-minded Rose (Áine Donnelly) earn money by knitting gloves.

The return of their brother Father Jack (Ian McGarrett), sent home from his mission in Uganda by his superiors, both causes and coincides with significant changes in their lives and position in their home village of Ballybeg—especially lending truth to the rumour that Jack was dismissed for “going native” and adapting, in the eyes of the Catholic Church, a too familiar and accepting attitude of local custom and ritual. Industrialization is catching up with rural Ireland, and factory-made goods are putting handwork at risk. Ongoing, if not sporadic, visits from Michael’s father Gerry (Sean Gilheany), a Welsh wanderer turned gramophone salesman, give the family—especially Christina and Michael—rare and welcome glimpses of the possibility of hope for something better; and a brief respite from the dullness of their workaday lives and the stresses of making ends meet during the Depression.

The family’s individual and collective history is both merry and melancholy; and lives are forever changed by forces largely beyond their control. And while Michael acknowledges the hard times of struggle, sacrifice and loss, he takes heart from the good times the family shared together—the love, laughter and dancing around the Marconi wireless. The rhythms of life, love and changing times.

Lovely work from the cast in creating this intimate family story. Reilly’s Michael makes for an affable and animated host; and he’s especially adept at conjuring the wide-eyed, precocious and imaginative child Michael. De La Cour is a treat as the feisty jokester Maggie; using humour to cheer and diffuse tension, her glass-half-full perspective is also crucial to her own survival. O’Regan and Donnelly have a beautiful rapport as the BFF sisters, the unassuming, protective Agnes and the child-like, naive Rose, who both come to show there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to notions of romance. McGinty gives a well-rounded performance as the conflicted young mother Christina; the family beauty, and raising the love child of a man she hardly ever sees, Christina’s youth has been interrupted by the more pragmatic concerns of a single mother—and in a time and place that frowned upon women like her. In classic Irish matriarch fashion, Jones’s Kate says as much with a look or gesture as she does with a word; having missed on romance herself, Kate’s stern disposition also a masks a broken heart.

McGarrett gives a poignant performance as the sisters’ brother Father Jack; once the golden boy of the family and the village, Jack has returned, frail and barely recognizable, and hardly knowing his own hometown. And Gilheany gives a charming turn as Gerry; a man of the road who loves to love, Gerry means well, but has trouble with the follow-up.

With shouts to the design team for their evocative work in transporting us to this nostalgic Depression-era world of memory and family in rural Donegal, Ireland: Chandos Ross (set), Livia Pravato (costumes), Karlos Griffith (lighting) and Dan Schaumann (sound).

Dancing at Lughnasa continues on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage until November 3; advance tickets available online or by calling 416-440-2888. Keep up with The Irish Players on Facebook and Twitter.

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Soul reviving human connection in the entertaining, engaging, enlightening Pearle Harbour’s Chautauqua

Justin Miller as Pearle Harbour, with Steven Conway in the background. Production design by Joseph Pagnan, with tent by Haley Reap. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Pearle Harbour invites you into the milky folds of her tent for some soul reviving human connection in the engaging, entertaining, enlightening Pearle Harbour’s Chautauqua, written and performed by Justin Miller, accompanied by Steven Conway and directed by Byron Laviolette. The sold-out SummerWorks 2017 Audience Choice Award-winning show returns to its home base at Theatre Passe Muraille as it opens TPM’s 2018-19 season.

As you’re ushered into the Mainspace through the stage door and walk towards the tent, you pass various collections of objects from another time and place; an acoustic guitar, a vintage typewriter, wooden crates. There’s a bar, too, just before you get to the opening of the tent; and Conway is there with your seating assignment. Finding your bench to sit inside the tent, you see text stencilled on each wall: SPEAK TRUTH, LIVE PURE, RIGHT THE WRONG, FOLLOW THE WAY. Three strings of Edison bulbs hang from the ceiling; and you can hear fiddle music and a man’s voice speaking—poetry, philosophy?

Our hostess joins us, singing “Come on Up to the House” as she enters, accompanied by Conway on acoustic guitar. A sassy redheaded all-American wartime tragicomedienne, Pearle proceeds to lead us through a rousing, enlightening experience of connection and redemption as she takes us through each of the four pillars of Chautauqua (the words stencilled on the walls of the tent). Acknowledging that things are rough out there in the world, but having faith in “people power” and joining together, Pearle is no clueless Pollyanna. She gives it to us frank and candid, in a gentle, respectful interactive space—and always with the hope and belief that people can change the world.

A hilarious and poignant storyteller and rabble-rouser—true to his drag alter ego Pearle—Miller engages and entertains; touching on universal truths in an intimate, focused yet relaxed way that invites us all to be present, grounded and breathing throughout. The vintage props, puppetry and Creamsicle sing-song reminiscences are more than mere exercises in nostalgia or fond souvenirs of simpler times; they’re a meditation of sorts. A reminder to go back once in a while, to remember who you really are—that individual spirit you may have lost along the way in this hi-tech, fast-paced, ever changing workaday world. And that one flickering light bulb highlights that, no matter how hard you try to make things perfect, we live in an imperfect world—and we’re all imperfect or broken in some way. We’ve all done things that were less than kind, that we may regret. And while that admission can be infuriating, embarrassing and guilt-inducing, we can be better and we can let go.

When was the last time you sang or heard “One Tin Soldier”? The last time you had a Creamsicle? What takes you back to who you were all those years ago?

Part revival, part enlightening cabaret, Pearle Harbour’s Chautauqua invites us in and embraces us—valuing the spectrum of humanity and shining a light on that which unites us. It’s just the thing we need right now. Come on in and join Pearle in the tent.

Pearle Harbour’s Chautauqua continues in the TPM Mainspace until October 27; please note the 7:30 p.m. curtain time for evening performances. Should you book in advance to avoid disappointment? You betcha! Get advance tickets online or by calling the box office at: 416-504-7529.

The run includes a post-show Q&A, usually hosted by Jivesh Parasram, with cast and crew on October 14; and a pre-show chat, hosted by AD Andy McKim, with a cast member or local expert at 6:45 p.m. on October 17.

In the meantime, take a gander at the trailer:

 

 

Playfully whimsical, profoundly poignant & sharply candid ruminations in Dawna J. Wightman’s honey be

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Dawna J. Wightman. Photo by Vince Lupo.

 

Montreal-born Dawna J. Wightman is an award-winning Toronto-based actor, playwright and writer. Toronto audiences will recognize Wightman from her solo show Life as a Pomegranate, as well as Yellow Birds (Alumnae Theatre’s FireWorks Festival, 2015) and A Mickey Full of Mouse (Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, 2016 and Toronto Fringe, 2017). She’s currently working on adapting her unpublished dark fantasy novel A Yarn of Bone & Paper, based on her ebook: Faeries Real & Imagined: How to Create Magical Adventures for Very Young Children, into a feature film. She’s also working with director Theresa Kowall-Shipp on her short Kid Gloves, set to shoot November 2018.

As part of the funding process for Kid Gloves, Wightman self-published and sold honey be, “a collection of sweet words and some that sting,” including hand-painted covers and “surprises” stuffed inside. The first 50-volume print run sold out in about a week; and a second run will be available this month, featuring cover art design by Wightman’s daughter Sabine Spare.

Much like Wightman’s theatre work, the stories, poems and snippets in honey be range from playfully whimsical to profoundly poignant to sharply candid—often all in the same story and sometimes autobiographical in nature. While there are no titles, each piece bears an italicized post-script at the end; in some cases, these take on a conversational and even self-deprecating tone, making for a personal, intimate read.

The themes of family, motherhood and friendship come up in several pieces. There’s the story about Mrs. Kay, written from the perspective of a precocious, neglected eight-year-old who finds a home with fellow misfit schoolmate Sandra Kay and her quirky family; and the goofy four-legged family member Bella in just a dog. Reminders that family can sometimes be found in unexpected places—and to never judge a book by its cover.

There’s heart-wrenching nostalgia with an ode to her son in little boy; and remembrances of wearing an itchy baby blue Phentex dress and being her mother’s go-fer at the bingo hall, in pretty little head. And the heartache and fumbling for what to say to a friend living with cancer tumble out in the visceral when we found out you had cancer and in the outpouring of loving, supportive words in the piece that follows.

Ruminations on body image and aging come up as well, from the erotic in late summer, to the sharply candid and calling bullshit on the ridiculous expectations placed on women’s bodies—professionally and personally—in tits and ass and #chubbyprettywoman, and the #MeToo shock of new neighbour.

Quirky, bittersweet, child-like grown-up, all of the stories in honey be are tinged with humour and poignancy, and the everyday acknowledgement of life’s remarkable moments. And one gets the sense that, beyond coming from a place of truth telling—there’s a deep longing to share these words. There’s a line in the movie Shadowlands, from a C.S. Lewis quote: “We read to know we are not alone”—one could easily also say “We write to let others know they are not alone.”

Copies of honey be will be available for $20.00 via emailing wightrabiit@gmail.com; website coming soon. Wightman will be performing a reading from the book at Stratford’s SpringWorks Festival on October 11.

 

SummerWorks: Memory, nostalgia & queer men longing to connect in the quirky, charming, poignant Box 4901

Thirteen letters responding to a 1992 gay personals ad sit in a box unanswered. What does the recipient say to these men 26 years later? Memory, nostalgia, connection and hindsight figure prominently in timeshare productions’ SummerWorks presentation of novelist Brian Francis’ autobiographical Box 4901; directed by Rob Kempson and running on the Theatre Centre’s Incubator stage.

Long before the age of smartphones and Grindr, a 21-year-old Francis—then a student at the University of Western Ontario—posted a personals ad in The London Free Press looking for a connection in the small LGBTQ world of conservative London, Ontario. Of the approximately two dozen letters he received, 13 went unanswered and were discovered years later. Francis narrates and responds as 13 queer actors perform each letter.

Featuring actors Bilal Baig, Hume Baugh, Keith Cole, Izad Etemadi, Daniel Krolik, Michael Hughes, Tsholo Khalema, Eric Morin, G Kyle Shields, Chy Ryan Spain, Jonathan Tan, Chris Tsujiuchi and Geoffrey Whynot, the responses to the ad range from the bashful to the pornographic. Coming from a variety of men—ranging in age from high school senior to father figure—from various walks of life (“regular guy,” teacher, farmer, jock, “straight-acting,” leather community), the letters are sassy, charming, eloquent and humourous. The replies are frank, witty, sharply observational; and tempered with kindness, and the hindsight of age and wisdom.

There are some missed chances and missed bullets. All of these men share the same desire to reach out; longing for connection and a cure for aloneness, there’s a vulnerable authenticity in even the cockiest of responses. And the fear of being outed to family or housemates is as palpable and strong as the excitement and anticipation of a new connection.

Box 4901 has one more SummerWorks performance at the Theatre Centre on Aug 19 at 4:45 p.m.; it’s already sold out, but you can try your luck by arriving early to see if there are any no-shows.

Creatures of myth & memory in the playful, pointed, evocative Cryptids: Prose-Poetry from Creatures of Memory

Cover art from Cryptids: Prose-Poetry from Creatures of Memory by Dee Sparling     

dee original smallDee Sparling is a local Toronto poet/spoken word artist and singer. We’ve been friends for about 16 years, and folks who frequented Lizzie Violet’s Cabaret Noir, either at Q Space or The Central, will recognize Sparling, who performed poetry and a cappella songs during the open mic spots. She’s previously self-published two poetry collections, Sol Believers: Prose-Poetry from the Orion Spur and Freedom Codes: Prose-Poetry from Empires Within, and has recently published Cryptids: Prose-Poetry from Creatures of Memory.

In the Author’s Note, Sparling describes Cryptids as playing “upon the concept of nostalgia and the role it takes in shaping personal and societal narratives,” as well as featuring “various types of mythical beasts and conjurings.” Cryptids as pieces of memory, and also as mythical creatures and monsters.

Cryptids is a magical, evocative collection of 16 poems, woven with rich, textured language that includes ancient biblical (“Ecce Venus” and “Gethsemane”) and mythological (the nod to the Kraken in “Fimbulwinter”), as well as political and natural, references. Reading these poems, one gets the feeling of being gathered around a campfire, hearing tales both fictional and non-fictional—especially “Credit Valley Cryptids (A Final Goodbye),” which conjures up reminiscences of a different time and place with its compass-eye view of ghosts, shades of history and natural landmarks.

Some of the pieces are playful in their observations, taking the point of view of the creatures themselves (“The Underground” and “Memory and the Moray Eel”) or ponder the situation of a creature (“Sparrow without a Care”). And “Painted Desert” portrays the otherworldly, deadly beauty of a landscape with a cheeky, Wild West flavour—the High Noon of the cacti—while drawing a metaphor for the will to thrive and live, coupled with warnings of more parched earth on the horizon.

The cautionary tone continues into space with “Centaurus Loves Cassiopeia,” highlighting humanity’s sense of entitlement with the line “Earth, thy vanity begins… with the licking of your lips;” into the digital realm in “Troll Bytes” and the perception of power in a world of ongoing obsolescence.

Creatures of politics aren’t spared in the pointed and sharply funny “A Day in the Counter-Revolution,” a satirical evolution of man as political animal. Or was it all a dream? And ruminations on the younger generation and nature take on an introspective, speculative tone in “Millennial Breeze” and “Nature Remembers You.”

Words that paint pictures, reminding us of how tricky memory and perception can be—and how these combine to create our own mythology.

Creatures of myth and memory in the playful, pointed, evocative Cryptids: Prose-Poetry from Creatures of Memory.

Keep an eye out for Dee Sparling at Toronto poetry/spoken word events.

Identity, community & calling shenanigans on BS in the raw, real, nostalgic Situational Anarchy

 Graham Isador in Situational Anarchy

 

Pressgang Theatre joins forces with Pandemic Theatre to present Graham Isador’s one-man work of creative non-fiction Situational Anarchy, direction/dramaturgy by Tom Arthur Davis and Jivesh Parasram, and opening last night at Stop Drop N Roll.

Autobiographical, with an altered timeline and an amalgamation of several bands that were seminal in Isador’s life, Situational Anarchy is part self-discovery, part confession, and part ‘fuck you’ to betrayal and bullshit.

From the thoughtful, curious 11-year-old whose mind is blown when his mum gets real about his grade 6 music performance, to the awkward, large and bullied kid stumbling onto puberty, Graham is searching for meaning and desperate to belong. Try as he may, he can’t seem to find his place and almost checks out—then he discovers the punk band Against Me and its lead singer Laura Jane Grace, who later transitioned from male to female. Beyond the music, the social activism and humanity of this world resonate strongly.

His joy at discovering the music and the message increases when he finds community in the band’s online chatroom—and the cool, fun, smart Mouse, who lives in LA and steals his heart. Things fall apart when he gets caught up in Mouse’s unhealthy body image lifestyle and Against Me signs with Warner Music—which he views as a sell-out, as Warner also owns CNN—and he loses that online community and Mouse. Things come to a violent head when he drops by a local punk bar. It’s definitely not the community he knows and loves. Drafting a letter to Laura Jane Grace throughout, his correspondence serves as a framework for his story. And he’s calling bullshit on her. Years later, he takes a job interviewing her. So much to say.

Staged with multiple microphones, Situational Anarchy is a punk rock solo theatre piece. Isador’s performance is genuine, raw and personal, revealing a dark, edgy sense of humour and a profound longing to connect and belong. Weaving stories of coming of age, body image, homophobia, music and activism, he opens and closes his heart and mind to us in a funny and heart-breaking, at times violent, misfit’s journey of storytelling—reminding us of the power of music and message to inspire and unite.

With shouts to the design/running team: Ron Kelly (sound), Laura Warren (lighting/projection) and Heather Bellingham (stage manager).

Identity, community and calling shenanigans on bullshit in the raw, real, nostalgic Situational Anarchy.

Situational Anarchy continues at Stop Drop N Roll (300 College St., Toronto—above Rancho Relaxo) until June 3. Tickets at the door are Pay What You Want; advance tickets available online for $15. Heads-up: Seating very limited; only 25 seats per night.

All proceeds from the show (after expenses) will be donated to Trans Lifeline [US: (877) 565-8860 Canada: (877) 330-6366] and Gender is Over.

The closing performance will be followed by a set from Stuck Out Here.

Preview: Ode to an absent friend in poignant, funny & nostalgic Scooter Thomas Makes It to the Top of the World.

Scooter ThomasBlack Rabbit Theatre and The Box Toronto have joined forces to remount Black Rabbit’s production of Peter Parnell’s Scooter Thomas Makes It to the Top of the World, directed by Rachael Moase, assisted by Mélissa Ringuette, and opening at The Box Toronto (89 Niagara Street) on September 24. I stopped by The Box last night for a preview.

When Dennis (James King) receives a call from his mother that his boyhood friend Scooter (Dan Curtis Thompson) has died, he responds with grief and a trip into memory. As the play unfolds, he and Scooter play out vignettes from their friendship that span from childhood to young adulthood, with King playing all the other assorted people from their lives. Best friends, but polar opposites, Dennis is a sweet guy who likes to play it safe and colour within the lines, while Scooter is a big charming bundle of irrepressible energy and fun, who doesn’t always stay on the right side of the law. As they grow up, we see that Dennis falls easily in step with the traditional life journey of education, career and getting his own place, while Scooter struggles with college, eventually dropping out to work at the post office while living with his parents, where his biggest goal is getting his own place. And even though Dennis and Scooter drift apart during their college years, it’s obvious that Dennis is concerned about the path his friend is taking – or not, in this case – and wants to be there for him. It is here where their personality differences come to conflict.

Outstanding performances from King and Thompson throughout this high-energy, well-paced 70-minute play. As Dennis, James brings a nice combination of buddy and protector to the friendship dynamic, excited to share every detail of life’s experiences, and hurt and angry when he learns that Scooter’s been holding out no him – and even more so when he becomes suspicious about the circumstances of Scooter’s death. James also adeptly shifts into playing other characters from their shared history: Scooter’s strict, unforgiving dad; Scooter’s older brother; and friends and teachers. Each characterization is nuanced, with a distinct energy, physicality and vocal quality – and in some cases, the shifts are very quick. Thompson’s Scooter is full of curiosity, adventure and mischief – Puckish as opposed to juvenile delinquent. Not cut out for academics or the corporate world, he has a lost boy quality about him as he struggles to find his way after high school, trying to come to grips with fading hopes and dreams. Youthful expectations and reality – and the road not taken – figure prominently in Scooter Thomas Makes It to the Top of the World.

The awesome pre-show soundtrack of 60s and 70s pop favourites, including songs by Fleetwood Mac (“Landslide” works particularly well for this show), The Beach Boys, and Simon and Garfunkel – coupled with the 70s (Scooter) and 80s (Dennis) costuming – make this memory play a trip down cultural memory lane as well. Dennis and Scooter (had he lived) would be in their 50s now.

Ode to an absent friend in poignant, funny and nostalgic two-hander Scooter Thomas Makes It to the Top of the World.

Scooter Thomas Makes It to the Top of the World runs at The Box Toronto from Sept 24 – Oct 4; advance tix available online – it’s an intimate space, so booking ahead is strongly recommended.

In the meantime, give Black Rabbit Theatre, The Box Toronto and the show a Like on Facebook. And check out the Scooter Thomas trailer, which features interview clips with Moase, Thompson and King: