SummerWorks: Debating feminism & privilege in provocative, sharply funny Don’t Talk to Me Like I’m Your Wife

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Traitorous whore spy? Feminist? Sexually liberated opportunist?

The gloriously notorious Mata Hari gets look through 21st century eyes in Call Me Scotty Production’s premiere of Andrea Scott’s Don’t Talk to Me Like I’m Your Wife, directed by Andrew Lamb and opening last night in the Theatre Centre Mainspace as part of this year’s SummerWorks program.

Shifting back and forth between Mata Hari’s final hours in prison in 1917 and a university course on ‘Women Screwed Over by History’ in 2016, we see the famous erotic performer and accused spy from several points of view, both past and present.

On her last day in prison, Mata Hari’s (Kimwun Perehinec) is introduced to cellmate Hélène (Lisa Karen Cox), a young French-Senegalese woman in for prostitution who has been moved from another cell block. Instructed by Sister Leonide (Paula Wing) to keep Mata Hari occupied, Hélène knows that this section of the prison is for doomed prisoners. During Mata Hari’s final hours before execution, of which she is unaware, a young prison guard (Jeff Lillico) attempts to satisfy his curiosity about his celebrity prisoner as he takes her for a stroll in the prison grounds. After a failed attempt at converting Mata Hari, a professed Hindu, to Catholicism, Sister Leonide has a genuine heart-to-heart chat. In 2016, as university professor Christopher Locke (David Christo) prepares a lecture about Mata Hari, he gets into a heated debate with a black female student (Cox as Karen Sinclair) over the meaning of feminism and how it relates to Mata Hari.

The sharp, darkly funny and thought-provoking script is well-matched by an excellent cast. Perehinec does a lovely job with the resourceful and unapologetic Mata Hari (the stage name chose by Margaretha Geertruida “Margreet” MacLeod); mining the vulnerability, celebrity entitlement, cultural appropriation and buried memories of a woman who change her name and her life, she reveals the abused wife, loving mother and sexually liberated woman behind the stage name. Famous and infamous for her erotic performances, we see a woman who loves sex and longs to be loved; and who will do what she needs to do in order to survive. Cox is an excellent foil and debater, to Mata Hari (as Hélène) and to Locke (as Karen); fearlessly challenging and questioning preconceived notions with intelligence and edgy humour, tempered with a good-natured personality and a strong desire to have a real dialogue about the issues. Christo brings an easy-going, cool vibe to the forward-thinking, self-professed feminist Locke; he’s genuinely interested in women’s and minority rights, but struggles with a modern marriage arrangement that may be working against his interests, as well as present-day, budget and diversity-conscious hiring practices.

Wing is a delight as the feisty and commanding Sister Leonide; wily and worldlier than she appears, she has a kind heart beneath that take-charge exterior, as evidenced in a lovely two-hander scene with Perehinec. Lillico (a late addition to the cast when Christo suffered a cycling accident that impaired his mobility) does an excellent job with the young guard’s conflicting feelings about Mata Hari; both curious about and furious with her, an apparent crush takes a turn as he reveals his own heartache and loss.

No one is as they seem; and each character challenges our biases and preconceived notions of their social roles and life experiences. This is a play that will make you think about, as well as question, what you believe about gender, race, white privilege, inclusion, economics and power.

With shouts to set/costume designer Melanie McNeill for the opulent and exotic touches to an otherwise drab and Spartan prison setting.

Debating feminism, equality and privilege in the provocative, smart, sharply funny Don’t Talk to Me Like I’m Your Wife.

Don’t Talk to Me Like I’m Your Wife continues at the Theatre Centre Mainspace until Aug 14. Go see #thematahariplay

In the meantime, check out some interviews with playwright Scott by yours truly and this week’s cover story by NOW Magazine’s Glenn Sumi.

 

 

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NSTF: Sisters are takin’ names and kickin’ butt in From Judy to Bette

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Rebecca Perry in From Judy to Bette: The Stars of Old Hollywood – photo by Tanja Tiziana

The Toronto Fringe’s annual Next Stage Theatre Festival (NSTF) opened at the Factory Theatre last night and I kicked off this year’s festivities with Rebecca Perry Productions’ From Judy to Bette: The Stars of Old Hollywood. Written and performed by Rebecca Perry, and directed by Michael Rubinstein, From Judy to Bette is Perry’s NSTF debut – and a departure from her Redheaded Coffeeshop Girl shows – in this solo cabaret-style homage to four real-life women.

Inspired by four powerhouse performers (Bette Davis, Judy Garland, Betty Hutton and Lucille Ball) who refused to be relegated to the stereotypical female roles of the day, Perry highlights the career highs and lows of these remarkable women with anecdotes, quotes and songs. Perry is no slouch herself, taking us on a 30-minute old Hollywood history tour in a delightfully dynamic and engaging performance of a tight and entertaining script. Accompanied by music director/arranger Quinton Naughton, she gives us some sweet tastes of the tunes that made these women famous, particularly Garland and Hutton, featuring a moving performance of “Over the Rainbow,” a hilarious “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun” and a rousing finale of “Rock-a-by Your Baby With A Dixie Melody.”

With big shouts to the design folks for this production: Edward George (set), Chin Palipane (lighting) and Patricia Whalen (costume and props).

Four talented dames take names and kick butt in old Hollywood in Rebecca Perry’s entertaining and eye-opening solo cabaret From Judy to Bette: The Stars of Old Hollywood.

From Judy to Bette: The Stars of Old Hollywood runs until Jan 17 in the Factory Theatre Antechamber; see the show’s page for exact dates/times. It’s an intimate space – and last night’s opening was sold out – so advance tix are strongly recommended. There will be a talk back following the peformance on Sun, Jan 10 at the Hoxton.

To book tickets in advance, call 416-966-1062 or purchase online; or you can purchase tickets at the box office tent, which opens one hour before the first show of the day (it’s heated and includes a bar featuring tasty warm drinks). Click here for full ticket/pass info.

Check out these great interviews with Perry from In the Greenroom blog  and Stageworthy podcast; Perry was also featured in this week’s brave, bold and beautiful Love Your Body edition of NOW Magazine.

Razor sharp, mercurial wit as two women spar around their love in Boston Marriage

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Deborah Drakeford, Catherine McNally & that infamous necklace in Boston Marriage – photo by Bonnie Anderson

There’s a wee Mametpalooza happening in Toronto right now, with two exciting productions of David Mamet plays, featuring some fine local female actors: Headstrong Collective’s Boston Marriage at Campbell House Museum and an all-female cast in Glengarry Glen Ross at Red Sandcastle Theatre. I saw Headstrong’s Boston Marriage, directed by Kelli Fox, last night.

Intimately staged in the parlour on the main floor of Campbell House Museum, the audience is seated along two walls, giving us a fly on the wall view of the proceedings.
This is an unusual play for Mamet: for its all-female cast and period setting. This is Mamet meets the Victorians – and the result is an interesting, if not anachronistic, piece of theatre featuring brilliant, almost Cowardesque, dialogue. At times the language of the drawing room, then lyrical or profane – it is fast-paced, unapologetic, erotic and even harsh on occasion.

Two particular friends reunite after being apart for some time. Anna (Catherine McNally) receives Claire (Deborah Drakeford) into her home, a home that is subsidized by Anna’s “protector,” a married man who’s taken her as his mistress. Claire has a favour to ask: she needs a place in which to have a private liaison with a younger love interest. The discussion that follows is less about the tenancy agreement and more about their relationship.

And then there’s that necklace. Sometimes, a gorgeous necklace can be way more trouble than it’s worth. Anna’s protector has gifted her a lovely emerald necklace, and this decision sets off a series of misadventure that pulls the women’s focus from their current desires and into damage control.

Throughout the exchanges of acerbic wit and lightning fast rapport, there is a poignant underpinning of desperation and loneliness as we watch Anna and Claire get reacquainted. Opposites in many ways, but so alike as they both struggle, as unmarried women, to survive – all the while fearing that their best years are behind them. Like Dorothy at the beginning of The Wizard of Oz, grasping for a true happiness that they believe lies beyond their own backyard. And while Anna’s young maid Catherine (Charlotte Dennis) is of the servant class, they can’t help but envy her youth – now in the first blossom of love and lust – and the fact that she has her whole life ahead of her even as a good portion of theirs is in the past.

Brought into the production by actors McNally and Drakeford, Fox is a thoroughly good match for this play and this cast. You can read Fox’s thoughts about Mamet and Boston Marriage in Jon Kaplan’s preview interview for NOW Magazine.

McNally and Drakeford give powerhouse performances, nicely supported by Dennis. McNally’s Anna has a delicious dramatic flair, yet is conventional and pragmatic in her way, deftly aware of the economics of her situation, and deeply hurt by Claire’s revelation of a new, and very young, love. As Claire, Drakeford has a lovely bohemian edge; fiercely independent and sensual, she has the air of an adventuress about her – as well as the hopeless romantic. You can picture Anna and Claire meeting at an art college, dreams of their future together opening up before them as their love grows. But then, paths diverge only to reconnect years later – and with very different lives. Even after their long separation, their conversation is the quixotic shorthand of good friends, slowed down only somewhat by moments of grasping for words, as we gals of a certain age are wont to do. Dennis is a delight as the saucy Scottish maid Catherine; fearless and outspoken in her naiveté, but not as clueless as she sometimes appears. And she gets an earful – and likely an education – with her employer’s goings-on.

It’s razor sharp, mercurial wit tinged with poignancy as two women spar with time and each other as they talk around their love in this marvelous production of Boston Marriage.

Boston Marriage continues at Campbell House until April 26. Seating is limited, so advance booking is strongly recommended. Get yourselves out to Campbell House to see this. You can get tickets online here.

In the meantime, you can check out the interviews with Fox, McNally and Drakeford on Headstrong Collective’s YouTube channel.

The power of the quantifiable meets the strength of the immeasurable in HER2

HER2-header-finalWhen you see an image of HER2, you’re struck at how remarkably – and surprisingly – beautiful it is, like a Valentine’s heart with a single foot on point. Feminine. Ballerina-like.

Maja Ardal’s HER2, directed by Kim Blackwell for Nightwood Theatre, opened its world premiere run at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre this week – the play named for the gene that plays a role in the development of a specific type of breast cancer, and set in a human clinical trial for a new drug.

Dr. Danielle Pearce (Nancy Palk) has had success in the lab treating mice, and has the green light and funding to start a human trial. She takes on PhD student Kate (Bahareh Yaraghi) as her research assistant and starts treating a group of specially selected women – women who have run out of treatment options. The play focuses on a subgroup of seven women; they come from various walks of life and ethnic backgrounds, and most are 40 to 60 years old. One is only 19.

HER2 is a multidisciplinary, multimedia production, incorporating projected images (by Denyse Karn) both real and magical – microscopic cells, female anatomy, CT scans, rays of light and photos of the participants – as well as choreographed movement (by actor Monica Dottor) that beautifully and expressively sets the process of examination and administration to motion.

Blackwell has a stellar cast for HER2. Palk brings a nice blend of humanity and wry humour to the prickly Dr. Pearce, a brilliant and ambitious clinician who’s better with rodents than she is with humans. Yaraghi’s Kate is bubbly and wide-eyed with youthful energy, highly intelligent and interested in the medicine, but particularly invested in the people – she is the bridge between the science and the human touch of the trial. Kyra Harper gives an earthy warmth to the pragmatic dairy farmer Frances, the participant with the most aggressive cancer who literally and figuratively becomes the touchstone of the group. Chick Reid gives a lovely layered performance as Naomi, the chilly and sharp-witted academic who finds she needs more than ciggies and scotch to get through this. Maria Vacratsis is irreverently funny and overflowing with positive vibes as Gloria, the group den mother. Diana D’Aquila is beautifully fragile and sweet as the child-like housewife Daphne, a joyfully expressive bundle of collegial dynamism. Brenda Kamino brings the spirit of open-minded wisdom and support to Melissa (Minnie), a natural medicine practitioner, when she’s not a trial participant – always willing to lend a hand and a cup of stinky herbal tea. Monica Dottor is wonderful as the vivacious and stubborn Charlene, an actress and mother of a young child who makes the risky decision of choosing the trial over a hysterectomy in hopes of having more children one day. Olunike Adeliyi does a remarkable job with the complex young Anya, the baby of the group – a hip and tough as nails, scared kid – full of rage, but willing to relinquish her lone wolf detachment to fully participate, and regain a sense of sociability and community. And Ellora Patnaik brings a spunky take-charge sass to Nurse Gabby; excellent at her job, unafraid of drawing boundaries – and full of surprises – as she suffers no fools on her turf, the treatment room.

What these women all have in common – patients and practitioners alike – is drive, fight, courage and hope. And the greatest of these is hope.

With shouts to Julia Tribe’s design: each participant is represented with a pedestal and microscope up along the catwalk, and each has a modular chair and IV pole, which Dottor also includes in the choreography. And a very effective use of voice-over, with a flat and clinical male voice, distant and detached, querying the participants on medical history and trial survey questions.

The power of the quantifiable meets the strength of the immeasurable as science and community join forces in HER2. Seriously – go see this.

In the meantime, take a look at some great profile pieces in the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star and NOW Magazine. You can also check out Nightwood’s YouTube channel for interviews with the HER2 folks – here’s the trailer:

HER2 continues at Buddies until February 1. Last night’s house was packed, so you may want to book ahead online. The production run also features Talkback Wednesdays (Jan 21 & 28) and panel conversations after the matinee performances (Jan 17 and 31). And HER2 has partnered with the Feminist Art Conference (FAC) to include a photography exhibit by Carol Mark.

A marvelous evening @ Mini-Soulo Festival, ft. Bits & Pieces by Diane Flacks & Katie Ford

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Diane Flacks & Katie Ford (front), Tracey Erin Smith (back) – photo by Shy Alter

Last night’s program for Tracey Erin Smith and SoulOTheatre’s Mini-Soulo Festival at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre was a multipurpose, big fun event that combined theatre fundraiser, love-in and new solo works.

Smith played auctioneer throughout the evening, calling out fabulous items that included a ukulele lesson from Jodi Pape (who serenaded us before the festivities began), one night’s rental at Red Sandcastle Theatre, a photo shoot with Shy Alter and a surprise last-minute offering of a year’s membership at Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club, courtesy of Savoy Howe.

Solo show class student Sara Armstrong kicked off the night’s performances with her show Tripping on the Way out of Town. Featuring personal stories of her life, spanning childhood memories to experiences of sexuality, and bookended with camel rides, Armstrong’s show is unflinchingly frank, and a strong commentary on the assumptions and expectations of others. Peppered with humour and dance breaks, the serious subjects are matter-of-fact and avoid the slide into maudlin. Funny and poignant, keep an eye out for Armstrong and this piece.

For the main event, Diane Flacks and Katie Ford performed a reading of their two-person solo show Bits and Pieces, which received dramaturgical support from Smith. Part stand-up, part monologue, part dialogue between two good friends, Flacks and Ford take us on a trip of life, love and resilience.

From the opening back and forth on everyday things we should just stop doing, to personal experiences of fear and courage, the piece is equal parts autobiographical, inspirational and motivational. Whether performing in character, like Flacks’ hilarious self-involved but present hot yoga instructor, or presenting personal anecdotes – Ford’s musings about a fledgling relationship and whether to keep it at a safe arm’s length or dive right in, and both share heart-wrenching accounts of experiences with death – Flacks and Ford make us laugh, cry and think.

Ultimately, Bits and Pieces is about finding your authentic self, getting back up when you get knocked down – and just staying present. Life really is too short after all. And what if, like Ford’s dog Ollie, you thought the whole world was your friend?

Bits and Pieces is a funny, moving, joyful ride through life’s experiences, and a reminder to stay present and not give up. A work in progress, I look forward to see where Flacks and Ford go with this piece. In case you missed it, check out the cowbell interview with Flacks and Ford.

The Mini-Soulo Festival wraps up this afternoon (Sun, Nov 30) with workshops and a public reading at Red Sandcastle Theatre. Congrats to Smith and SoulOTheatre for winning NOW Magazine’s Reader’s Choice Award for Best Small Theatre Company!

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Fierce ambition & passion in Elizabeth Ruth’s third novel Matadora – book launch

First off, I need to admit some personal bias: I’m a big fan of Elizabeth Ruth’s writing, so I was thrilled to receive word about the launch of her third novel Matadora, hosted by This Is Not A Reading Series (TINARS) and Cormorant Books at the Gladstone Hotel ballroom last night.

The ballroom was packed – so much so, the Gladstone folks had to open up the panels that separate it from the café space. Not surprising, given that there’d been a line forming outside the ballroom, all the way to the entrance of the hotel, shortly after 6:30 p.m.

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Flamenco dancer La Mari

By the bar were some canvasses by Alex Flores, painted in a style reminiscent of Frida Kahlo, the portrait of a woman particularly striking. A slide show of Ruth’s trip to Spain flickered across a screen upstage, featuring stunning colours and sights, including images of a bullfighting ring and bullfighters. Introductions from TINARS and Cormorant Books, and then we were treated to the sights and sounds of Flamenco: dancer La Mari, with singer Maria Assunta and guitarist Juan Dino Toledo. A passionate spectacle, the music and voice haunting and powerful, the dance strong and proud.

The “main event” started with Anju Gogia interviewing Ruth about the book, discussing process and how the story evolved. Many of the points of discussion can also be found in this Quill & Quire Matadora piece.

The thing that struck me most was Ruth’s reference to “chasing your talent.” Even though a writer may not realize what exactly the book is about, and not know what he/she is doing, with time and practice – and, like her heroine Luna, ambition – the process of coming to the page to put these stories, these lives, on paper brings the journey to the book to its conclusion.

Ruth read a short piece from the book, then opened up the floor for a Q&A. I asked how her feelings about bullfighting had changed over the course of researching and writing the book. Earlier, she had mentioned that it was a book about bullfighting that wasn’t really about bullfighting, but about class, feminism and gender – and that universal longing and drive to rise above socially imposed limitations. In loving her subject, Luna, she found herself looking at bullfighting with respect and void of judgement. While bullfighting is blood sport to some, it is art form to others, with views divided along sociopolitical lines in 1930s Spain, where bullfighting eventually became associated with the Franco regime. But, like boxing, bullfighting offered an opportunity to rise from poverty – and, in Luna’s case, it was a chance to pursue her passion and ambition in a profession that was closed to women.

This was a fantastic, vibrant event – extremely well-attended and crackling with excitement. Whoever said Canadian publishing was dead sure would have changed their tune last night. I’m really looking forward to reading Matadora. As part of last night’s festivities, we got to see the book trailer. It was shot and edited by Erin Reilly Clarke, who I had a chance to chat with briefly after the Q&A. She’d seen a late draft of the book and was already in love with it and looking forward to reading the final product – and we both speculated on how Matadora would make an amazing feature. The trailer features actor Joanne Vannicola, with original music by Evalyn Parry:

If you missed the launch, you can catch Ruth reading from Matadora, followed by an interview with NOW Magazine’s Senior Entertainment Editor Susan G. Cole at the Toronto Reference Library in the Elizabeth Beeton Auditorium on May 15 from 7:00 – 8:15 p.m. Admission is free. In the meantime, you can check out Cole’s review of Matadora.