SummerWorks: Death, fear & loneliness in the spine-tingling, darkly funny, Hitchcockian A Girl Lives Alone

Photo by Molly Flood.

Theatre Mischief gives us a spine-tingling, darkly funny turn—and a unique look at death, loneliness, fear and how people live together—in its SummerWorks production of Jessica Moss’s Hitchcock-inspired murder mystery comedy A Girl Lives Alone. Directed by Moss and the company, the show is currently running in the Theatre Centre’s Franco Boni Theatre.

New to her NYC apartment, Marion (Samantha Madely) returns home one night to find her fellow tenants assembled outside, their building taped off as a crime scene. A young woman in the building was murdered, at home in her apartment, the unknown perpetrator still at large. A murder mystery, Hitchcock fan obsessed with her ex-boyfriend’s classic murder mystery-inspired radio show podcast, Marion becomes hell-bent on investigating her neighbours in hopes of discovering the murderer. Gradually, she gets to know her fellow tenants: the opinionated, judgemental and fastidious Alma (Anita La Selva); the harried landlord Murray (Alexander Thomas); boyfriend/girlfriend pair the volatile Stewart (Aldrin Bundoc) and chatty Kim (Asha Vijayasingham); the nervous, quirky Janet (Jessica Moss); and the creepy, enigmatic Foley Artist upstairs (Andrew Musselman). Watching from the sidelines is the bubbly actress Grace (Tiffany Deobald), the murder victim. Grace lived alone.

The murder is a catalyst for a variety of shifting dynamics within the building; heightening suspicions, and driving self-advocacy and the realization that the tenants don’t particularly know each other that well. Their previous perceptions of safety and comfort profoundly shaken, no one in the building is the same. We see the dark and tender sides of the neighbours as the story unfolds; and everyone has their own way of coping. Janet binge-watches Friends on Netflix while others enjoy Law & Order SVU, Alma calls Murray out on a long-neglected repair to her place and Marion becomes Nancy Drew. Both terrified and fascinated by the strange Foley Artist who lives directly above her, Marion can’t stay away as he shows her the tricks of his trade, at her request, up in his place.

Outstanding work from the ensemble, riding a fine edge of comedy and psychothriller in this gripping, darkly funny tale of mystery, and dangers real and imagined. Noises in the dark—the young couple sexing or fighting, the Foley Artist at work, someone coming upon you suddenly—all take on new meaning and put everyone on edge. And some new, unexpected alliances are forged as well. What do you need to feel safe and comfortable in your own home? And how do women who live alone mitigate the risk? And how do you cope when the unthinkable happens so close to home?

With shouts to the design team for their gripping, atmospheric work on this production: composer/sound designer Richard Feren, set/costume designer Claire Hill and lighting designer Imogen Wilson.

A Girl Lives Alone has one more performance at SummerWorks: tonight (Aug 19) at 8:30 p.m.; advance tickets available online.

 

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Heart vibrations as the dead weave tales reminding us to live in the inspirational, uplifting Spoon River

Spoon River ensemble—photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

 

Is your soul alive?

As we make our way into the theatre, we find ourselves entering the funeral of Bertie Hume; filing past old family portraits and rows of headstones as we make our way out of the funeral parlor and into the cemetery. We are greeted by funeral home attendants and, possibly, friends and family of the deceased.

This is our introduction to Soulpepper’s immersively staged Spoon River, based on Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology poetry collection, and adapted by Mike Ross and Albert Schultz for the stage, with music composed by Ross. A remount of this beloved, award-winning show is currently running in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre, located in Toronto’s Distillery District.

As Bertie Hume is left to her eternal rest, former citizens of the town—now “asleep” in the cemetery on the hill—emerge to share their stories with us, the passersby. Set in small-town America, the lives, loves, joys and pain of its people are revealed with memories, regrets, confession; at times harrowing (“Fire”), hilarious (“Couples” and “Drinking”) and heartbreaking (“Mothers and Sons”). The quirks, the humanity, the secrets and betrayals—all interwoven with poetry, spoken word, music and song, as we get snapshots of the people they once were.

The remarkable, multitalented ensemble plays and sings, with rousing, foot-stomping sounds and gorgeous, resonant harmonies in a collection of blue grass and gospel-inspired songs. Stand-out soloists include Alana Bridgewater, Hailey Gillis (as Bertie Hume), Miranda Mulholland, Jackie Richardson (“Widow McFarlane”) and Daniel Williston (“Fire”). Soulpepper veterans Oliver Dennis and Diego Matamoros bring stellar character work, as do Raquel Duffy, Stuart Hughes, John Jarvis and Michelle Monteith. Ultimately, Spoon River is a celebration of life (“Soul Alive”)—and a reminder that life, warts and all, is a cherished gift. I dare you to not stomp along.

With big shouts to the design team for their work on this magical, evocative production: Ken MacKenzie (set and lighting), Erika Connor (costumes) and Jason Browning (sound).

Heart vibrations as the dead weave tales reminding us to live in the inspirational, uplifting Spoon River.

Spoon River continues in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre until April 21; booking in advance is strongly recommended to avoid disappointment—the place was packed last night and this show is getting lots of standing ovations. Get your advance tix online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.

Up next: Soulpepper will be taking Spoon River to New York City’s 42nd Street in July as part of its first NYC season at The Pershing Square Signature Center.

The Spoon River soundtrack is available on CD in the lobby of the Young Centre; you can also find it on iTunes. In the meantime, check out the trailer:

 

 

The evolution of Jonathan Larson – tick, tick… BOOM!

TTB 02 - Parris Greaves, Laura Mae Nason, Ken Chamberland - photo by Vincent Perri
Parris Greaves, Laura Mae Nason, Ken Chamberland – photo by Vincent Perri

Opening nights have an energy unlike any other night of a run. Full of expectation, anticipation, celebration – and last night’s opening of Jonathan Larson’s tick, tick… BOOM! at the Toronto Centre for the Arts was especially so. Co-produced by Angelwalk Theatre and Newface Entertainment, and directed by Tim French with music direction by Anthony Bastianon, this opening was also the first night of Angelwalk’s 5th anniversary season.

The first of only two musicals Larson wrote before his sudden death the night before the first Off-Broadway performance of his other show – the rock musical hit RENTtick, tick… BOOM! is an autobiographical piece, originally performed by Larson in 1990 as a solo show. Playwright David Auburn revised the show to a three-hander after Larson’s death in 1996; vocal arrangements and orchestrations were penned by Stephen Oremus. In tick, tick… BOOM!, we see the evolution of Larson the man and the artist, struggling to write a true rock musical during a time when the only musicals welcomed on Broadway were of the traditional, older music style, or soft pop at best – and we get a hint of the even bigger hit yet to come.

Jon (Parris Greaves) is our host and the main character for this journey. Part narrator and part struggling music theatre writer/composer, he’s also grappling with Father Time; the tick, tick of his own clock getting louder as he draws closer to the public workshop of his musical Superbia and his 30th birthday. Frustrated and ashamed that he has nothing to show for his life’s work – or his life, period – and feeling like time is running out for him, he tells us about his plight in the opening song “30/90”. Boom! His roommate Michael (Ken Chamberland), a former actor turned market researcher on Madison Avenue, is moving up in the world. He’s got a new BMW and he’s heading to a new apartment uptown, away from their Soho slumlord digs and happy to be where he is. He’s also happy to offer Jon a spot at his firm. Jon, not so much. Rounding out Jon’s chosen family is his girlfriend Susan (Laura Mae Nason), a dancer and dance teacher who has the future on her mind. A future that includes Jon, but not NYC.

Born in the early 60s, Jon is painfully aware that – as a junior baby boomer – he’s grown up in a darker and more cynical time than the older folks of his generation. Choices weigh heavily as he tries to reconcile his need for self-expression and artistic creation against financial stability and security (“Johnny Can’t Decide”). And he’s sick of waiting tables just to scrape by (“Sunday”). Attempts at creativity in corporate America feel anything but – and people seem all too willing to do anything for a buck. Things come to a head with Susan – aptly expressed in their duet “Therapy” – and when Michael comes to him with some dire news, Jon realizes that he must make some active choices, not just coast along with the status quo or wait for things to happen (“Why”).

The show features some incredible harmonies – duets and trios – and the cast blends their voices to make those chords resonate beautifully. Powerful ballads “Real Life,” “Come To Your Senses” (a stand-out performance from Nason in the musical workshop within the musical) and, especially, the finale “Louder Than Words” (which includes the lyrics: “Cages or wings? Which do you prefer?”) make this an inspirational, truthful and heartfelt piece of musical theatre. The cast brings the right balance of humour and poignancy to their performances: Greaves as the artist struggling for his work, his soul and connection with his loved ones; Chamberland as his best friend, supportive but choosing another path to make a life of his own, both men wondering if they can still connect now that they’re living such different lives; and Nason as Jon’s loving and loyal girlfriend, hoping that her dreams will match that her lover – and both having to decide whether it’s possible. And Chamberland and Nason are more than up to the challenge of juggling multiple roles, including restaurant co-workers and patrons, Jon’s parents, his agent (both get a crack at her, with hilarious results!) and a lovely actress in Jon’s workshop.

The set (designed by Alanna McConnell) is made up of multi-level playing spaces, including scaffolding and steel stairs, and back-lit panels featuring lyrics from the show’s songs – minimalist and very effective at evoking the sleek, hard urban environment of New York City, as well as housing the live band on either side of the stage under the scaffolding. It puts us in that place, and allows the characters and music to dominate the space. Michelle Tracey’s costume designs set us firmly in 1990 – and Susan’s vintage design dress is well-deserving of “Green Green Dress,” the appreciative song it inspires in the show.

Performed with passion and drive – and three excellent sets of pipes – this small cast expresses some big feelings and ideas; and the personal is made universal by the common desire for connection, meaning and finding a place in the world. Personal expression, and overcoming fear and doubt in order to be true to oneself in the face of conformity and materialism – in a time when a new, invisible enemy has emerged with AIDS – all figure prominently in tick, tick… BOOM! There are shades of RENT here, the evolution of this music and these themes grow into a larger piece yet to come.

Go see tick, tick… BOOM! – running at the Toronto Centre for the Arts until October 6.

Life As A Pomegranate – interview with playwright/actor Dawna J. Wightman

As promised, here’s my interview with Life As A Pomegranate playwright/actor Dawna J. Wightman

I sent Dawna some questions via email – here’s what she had to say:

Q: You’ve gone with a more linear, chronological narrative this time around, with no flashbacks into Rozyee’s past. How did you come to find/decide on this revised structure?

A: Embarassment.

Basically the answer is I don’t want pity, so I opted out.

After the first staging, people would come to me after the show crying and telling me how sorry they are to see what a hard life I’ve had and they’ve had a hard life too. “It’s a PLAY!” Yes, there are some elements of my own truths in it and I’m glad you got something out of it but don’t make me a victim. A playwright has to either borrow someone else’s story or strip mine their own life if there is to be a story, right? But the audience thought it was all me.

So Ginette (the director) and I decided to take out the tragic flashbacks and keep the one from the bingo night because it is happy to put a stop to the pity party.

Turns out even with the flashbacks removed people still come up to me crying after the show. Guess the play touches them somewhere deep.

Q: We see the same characters in this version of the play, but each is given a different weight. We’re seeing more of Arthur and less of Rozyee’s mom – and the witch in the mirror seems more predominant. And Arthur has gone from being a mildly supportive to actively discouraging Rozyee’s dream. Can you tell us a bit about the character shifts, and how this affects their roles and impacts on Rozyee?

A: When I’m on stage I have a set of boxes in my head. There’s a box for the lines, one for blocking, timing and emotion. When I am the playwright there’s also and a box that is observing the room.

My observer told me Rozyee has to struggle more to reach the audience on a deeper vein. It’s important to me that my audience feels the story either in the heart, the hips or the head…ultimately I’ll write a play that touches them in every spot.

After the preview I threw out the idea that my story was incomprehensible. I knew by the reactions of the audiences that the story had touched on some universal truths and they could understand it. (There’s nothing worse to me than going to theatre that is so cerebral that the audience doesn’t know what’s happening.)

I worked on developing the inner critic and Arthur and Sutton. In the preview you saw they were more cartoony. In the last version the witch is more depressing, Sutton more menacing and Arthur an ass.

It’s interesting that you say we see less of Rozyee’s mom; Ma was more a part of the show this time round. I wrote the play so that Rozyee and Ma never make contact, they’re always on the phone. I wanted to turn up the ache of loving a parent but never being close to them.

Haha….this answer is so long. Short answer: Rozyee is more of a hero if she struggles more so I wrote in more struggles.

Q: I wanted to ask you about the mean girl birthday party prank anecdote. This time, it’s Sutton’s story and I seem to recall that being Rozyee’s story in the earlier version of the play. Is that right? If so, what made you decide to make it Sutton’s story?

A: You are right. (Thank you for noticing.) I love playing Sutton. I am not a writer. I write to act. I ache to act. The acting community here won’t let me in so I write characters I want to play. To take Sutton deeper (for the actor me), and to make Rozyee less of a victim (for the playwright), I got Sutton to show a bit more humanity. I gave Sutton the story.

Q: The stakes are much higher for Rozyee this time around. She was already a heroine in the earlier version of the play – but this time, she has bigger obstacles and decisions to make. How did this shift in her journey come about?

A: After the preview Nika Rylski said: “Good, now make Rozyee struggle if you want this story to last.”

So I gave Rozyee more struggle and she also grew the courage to divorce Arthur.

Q: You performed the play in New York and will be returning there. Did you perform this version of the script there? What was it like performing for those audiences, in that city?

A: Yes, I perform the same script there.

When I act, I give all of me, every cell. No tricks. No shortcuts. No methods I show up and say the lines, I open my flap and show that through the words of the playwright and the channel of the character.

I fly, I fly, fly.

In NYC, I opened myself up even more. I thought: “If I am only here on Broadway once in my life I want to say that I gave every fiber of me so that it will have been a personal success.”

I had no idea I’d be asked back.

When I get to act I am so happy I truly believe the experience is a dream I conjured. Thoughts become things, right? I am free on a stage. Now. Now. Now. No inner critic.

It was so surreal to act in NYC. I lifted my arms and fell off the cliff willingly, freely. I do this: Here. Here’s my heart. Look. Take it. It’s yours.

I thought the producers would erase the Canadian bits of the show. They loved those bits. I only changed the place where Rozyee gets her treats from Loblaws to Price Chopper so they would understand it is a grocery store.

Q: Will you be making any further revisions to the script? Any other plans for a run or tour?

A: No more revisions. There were 16 drafts to get it where it is. Tempting, but no, that egg is cooked.

Life as a Pomegranate will be in the Midwinter Madness Short Play Festival, Times Square, February 2013.

We’ve applied to six fringe lotteries across Canada for summer 2013: PEI, Toronto, Edmonton, Montreal (didn’t get in), Vancouver, Victoria UNO Festival.

If you know of anyone who wants to see it, let me know…why wouldn’t I want to fly again?

Q: You’re working on a new play right now – Yellow Bird. Will that also be a one-woman show? What can you tell us about it?

A: Yellow Bird is the story of what happened to Ma from Life as a Pomegranate. If there is grant money I can write in three men to play Ron, but if not it will be a two-hander.

Plot: Ron forges his mother’s signature and goes to fight in WW2. He is 14.

Returning from the front injured, he meets Pat and they fall in love, but the two of them are in that war together until they die at a young age, within 10 months of each other.

PTSD, shame, no moral ground…this is their love story.

I will play Ron’s mother, then his wife then his daughter.

Q: Anything else you’d like to share with folks?

Thanks for seeing my work.

 

Thanks, Dawna! With special thanks for being my first blog interview. 🙂

Outrage, love & brotherhood – The Normal Heart

Finally got out to see Studio 180 Theatre’s remount of  The Normal Heart at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre last night – and I was especially happy to be there as I’d missed last year’s run. Written by Larry Kramer and directed for Studio 180 by Joel Greenberg – remounted from its 2011 season in this year’s 10th anniversary this season – the play’s title was inspired by a phrase from W.H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939.”

Set in New York City and spanning a time period from July 1981 to May 1984, The Normal Heart follows the struggles of real people – friends and colleagues renamed by Kramer for the play – in the early days of the war against AIDS. Writer Ben Weeks (John Bourgeois) is called to arms by Dr. Emma Brookner (Sarah Orenstein), and assembles a group of gay men in the fight against an unknown virus that is starting to take quick and deadly hold in their community. Joined by friends Bruce (Martin Happer), Mickey (Ryan Kelly), Felix (Jeff Miller), newcomer Tommy (Jonathan Seinen) and even his homophobic but supportive brother Ned (Jonathan Wilson), Ben wages war not only against the virus, but against apathy in both government and the community. And the fight turns inward on the group when it becomes apparent that communication styles don’t match, with out and proud Ben taking a more aggressive, uncompromising – and, for some, alarmist – approach, while closeted Bruce plays good cop, and aims to play nice and compromise.

It is that debate over how to best deliver their vital message to the gay community that makes this play especially interesting. Ben is accused of driving the community back into the closet and a position of shame when he urges gay men, at Brookner’s insistence, to stop having sex as a means of stemming the illness. For some, the precious sexual freedom gained in the previous decade is at stake. And it is this argument that provokes the question: Is having sex with men the defining attribute of gay culture? The group struggles with community apathy as the doctor gropes in the dark for answers to a question that no one else seems to care about. Internal battles – both personal and communal – ensue. Closeted vs. out. “Promiscuous” vs. “virginal” – which both sides put foward as a means to find love. And Ben and his brother Ned have their own battle over tolerance vs. acceptance. Ben believes that gays are the same as straights and refuses to allow sex to be the defining trait of his community – but his friends fear an attack on their culture as gay men if their sexual freedom is compromised.

The action unfolds on a square tile floor playing area (designed by John Thompson, who also did costumes) , with audience on all sides, and with minimal props and furniture to evoke place. And scene changes on the set are accompanied by throbbing 80s disco music (sound design by Verne Good), with the ensemble executing the change-overs – the flavour of their action in keeping with the tone of the scene.

This is an outstanding cast – which also includes Mark Crawford and Mark McGrinder, both in multiple roles – inhabiting characters with life and death stakes against an unseen enemy. Bourgeois is passionate and forceful as Ben, a man so much in his head he’s neglected his heart, his fragility showing in his love of his brother and his efforts to connect. Orenstein is a powerhouse, taking names, kicking ass and accepting no excuses as Brookner, wheelchair-bound by polio. Like Ben, she is overworked, overwhelmed and fed-up with political bullshit they have to navigate, but refuses to stop fighting. Lovely work from Kelly as Mickey, who finds himself wading through hell – his normally upbeat personality pummeled and broken. As Felix, Miller gives us a heartbreaking portrait of a vital, handsome gay man dealing with the ravages of disease. And Seinen’s Southern boy Tommy, the youngster of the group, is as adorable as he is chivalrous – a supportive friend and comrade in this war.

The Normal Heart continues at Buddies until November 18. Go see this.