You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll sing along in your heart with the brilliant, hilarious & deeply poignant Stupidhead!

Katherine Cullen & Britta Johnson in Stupidhead!—photo by Michael Cooper

 

Better late than never to the party, as I finally got out to see Katherine Cullen and Britta Johnson’s SummerWorks hit Stupidhead! A Musical Comedy, directed by Aaron Willis—now in its final week in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Mainspace.

Written and performed by Cullen and Johnson, who also collaborated on the lyrics, with music by Johnson, Stupidhead! is a part musical, part stand-up, part personal storytelling journey of Cullen’s experience living with dyslexia.

Stupidhead! is Cullen’s childhood dream of being in a musical come true. And, despite her lack of training, experience and self-reported ability, she was determined to make it happen; and recruited her good friend Johnson to help her write the music. Johnson joins her onstage, accompanying her on piano and back-up vocals—reacting to Cullen’s performance throughout, sometimes cracking up along with the audience.

Pointing out that dyslexia affects people differently, Cullen has no trouble with reading and writing—and as a child enjoyed escaping into writing poetry, and stories about the adventures of a silly koala and rabbit. Diagnosed at a young age, Cullen relates her struggles with math, organizational skills and directions, finding herself mentally lost at school and physically lost in her own neighbourhood—and, above all, labelled. And that label put her in the position of having to deal with ignorance and lack of compassion from others, making her sense of otherness feel even more isolating and humiliating, and becoming a part of her identity.

Her anecdotes about trying to fit in are both hilarious and moving—from her grade three poetry contest nemesis (now a CFL football player), to being lost on her own street, to two weeks in a puppet camp in Vermont as a young adult and her love of Jesus Christ Superstar—all delivered with genuine feeling and gusto. While it’s a show about the “glamour of failure,” it’s also a show about throwing off the chains of shame and isolation. In the end, Cullen avoids tying it up neatly, but emerges from the darker moments of her experience into a place of hope and determination.

Stupidhead!
Katherine Cullen in Stupidhead!—photo by Michael Cooper

Cullen shines onstage. An engaging, genuine and charming performer, she’s gutsy and kick-ass, but also vulnerable and fragile. As she schools us on dyslexia, she gives us the straight goods about what it’s like to live inside her head. And she gives ‘er with the music, putting her all into performing the songs, from belted out numbers to gentle, heartfelt ballads. She and Johnson make a terrific duo. Johnson is pretty damn funny herself; and there’s a lovely tender moment of compassion and understanding between them that rings with friendship and love. And their anthem of “don’t give up!” brought tears to my eyes.

With big shouts to set designer Anahita Dehbonehie and lighting designer Jennifer Lennon for the cool and beautiful neurosciencey environment.

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll sing along in your heart with the brilliant, hilarious and deeply poignant Stupidhead!

Stupidhead! continues in the TPM Mainspace, closing on Apr 2; book in advance online or call 416-504-7529. Check out Hallie Seline’s interview with Cullen and Johnson for In the Greenroom.

And here’s the trailer:

 

 

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Toronto Fringe: The man. The ego. The outsider. Orson Welles meets Shylock in the compelling Orson Welles/Shylock

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The Shylock Project is in town from Syracuse, NY with a Toronto Fringe run of Orson Welles/Shylock, written and directed by Matt Chiorini, in the Factory Theatre studio.

Structured as a docu-fantasy radio play, Orson Welles/Shylock is a multimedia, largely verbatim theatre piece that incorporates quotes, reviews, interviews and text from William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, as well as projection effects and film footage of Welles in an impromptu performance of Shylock’s famous soliloquy on a beach at sunrise.

Featuring a cast of four actors, including Chiorini, Brittany Fayle, Drew Gripe and Vincent Randazzo – who each play several characters, including Welles at various ages – we get a brief history of Welles’ career. His mother started reading Shakespeare to him when he was a preschooler, and by the time he was 18, he was starting to produce, direct, write, adapt and star in his own productions, starting with theatre and moving to filmmaking. An outsider in Hollywood, and pretty much anywhere he went, he found a particular resonance with Shylock. He created a large body of work, but much of it was left unfinished due to financing issues, the most notable of which was his 1960 made for TV version of The Merchant of Venice, which stopped production when CBS pulled its financing. Only a small portion of the footage remains, as Welles reported it was later stolen.

The four-person cast does a stellar job portraying Welles throughout his career, from the brash, fearless rookie of an 18-year-old, to middle-aged titan, to the aging veteran forced to take acting jobs to subsidize his own projects (and thankful he didn’t do Love Boat). Encouraged and praised from a very young age, there was nothing he couldn’t do. A workaholic with a huge ego, demanding standards and a razor-sharp wit, he eschewed any editorial hands on his work but his own. But throughout it all, like Shylock was in Venice, but not of Venice – Welles was in the industry but not of the industry. An outsider till his death at 70, we get various portraits of him from a number of review clips, quotes and interviews; and one gets the impression that – like his most famous film character Charles Foster Kane – few, if any, really knew him at all. And his Shylock soliloquy is heartbreaking.

The man. The ego. The outsider. Orson Welles meets Shylock in the compelling Orson Welles/Shylock.

Orson Welles/Shylock continues at the Factory Theatre Studio, with three more performances: today (Thurs, July 7) at 4 p.m.; Sat, July 9 at 7:30 p.m.; and Sun, July 10 at 12:00 p.m. These guys aren’t local, so catch them while they’re still here. For ticket info and advance tickets/passes, check out the Fringe website.