Toronto Fringe: The devastating ripples of the Montreal massacre in the sensitive, intimate, heartbreaking The December Man (L’homme de Décembre)

Stephen Flett, Jonas Trottier & Kris Langille. Photo by Steven Nederveen.

 

Theatre@Eastminster closed its sensitive, intimate and heartbreaking production of Colleen Murphy’s The December Man (L’homme de Décembre), directed by Jennifer C.D. Thomson, yesterday afternoon at Eastminster United Church. As the narrative turns back time, we witness the devastating impact of the Montreal massacre on a working class family, whose son survived the tragedy.

Their lives shattered by their son’s suicide, Benoît (Stephen Flett) and Kathleen (Kris Langille) Fournier are taking drastic measures to deal with their pain. Loving, well-meaning parents, operating during a time and place where people didn’t have the awareness or resources to navigate the personal aftermath of a massive tragedy, they encourage their son to continue with his education as an engineer, to let go of those tragic events and move on with his life. How could they not have seen it coming? And what could they have done differently?

But Jean (Jonas Trottier) has been having nightmares, he’s been skipping classes—he can’t go back into that building—and his grades have been falling. Guilt-ridden and constantly second-guessing his actions that day, he takes karate classes so he won’t be so scared and powerless “the next time;” and won’t run away again. A natural reaction, to follow the instructions of an unstable man with a gun, then run like hell and call 911—but still, Jean can’t help but beat himself up over what he could’ve and should’ve done, reliving the horrific events over and over.

Beautiful, deeply poignant work from the cast in this powerful piece of how the devastating ripples of this national tragedy crash against this family. Lovely, tender, even humourous, performances from Flett and Langille as the amiable Benoît and devout Kathleen—in everyday household moments, and in their struggle to understand what their son is going through. In the days following Jean’s suicide, they fall into despair, with Benoît reaching for the bottle and Kathleen on extended leave from her housekeeping job, staying home to knit toques and scarves for a children’s charity. As Jean, Trottier digs deep to excavate the guilt, shame and self-blame of a survivor living with PTSD and paralyzing self-doubt; his dreams of becoming an engineer destroyed by the horrific memories of his female classmates’ deaths that he can’t get out of his head, and haunting fact that they’ll never get to build anything.

Heartbreaking in its realism and intimacy, you know events surrounding this story but you don’t necessarily know the stories of the aftermath: the survivors, friends and family left behind to cope with their loss and grief. A reminder that we need to be mindful and aware of the silent, deadly reverberations of senseless violence in our schools, shopping malls and on our streets.

With shouts to the cast of voice-over actors: Scott Bell, Eric Démoré, Sean Gorman, Samuel Magnan, Christian Martel and Susan Wakefield. To the design team for incredible use of the community (aka parlor) space at Eastminster United Church, including use of existing lighting: Ron McKay (set), Chris Bennett (lighting), Monica Sousa (sound), and Ann McIlwraith and Bev Falk (costume). And to the small army of stage managers, dressers and running crew, who kept all the moving parts running smoothly and efficiently during multiple scene changes—as we witness this family’s story in reverse.

Keep your eyes open for future Theatre@Eastminster productions.

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Toronto Fringe: Joy, sadness & an unexpected friendship in the playful, imaginative, touching Beneath the Bed

In bed: Erin Humphry. Clockwise, from bottom left: Lindsay Wu, Elizabeth Staples, John Wamsley & Keaton Kwok. Photo by Bryn Kennedy.

 

Theatre Born Between takes us to a world of childhood and the creatures that live under our beds in the playful, touching Beneath the Bed, a tale of loss and trauma—and an unexpected friendship. Written by Gabriel Golin and directed by Bryn Kennedy, with music composition by Lucas Penner, music, puppetry, dress-up and everyday objects imaginatively employed combine to tell a story of joy, sadness and back again. It’s story time for all ages, running at the Scadding Court Community Centre, Room 4.

When a Child (Erin Humphry) loses her Mom (Elizabeth Staples), her room becomes her refuge as she searches for her mother in the stars out her window, her mother’s haunting lullaby never forgotten. One night, a Monster (Graham Conway) appears from under her bed. Annoyed that the Child’s tears and sadness make her unfit to eat, he attempts to make her happy; and while his efforts may initially be for selfish reasons, a bond grows between them—and he becomes her protector from the real monster in the house.

Years later, the Monster appears in a new bedroom to find a new Child (Lindsay Wu); his friend has grown up and become a mother herself. This new Child has an outgoing personality and a vivid imagination, and loves playing games of make-believe—becoming a pirate on the high seas or an astronaut exploring the stars and battling space aliens. And although the Monster doesn’t understand her games, he plays along—even though his friend, now a mother, doesn’t want him speaking to her child. Feeling that her mom is keeping her too close, the Child runs away. Despite his fear of leaving the bedroom, and the great danger posed by daylight, the Monster ventures out to find her.

Lovely work from the cast in this beautiful, moving and delightful journey. Humphry’s Child has wisdom beyond her years; pensive and observant, she finds strength and resilience despite her grief and isolation. But the trauma of her childhood makes her a fearful adult, and nurturing turns to smothering as she desperately tries to protect her child from the world. Conway is a treat as the Monster; all gruff and growl at first, he’s a softie underneath—his initial malice melting as he turns from predator to protector. Wu is adorably fierce as the second Child; forced to live largely in her imagination, she struggles for independence and growth.

Rounding out the cast are the spritely Whispers—Keaton Kwok and John Wamsley (also Staples and Wu)—who create the sights, sounds and physical environment as the story unfolds. Everyday objects become monsters, sunsets, constellations, the headlights of a car; and, from the booth, stage manager Caitlin Brenneman creates sound effects with a toy xylophone and everyday things.

A good reminder—for children of all ages—that endings aren’t always entirely happy, but we can hope that things will be better tomorrow and feel gratitude for those moments of joy and the friends who help us get there.

Beneath the Bed continues in the Scadding Court Community Centre, Room 4 with one more performance today (July 14) at 2:00; tickets available at the door only today. Seating is limited, so you may want to arrive early.

Toronto Fringe: Conflict, family & connection in the compelling, moving Checkpoint 300

Back: Brittany Cope. Front: Ori Black & Lizette Mynhardt. Photo by Adrianna Prosser.

 

Tamaya Productions, this year’s winner of Fringe’s First Play Competition, presents Checkpoint 300, written and directed by Michelle Wise, assisted by Duncan Rowe, and running in the Factory Theatre Mainspace. A tragic incident at the Israel-Palestine border involving the first female soldier assigned to a checkpoint brings two women from opposite sides together as the soldier deals with the aftermath and a reporter looks for answers in this compelling, moving story.

Shiri (Lizette Mynhardt), a young Israeli soldier, has just completed punishing training and rigourous testing in order to be the first female soldier assigned to an Israel-Palestine border checkpoint. Her mother Tivka (Jorie Morrow) is concerned but supportive, and her father Benny (Geoff Mays) worries and wonders why she couldn’t have aimed for a safer office position. Shiri’s commanding officer Shay (Ori Black) is taken aback by the posting, but takes it in stride, acknowledging that she’s passed the same training and testing the male soldiers have, and makes a place for her on the team.

On the Palestinian side, reporter Amelie (Brittany Cope) leaves her family home for Paris, for a life away from the oppressive environment of constant policing, control and monitoring. Her gentle, easy-going father Bashir (Mays) and mother Nabila (Morrow) want her close to home, and on a more traditional path, including a husband and family. Her younger brother Walid (Amir Pour) works with their father as a mechanic when he’s not playing soccer.

Amelie and Shiri are brought together following a tragic incident at the checkpoint, where an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian man were killed—the latter a terrorist suspect. Shiri refuses to speak of the incident to anyone, and her mother arranges a meeting with Amelie in the hopes that Shiri will get to tell her side, and achieve some closure and relief. And as the story unfolds, Shiri and Amelie’s personal connections to the incident are revealed.

Lovely work from the cast in this often intense tale of conflict, family and connection; and where everyday life proceeds with humour and a sense of pragmatism, coloured by which side of the border one lives on. Mynhardt’s Shiri is a tightly coiled combination of determined ambition and nervous anticipation; Shiri wants to do something that makes a difference, but is all too aware of the many eyes on her with this historic posting. Cope’s performance as Amelie reveals a sense of resilience, drive and heart; like Shiri, Amelie is an ambitious, hard-working professional in a male-dominated field—and must now navigate personal feelings as she seeks to find the truth.

Black is a likeable, irreverent, and highly skilled leader as Shay; not too sure how this girl at the checkpoint thing is going to work, Shay takes a professional attitude and becomes a mentor to the rookie Shiri. Pour brings a sense of fun and mischief to the cocky youth Walid; clocking time at the shop with his father, he dreams of a life away from there—and glory on the soccer pitch. The casting of Morrow and Mays as both sets of parents is both fitting and poignant here, as it serves to highlight the commonalities on opposite sides of the border. Parents worry and try to usher their children toward what they think is best for them. And, no matter where they are, they want much the same thing: for their families to be safe and for their children to have a good future.

Even in an environment of conflict, opposing sides always have something in common—a way to connect. But easier said than done when fear and mistrust run so deep and for so long. Can hope and love have a chance?

Checkpoint 300 continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace for two more performances: July 13 at 10:15 and July 14 at 4:00; check the show page for advance tickets.

Toronto Fringe: Getting in & out of Scientology in the hilarious, heartbreaking, irreverent Squeeze My Cans

Cathy Schenkelberg. Sound & production design by Victoria (Toy) Deiorio. Photo by Michael C. Daft.

 

Squeeze My Cans presents Squeeze My Cans, the true story of Cathy Schenkelberg’s indoctrination into and exit from Scientology—a multimedia solo show trip that is by turns hilarious, heartbreaking, irreverent, infuriating and terrifying. Written and performed by Schenkelberg, and directed by Shirley Anderson, the show previewed at the St. Vladimir Institute last night and opens tonight.

When Nebraska-born, Chicago/LA-based actor, singer, voice-over artist Cathy Schenkelberg got on board the Scientology ship, she did—as many do—with the aim of self-improvement and spiritual awakening, to balance her life and career. Heart and mind open to a world of wonderful possibilities as she takes us with her on this journey, her eyes become open to the darker side of the organization and its negative impact on her life and relationships. Enthusiastic engagement turns to desperate anxiety as she undergoes audit after audit and takes course after course—even after she gets certified as “clear”. Spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, maxing out credit card after credit card; the constant criticism and monitoring—all under the guise of helping her achieve the next level of clarity and advanced state of being—send her into a spiral of emotional and financial ruin.

Discouraged, dismayed and angered by the hypocrisy of the organization—a hierarchy that favours celebrities, practises victim shaming and psychological manipulation— and heartbroken and ashamed of her detachment from her life and loved ones, participation turns to exit strategy as she makes a quiet exit.

Schenkelberg gives a brave, edgy and entertaining performance; touching hearts, minds and funny bones as she takes us on this deeply personal, harrowing and emotional ride. A compelling and engaging storyteller, the cast of characters she conjures makes for an excellent showcase for her kick-ass voice-over chops. The performance is adeptly complemented by Victoria (Toy) Deiorio’s projection design. And the “cans” in the title take on a double meaning: the portion of the E-meter that audit subjects squeeze as they respond to questions put to them by the auditor—the ultimate goal of the test is to make the needle on the meter “float”. And, as the show poster (design by Brett Newton Design Inc.) suggests—alien hands squeezing a woman’s breasts—there’s a titillating “fuck you” aspect as well; pushing back against the #MeToo element of assault by an entity that feels superior to the subject and entitled to take what it wants.

Scientology may have taken her money and a piece of her life, but it didn’t take Schenkelberg’s spirit. Her love of her daughter and parents, especially her father, bolstered her courage and resolve to get out and take her life back.

Squeeze My Cans continues at St. Vladimir Institute until July 13; check the show page for exact dates/times and advance tickets.

Keep an eye out for Squeeze My Cabaret, a musical cabaret version of Squeeze My Cans.

A family slogs through the fallout of mental illness & tragedy in the brutally honest, wry-witted And So It Goes

Left: Deborah Drakeford & Scott McCulloch. Right: Tyshia Drake & Dan Willmott. Set & costume design by Kelly Wolf. Scenic art by Ksenia Ivanova. Lighting design by Chin Palipane. Photos by John Gundy.

 

Kyanite Theatre presents George F. Walker’s And So It Goes, directed by Walker, assisted by Martha Moldaver—running in the Pia Bouman Scotiabank Studio. A brutally honest, wry-witted family tragicomedy, the play’s title was inspired by a line from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five; and delivers the signature Walker punch to the gut realism with a side of dark humour, to highlight a critical social issue—in this case, the impact of a child’s mental illness on an already struggling family.

Karen (Tyshia Drake) is tormented with thoughts of people out to do her harm, while her father Ned (Dan Willmott) struggles to make ends meet after getting laid off his job as a financial advisor; and mother Gwen (Deborah Drakeford), a former Latin teacher, is at her wits end trying to maintain order amid the chaos. Charged with several alleged assaults, Karen is diagnosed with schizophrenia, a finding she neither accepts nor complies with—refusing to take her meds, and shutting herself off from her well-meaning good cop dad and controlling bad cop mom. In the background of this family’s life is an estranged son, who we never meet, who left home when Karen’s condition began to emerge. And then there’s Gwen’s imaginary confessor/therapist Kurt Vonnegut (Scott McCulloch), who she confides in—trading contradictory thoughts between glasses of white wine as she grapples with the fear and frustration of a world that’s gradually falling apart.

The upbeat Ned goes back to school to earn a pastry chef certificate; but even his positive outlook can’t withstand the family tragedy and financial ruin that ensues. Sifting through the debris of their lives for a way out—and who is to blame—he too reaches out to Vonnegut for advice. And acquires a gun. Gwen finds new footing with Karen as she begins to loosen her vice-like grip on the carefully tended middle-class world she once knew. As Gwen and Ned’s lives spiral downward to hit rock bottom, Ned hardens and Gwen softens. And the only directions from there appear to be out or up.

Lovely, heart-wrenching work from this ensemble in this fast-paced “life’s cocktail” of laughter and tears, and how humans cope with the fallout of tragedy and the destruction of the world as they know it. Drake is heartbreaking as the tormented Karen, who knows that something’s not right, but refuses to accept her diagnosis. The paranoia and voices in Karen’s head torture and exhaust her—aptly mirrored by Jeremy Hutton’s sound design, which features rapid-fire sound bites about mental illness and the negative impact on the economy and productivity, as well as the pervasiveness of depression and its connection to the current unemployment/EI situation.

Willmott’s Ned is a big, lovable bear of a dad with an equally big heart; the protective “good cop” parent in this family dynamic, Ned stays positive despite his daughter’s illness and wife’s sharp criticism. But even his sunny disposition loses its shine as their lives take a desperate turn—and he must decide if he will apply equally desperate measures. Drakeford’s Gwen is aggravating and deeply poignant; bitter, exhausted and longing for things to get back to normal, Gwen is the bad cop and harsh realist of the family. Desperately trying to put this family’s broken life back together, Gwen’s hyper-rational, sharp edges melt as she begins to let go and look for a new way to live. And McCulloch is a wry-witted, debating delight as Vonnegut; playing Devil’s Advocate and acting as a sound board for both Gwen and Ned, the imaginary friend and ghost Vonnegut is filtered through the thoughts and perceptions of whoever summons him.

Guns or lemon tarts? When faced with personal tragedy in the face of a society that’s losing its social conscience and sense of civility, we have the choice to descend into darkness or rise up into the light. And strive to build a new world from the rubble. One thing’s for certain: we need to pay more attention and apply more care to those who are losing their lives to mental illness, unemployment and despair.

And So It Goes continues in the Pia Bouman Scotiabank Studio until May 26, with evening performances Wed-Sat at 8:00; and matinées on Sat, May 18 and Sun, May 26 at 2:00. Advance tickets available online or pay cash at the door.

In the meantime, check out Arpita Ghosal’s interview with actor Deborah Drakeford in Sesaya.

Secrets & dark suspicions in the eerie, Gothic family drama Gripless

GriplessCastBWStanding: David Huband & Amber Mackereth. Seated: Margaret Lamarre.

 

Green Garden Equity Artist Collective gives us a disturbing tale of family secrets and dark suspicions in Deborah Ann Frankel’s eerie family drama Gripless; directed by Frankel and on now for a short run at Red Sandcastle Theatre.

On a stormy night in a small town, brother Ben (David Huband) and sister April (Amber Mackereth) bring their mother Elaine (Margaret Lamarre) home from a birthday celebration dinner in honour of their deceased father Daniel. Uncomfortable and anxious to leave, intimidating younger sister April appears to be the alpha to her more easy going older brother. But try as they might to leave their family home, something Elaine says keeps drawing them away from the door and back into the living room.

As the action unfolds, we learn that Elaine remarried about a year after Daniel’s death; an abusive brute of a man named Tim, who recently had a stroke. We get the sense that there are some uncomfortable unsaid truths in the closet of this family’s history; and memories shift from nostalgic reverie and childhood shenanigans to disturbing discoveries and suspicions—hinting at a troubling and violent dynamic.

Compelling work from the cast in this unsettling, spooky story of family dysfunction and conflicting perspectives. Lamarre’s Elaine is damaged, adrift and also manipulative; poignant yet unsettling, Elaine’s selective memory targets only the happy moments and she seems oddly disconnected from what’s happening right in front of her. As April, Mackereth’s tough-talking, bully exterior masks a deeply hurt, vulnerable child; unforgiving with her mother, April has tender feelings for her big brother, the only one who’s ever been on her side. Huband’s Ben is the perfect foil for Mackereth’s April; wry-witted, quiet and introspective, Ben is clearly the peacemaker in the family—but even his easy-going demeanour gives way to moments of haunted reflection.

Writer/director Frankel, who folks will recognize as Red Sandcastle’s intrepid SM, will be taking over as General Manager when AD Rosemary Doyle heads to Kingston in August as the new AD of Theatre Kingston; multitasking in this production, she’s also juggling box office and SM duty in booth—and created one heck of a dark, atmospheric set and soundtrack.

Gripless has two more performances at Red Sandcastle Theatre: tonight (July 22) and tomorrow (July 23) at 8 p.m.; book tickets in advance at deborahannfrankel@gmail.com or pay cash at the door.

Family legacy, identity & repressed anger released in the sharply funny, biting Bad Jews

Rebecca Applebaum, Kristopher Turner & Daniel Krantz in Bad Jews—photo by Dahlia Katz

 

We’re all invited to crash at Jonah and Liam’s as we pay our last respects to their grandfather in the Koffler Centre of the Arts’ production of Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews, directed by Michèle Lonsdale-Smith. Bad Jews opened last night in the Small World Music Centre at Artscape Youngplace.

Set in an shoe box-sized NYC studio apartment, which Jonah (Daniel Krantz) and Liam’s (Kristopher Turner) parents bought so they could have a place to stay in their building during the funeral, Bad Jews takes us on an emotional journey as we get a taste of the repressed anger, hidden resentments, judgements and expectations of this family. The apartment becomes a physical representation of the claustrophobic, everyone in everyone else’s business that is the family dynamic—especially potent among this group of 20-somethings, who are in the midst of establishing their own lives and identities while they navigate parental, cultural and religious expectations.

We first meet Jonah, lounging on a double air mattress in his dress shirt, boxers and yarmulke, playing video games. The brothers’ cousin Daphna (Rebecca Applebaum) has been staying with him on the pull-out couch. It’s just after the funeral and there is a quiet, exhausted atmosphere as Daphna hangs up their clothes and attempts conversation. She’s pissed that Liam missed the funeral; he was in Aspen with his girlfriend, lost his phone and didn’t get the message in time, and is due that night, girlfriend in tow. There’s something of their grandfather’s that Daphna desperately wants; a precious family heirloom, a piece of jewellery given to their grandfather by his father and kept safely hidden during the Holocaust. She wants Jonah’s blessing; he doesn’t want it, but he’s unwilling to take sides and wants nothing to do with the decision.

When Liam arrives with his non-Jewish girlfriend Melody (Julia Vally), Jonah learns that not only does Liam want the treasured family heirloom, he’s already got it. Both Daphna and Liam have very good reasons for wanting the necklace; and both have very different approaches and perceptions toward their family’s Jewish traditions and faith. Coupled with perceptions of entitlement, family loyalty and being a ‘good’ Jew, things get ugly between them pretty fast. It’s clear these two already don’t like each other and the battle over their grandfather’s jewelry is steeped in long-term, ongoing resentment. Melody tries to act as mediator, but ultimately can’t break through—no wonder, as she’s just been introduced to the family and has no idea about the history behind the verbal savagery she’s witnessing. In the end, we’re left with just Jonah and Daphna again—only now, the tone and atmosphere of their conversation is quite different. And further revelations emerge after the cathartic blow-out.

Lovely work from the cast in this claustrophobic and caustic dark comedy. As director Lonsdale-Smith pointed out during the post-show talkback, anger is motivated by fear; the fear of letting people go, death, identity, how we may take a different path from our parents—and these characters are angry. Krantz does a beautiful job with the soft-spoken, mild-mannered Jonah’s complexity and inner conflict. Jonah gives the impression of being checked out and disinterested, and perhaps even not as smart as his older brother and cousin, but he’s aware and listening—and he feels things more deeply than you might think as he struggles with his grief. Applebaum, who identifies as mixed race (half Asian, raised Jewish), used her lived experience to bring scope to her laser-focused performance as the sharply intellectual, self-righteous Daphna. A super observant Jew, and a Vassar student bound for Israel, rabbinical school and the army, Daphna is always looking for a debate, if not an outright fight. Constantly on the lookout for fault in others, Daphna’s devotion is of the holier than thou, selectively fundamentalist variety—but much of this is a shield for a deeply wounded, lonely soul.

BadJewsToronto-photobyDahliaKatz-Koffler-2
Rebecca Applebaum, Julia Vally & Kristopher Turner in Bad Jews—photo by Dahlia Katz

Turner brings a ferocity and intellectual vigour to Liam, who’s chosen a more secular path and even changed his name. The eldest son of a well-off family, there’s more than a whiff of entitlement about Liam, and his anger is vicious when it erupts; however, his wish to mirror a gift their grandfather made to their grandmother reveals the depth of his love and appreciation for family and for Melody. Vally gives a great sense of firmness and strength to the sweet-natured, genuinely good Melody. A former opera student who loves music, but in the end decided that career path wasn’t for her, Melody is an administrator at a non-profit organization—helping others is in her blood, but she can’t seem to help Liam’s family issue. How could she?

Ultimately, as Turner mentioned toward the end of the talkback, this is a play about family—the history, the love, and intellectual and emotional dynamic that twists and turns across generations and through time. And nothing brings out the good, bad and the ugly like family, especially during meaningful, emotionally fraught family gatherings.

Family legacy, identity and repressed anger released in the sharply funny, biting Bad Jews.

Bad Jews continues in the Small World Music Centre at Artscape Youngplace until June 4; get your advance tix online via the show page or through Eventbrite. Advance booking recommended; it’s an intimate venue, fitting with the cramped space of an NYC studio apartment.