FireWorks Festival: Navigating the media circus in the face of profound loss in the moving, razor-sharp, thought-provoking Grief Circus

Bronson Lake & Alison Dickson. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Paige Foskett. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Bruce Peters.

 

Alumnae Theatre opened its second week of the FireWorks Festival last night, with Crystal Wood’s Grief Circus, directed by Paige Foskett. As moving as it is razor-sharp, this timely multimedia piece holds up a mirror to society’s morbid fascination, involvement and sharing in the death of strangers. A family has lost a beloved daughter and sister, an event that becomes fresh meat for the news and social media feeding frenzy. As they navigate the media circus that follows, mother and sister take very different paths to work through their grief.

Leah (Alison Dickson) speaks to us directly, our host and narrator as we witness scenes—sometimes in flashback—around the events of her older sister Jesse’s (Claire MacMaster) disappearance. Jesse’s body was later found in a ravine, and both Leah and her mother Carol (Bernadette Medhurst) find themselves in the spotlight of an often intrusive, uncaring news media—even confronted by a photographer (Jack Everett) on the steps of their small-town church when they attend Jesse’s funeral. In the aftermath, while Leah finds herself slogging through a callous, click bait world of modern news and social media, bombarded with ignorance and cruelty as she struggles to work through grief and loss, she is appalled to find her mother joining in—writing a book about the experience of losing her daughter, and working with PR folks to book interviews.

grief circus 2
Alison Dickson & Claire MacMaster. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Paige Foskett. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Bruce Peters.

Alternating between past and present, we see a 15-year-old Leah interacting with Jesse, who is her best friend, advisor, confidante and go-to source of info on the state of their parents’ shaky marriage; then a few years later being invited to a party with Jesse and her friends in Toronto, where Jesse disappears after leaving on her own. We see Leah go head to head with Carol over Carol’s making an industry of Jesse’s death; and the battle for Leah’s participation in a television interview, taking place the same day as her first day at university. And Leah has a meet cute with Charlie (Bronson Lake), an awkward but sweet university student; they go on a sort of date, but his motives are called into question when an altered recording of a chat he had with their server (Everett) turns up on the news, showing Leah in the worst possible light as the troubled sister of a famous dead girl.

Lovely work from the cast in this timely, moving and razor-sharp exploration of how news and social media can intrude upon and dishonour the departed, and have a profound impact on their loved ones. Dickson gives a stand-out performance as the whip-smart, introverted, wry-witted Leah; precocious, irreverent and wise beyond her years, Leah can be her own worst enemy as she keeps herself informed about world events—events that spark deep anxiety over the possibility of catastrophe. Conflicted about engaging with the Internet following Jesse’s death, what she finds there only serves to make her journey through grief more difficult.

MacMaster gives an energetic, luminous performance as the bubbly extrovert Jesse; the best big sister Leah could have, she’s super supportive and encouraging—balancing a respect for Leah’s boundaries with gentle pushes outside her comfort zone. Medhurst does a nice job with the conflicted Carol; a mother who’s lost her daughter, she deals with her grief the only way she knows how—honour Jesse’s memory so she won’t be forgotten. Lake gives an adorably awkward performance as the bashful Charlie; somewhat of an introvert himself, Charlie is interested in Leah, but unfortunately not very media-savvy. And Everett offers a great range of news media folk, from the intrusive jerk photographer at the funeral, to serious CTV reporter, to sleazy “journalist”.

Timely, moving and sharply funny, Grief Circus incorporates video and projected social media messaging (video design by director Foskett) to illustrate the scope of the family’s loss of a wonderful, energetic young woman—and the inappropriate, at times heartless, thoughtless and intrusive, response of the public. Strangers turning up at the funeral, or making comments in person or online; and, worst of all, the anonymous social media posters who cast negative, clueless aspersions about Jesse’s character—especially the trolls who say that Jesse had it coming.

Grief Circus continues in the Alumnae Studio Theatre until November 17; get tickets online, by calling 416-364-4170 (ext. 1) or in-person at the box office one hour before curtain time (cash only). There will be a post-show talkback with the director, playwright and cast following the Saturday, November 16 matinée performance.

FireWorks continues its three-week run until November 24, presenting a new show each week. The festival closes with Genevieve Adam’s If the Shoe Fits, directed by Heather Keith (Nov 20-24).

 

Mystery & memory in the delightfully whimsical, darkly funny, compelling DIANA (I Knew You When We Were Fourteen)

Ian Goff & Alexa Higgins. Photo by Barry McCluskey.

 

Falling Iguana Theatre Co., in association with The Centre for Drama, Theatre & Performance Studies (CDTPS), University of Toronto, presents the delightfully whimsical, darkly funny and compelling DIANA (I knew you when you were fourteen), by Falling Iguana co-founders Alexa Higgins and Ian Goff, with contributing playwright Sarah Higgins. A physical theatre, dark comedy mystery journey—weaving movement, memory, fantasy, fact and fiction in a fairy tale-like detective story—when Diana disappears after a high school dance, Michael is determined to find out what happened to her. Supported by consulting director Gillian Armstrong and dramaturg Sharisse LeBrun, DIANA opened for a short run in the Robert Gill Theatre at U of T last night—presented as this year’s CDTPS Alumni Performance Project.

Inspired by a footnote at the end of Michael Ondaatje’s poem Elimination Dance that read: “Diana Whitehouse, where are you?”, DIANA traces the individual paths of high school classmates Diana (Alexa Higgins) and Michael (Ian Goff) as they grow into adulthood—with Michael determined to find out what happened to Diana when she disappeared after a high school dance when they were in grade nine. Stretching out across the years, across Canada from small-town New Brunswick, to Vancouver, to Toronto—with side trips in Europe—we’re introduced to the cast of characters they cross paths with; all set to a sparkly, rockin’ 80s soundtrack.

Fact, fiction, fantasy and memory intertwine in a tale that is part dark comedy mystery and part fairy tale. Incorporating music, dance, movement and a cast of characters, we watch Michael investigate as gossip and recollection merge in the stories and perceptions about Diana and her parents. And we see events unfold from Diana’s perspective; confirming, denying and refining what people think they know about her and her family. Darkly funny, at times tender and compelling, lyrical and balletic, the audience gets caught up in both journeys as Michael searches for the truth, and Diana reaches out for a life away from the small-town rumour, judgement and assumptions about her and her parents.

Outstanding work from Higgins and Goff in this 60-minute marathon of storytelling; conveying character, emotion, action and place through monologue, dialogue, dance, movement and practically zero props/set pieces with energy and precision. Higgins brings a sardonic sense of humour with an edge of loneliness to the pragmatic, restless Diana. An enigmatic presence at school—which is what draws Michael to her—Diana struggles with flying under the radar of the small-town gaze while at the same time longing to break free. Goff is delightfully awkward, earnest and curious as Michael; unlike Diana, Michael is an open book, and his sharp focus and positive demeanour keep him on his mission to find Diana, in spite of his own personal heartbreak. And the two are hilarious as honeymooning couple Steve and Sarah; experiencing comic misadventure during a tandem bike tour around Paris. And as assorted elderly and/or gossiping neighbours, telling tall tales of the family who used to live in that house.

Memory can really be a funny thing; and can often say more about us than about the actual events we’re recalling. Tainted by judgement and assumption, and eroded by time, we may not really know what we think we know.

DIANA continues at the Robert Gill Theatre until September 15, with evening performances at 8pm, and matinées at 2pm on Sept 14 and 15; tickets available online or at the door.

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.

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.