SummerWorks: Forgotten women’s voices emerge from the asylum in the remarkable, haunting Audible Songs from Rockwood

Simone Schmidt. Photo by Jeff Bierk.

 

Fiver brings a remarkable piece of musical storytelling to the stage with Audible Songs from Rockwood, written by Simone Schmidt, created by Schmidt, Shannon Lea Doyle and Frank Cox-O’Connell, and directed by Cox-O’Connell—running in the Franco Boni Theatre at The Theatre Centre. Based on the album of the same name, Schmidt has brought to life the voices of 10 women who were incarcerated at the Rockwood Asylum for the Criminally Insane between 1856 and 1881, taking us on a music accompanied history tour of these women’s lives and experiences at Rockwood—while drawing on issues of colonialism, patriarchy and mental health.

Staged as a piece of solo storytelling theatre, Schmidt shares her inspiration and research—of Rockwood and its inmates, and of Upper Canada law and general history of the time—in between songs, as she draws parallels between colonialism, and the system of white Protestant patriarchy that ruled the land and made property of wives and daughters. Inspired by the experiences of 10 women incarcerated at the Rockwood Asylum for the Criminally Insane, and incorporating two years of research from the case files and ledgers of the facility, Schmidt has created a series of song portraits. Put away by fathers, husbands or the authorities for out of wedlock sexual activity and being “man-obsessed”, melancholia, paranoia over land theft or spousal infidelity, or going incognito (one woman fabricated a life under an assumed name as a single woman from down south, when she was married to a local man), these women were subject to harsh conditions, initially housed in the stables of the former estate as the facility was under construction to house the overflow of mentally ill inmates from Kingston Penitentiary. Silenced and forgotten, some were left there for years after they were deemed fit to return home, their families inquiring about them but not bothering to make the journey to take them back.

Inmates were confined, forced into silence, and subjected to hard labour and cruel punishments for breaking the rules. Lack of funding for mental health shut down plans for more advanced, humane treatment at the facility; moral treatment, based on a Quaker model, whereby patients would have freedom to move about, and be given useful tasks to perform around the facility, like cleaning, cooking or gardening. Lack of funds also meant the facility had insufficient heating in winter, forcing inmates to huddle together for warmth as the contents of their chamber pots froze.

Haunting and mournful, lyrical yet matter of fact, the Appalachian folk-inspired music captures the essence of women whose lives were forever changed; silenced and policed in a harsh penal/mental health system—the stories in the facility documents were essentially told by the male doctors and police officers involved with each case. Schmidt’s vocals are earthy, deep and soulful; accompanied by Laura Bates on fiddle and Carlie Howell on double bass, in addition to back-up vocals/harmonies. Schmidt is well-aware of the possible issue of appropriation of voice here; and she wondered out loud if it’s right for her to tell these stories that aren’t really hers to tell. But if not for her songs—developed through respectful and painstaking research—who would be telling the stories of these troubled, silenced and forgotten women?

The “Audible” in the title may seem redundant, but Audible Songs from Rockwood are the songs of the hearts, souls and minds of women who otherwise would have had no voice.

Audible Songs from Rockwood continues, with three more performances, in the Franco Boni Theatre at the Theatre Centre until August 18; check the show page for exact dates/times. Tickets available online or in person at the box office.

Love & hate, abandonment & connection in the searing, electric Fool for Love

Cara Gee & Eion Bailey. Set design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Shannon Lea Doyle. Lighting design by Simon Rossiter. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Soulpepper Theatre presents a searing, electric production of Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love, directed by Frank Cox-O’Connell and running at the Young Centre. The shifting temperatures of love/hate and tenderness/cruelty take on new meaning, with the pairing of an Indigenous woman with a non-Indigenous man as the on again, off again lovers—who come together and tear apart, both individually and collectively, in this rough and gentle dance of connection, abandonment, rage and desire.

In a cheap, grotty motel room in the Mohave Desert, May (Cara Gee) and Eddie (Eion Bailey) play out their ongoing cycle of of love, hate, abandonment and connection in a relationship that has come together and broken apart since they were in high school. Fiery, furtive—and playing off each other’s emotional and mental states—the power dynamic shifts as one pulls it together and the other falls apart. Explosions of jealousy, rage and recrimination reveal the simple, awful truth that they can’t live with or without each other.

Watching from the sidelines is the Old Man (Stuart Hughes), a father—a memory or a ghost?—observing the scene, and offering comments and advice from his rocking chair on the sand as he drinks Jack Daniels from a Styrofoam cup. Then, entering this love/war zone is local lawn maintenance guy Martin (Alex McCooeye), there to take May out to the movies. Initially interrogated by Eddie, he becomes an unwitting confessor as Eddie reveals how he and May met—and the nature of their connection.

Outstanding work from the entire ensemble in this intense, fly-on-the-wall look at a deeply complex, conflicted relationship. Gee is both fierce and vulnerable as May; wounded, wary and loving Eddie so much, but refusing to take it any more, May wants him to leave and to stay, to have him and move on. She also doesn’t want to be a dirty secret like her mother. Bailey balances Eddie’s cocky cowboy and hurt little boy; with a family history of abandonment and an unfulfilled longing to connect with an often absent father, he struggles to be his own man—all with the painful realization that he can’t be with May, nor can he quit her. The casting of an Indigenous woman and non-Indigenous man in this production highlights ongoing issues of colonization of Indigenous women’s bodies and minds; and the lies the white-dominated patriarchy feeds to white boys—about women and what they’re entitled to—when only certain white men actually benefit from this system. (Be sure to read Gee’s Artist Note at the front of the program for her lived experience and experience working on this production, as well as shared insights on these themes.)

Hughes and McCooeye provide arms-length—though very different—perspectives of the May-Eddie dynamic. Hughes brings a grizzled, cynical, even haunting vibe as the Old Man; revealing his own life as he reveals theirs. McCooeye’s performance as the sweet but dim Martin rings of a small-town, child-like innocence, and provides some much needed comic relief. There for a simple date at the movies, Martin winds up as a witness to the latest skirmish in Eddie and May’s relationship, and confidante to their personal history together.

With shouts to the design team for their part in creating an environment of heightened realism for this production: the gritty, sparse motel room set (Lorenzo Savoini); regional costuming that is both seductive and practical (Shannon Lea Doyle); the lighting effects that give the room a neon, then a fiery, glow (Simon Rossiter); and sound design and composition (Andrew Penner) that provide both atmospheric highlighting and practical punctuation to the action. And there’s live music, created on the dobro with slide, nicely done by Hughes.

Love as a cycle of possession, addictive desire, oasis, war zone and even shame—it’s easy to see why these lovers can’t be together, yet can’t be apart.

Fool for Love continues at the Young Centre, the run extended to August 11; advance tickets available online, or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188. Advance booking strongly recommended; I saw it on a Tuesday night and it was sold out.

SummerWorks: Prairie Home Companion meets The Twilight Zone in hilariously absurd, satirical dystopia Plucked

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Banjo-playing rooster-man masterminds a fiendish scheme to amass great wealth by turning women into chickens and selling their chicken-lady eggs.

This is the bizarre world in which we find ourselves in Rachel Ganz’s Plucked, in its Newborn Theatre production directed by Carly Chamberlain; now running in the Theatre Centre Mainspace for SummerWorks.

Yep, we’re down on Jerry’s (Tim Walker) farm, where father-in-law Rooster (Tim Machin, doing double duty as music director) has hatched a plan to turn his daughter Abigail (Sochi Fried) and granddaughter Fourteen (Qianna MacGilchrist) into chickens so he can sell their eggs and make buckets of cash – and he succeeds in turning Abigail with Jerry’s help. Also assisting is Mud (Faisal Butt), anthropomorphized mud that’s become Rooster’s minion. But have no fear, Harley the hunky farm boy (Tyrone Savage), in love with Fourteen, has a plan to save her from Rooster and Jerry’s scheme, then run away together.

It’s an absurd story told through hilariously outrageous bluegrass music and narration (led by Rooster) and scenes of crazy action that include Harley’s “borrowed” tractor (a tricycle) getting stuck in the mud (held by Mud). Not for the faint of heart, misogynist and socially unacceptable language (Abigail was “the fat lady” before she turned; and Harley is called a “retard”) peppers the lyrics and dialogue – with a purpose. Beyond the insanity of this politically incorrect backwoods dystopia is some cutting satire that sends up a fearful and greedy patriarchal society – one that exerts extreme control over its women and their reproductive organs, as well as the men it judges to be less than a ‘real man.’

The cast does a remarkable job with all the insanity. Machin is a diabolical delight as Rooster, the man turned farm foul who’s taken his cock of the walk status to extreme lengths. Always a treat to watch, Walker is hilarious as the numbskull Jerry; he likes to think he’s in charge, but he’s really just a dumbass bully following Rooster’s orders. Fried does a lovely job with Abigail’s conflicting feelings; mortified but defiant in her new chicken-lady body, she refuses to lay eggs. Great physicality and some beautiful, poignant moments with her daughter Fourteen. MacGilchrist’s Fourteen is a feisty, defiant force to be reckoned with; it is she who drives the plans to get away with Harley – giving the impression that, ultimately, it’s love and not a man that will save her. Savage is adorably dim but determined as Harley; a male Daisy Duke in cut-off jeans and plaid flannel, he is a genuinely kind and gentle man with a good heart who would do anything for Fourteen. Butt gives an entertaining performance as Mud, Rooster’s wise-cracking sidekick; he also does a mean percussion.

As you’re laughing at the craziness of it all, you’re also feeling uncomfortable. The absurdity reveals nuggets of truth that we don’t have to look far to find – and that is what’s truly disturbing.

Prairie Home Companion meets The Twilight Zone in the hilariously absurd, satirical dystopia of Plucked.

Plucked continues at the Theatre Centre Mainspace until Aug 14.