Casual cruelty & family secrets in ferociously funny, devastatingly poignant August: Osage County

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Marie Carriere Gleason (foreground), with Paul Cotton, Kelly-Marie Murtha, Melinda Jordan, Pearl Ho & Andrew Batten – photos by Bruce Peters

Alumnae Theatre Company cordially invites you to attend a family gathering at the home of Beverly and Violet Weston in Pawhuska, Oklahoma.

Alumnae opened its production of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County on the mainstage last night. Directed by Victoria Shepherd and featuring a talented ensemble, this is family dysfunction at its grittiest, no holds barred best.

When the Weston family patriarch (Thomas Gough) goes missing, middle daughter Ivy (Andrea Lyons) – the only child who stayed in town – rallies the family around her ailing mother Violet (Marie Carriere Gleason). Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Carol McLennan) and husband Charlie (Rob Candy) are the first to arrive, and we get a sense of the estrangement that underpins the family dynamic. The Weston’s oldest daughter Barbara (Kelly-Marie Murtha) is the most wanted – but least wanting – to be there; she arrives from Colorado with husband Bill (Paul Cotton) and 14-year-old daughter Jean (Melinda Jordan) in tow. Add to this mix youngest Weston girl Karen (Kathleen Jackson Allamby) and fiancé Steve (Chris Peterson), and cousin Little Charles (Neil Cameron), and the family circus is complete – occasionally witnessed from the outside by housekeeper/caregiver Johnna (Pearl Ho) and Sheriff Deon Gilbeau (Andrew Batten). The atmosphere becomes rife with nostalgia (for better or worse), secrets and schemes as things fall apart and come together only to fall apart again and again.

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Marie Carriere Gleason & Andrea Lyons

Nice work all around from this large, engaging cast. The play runs two and a half hours, plus intermission, but doesn’t feel like it. The Weston family women anchor this story – and the cast is particularly strong here. Gleason’s Violet is a complex puzzle of illness, addiction and survivor; quick to offer unsolicited – and decidedly not feminist – advice to the women in her life, her brutal honesty is shockingly unforgiving. Moments of manipulation and Hollywood-calibre drama queen can turn (seemingly) into flashes of genuine tenderness. Lyons gives a lovely, multi-layered performance as the put-upon Ivy; a character that could easily become a one-dimensional family doormat, she pushes back with a sharp wit and dark sense of humour. She has a pure heart and the patience of a saint, but as the main butt of her mother’s criticism, even she has her limits. Murtha’s Barbara is the picture of a woman on the edge, struggling with a complex set of emotions as her whole world is crumbling around her. The family rock, she strives to keep things together even as she’s falling apart herself – by turns angry, exasperated, protective and acerbically funny, putting out one fire as another appears. Allamby’s Karen is a beautiful contradiction; a high-energy chatterbox, Karen strives for self-awareness and adulthood, but comes off as flakey and deluded, with a poignant, child-like quality to her rose-coloured family nostalgia, born of selective memory. McLennan’s Mattie Fae, like her sister Violet, is a complex woman of contradiction – as cruel in her judgemental criticism (in her case, aimed at her son Little Charles) as she is fiercely protective of her family, including her son. And Jordan brings a precocious, wise child edge to Jean; a self-possessed young film buff coming into herself as she deals with her parents’ relationship issues.

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Pearl Ho & Thomas Gough

Other stand-outs include Gough’s wry-witted, melancholy alcoholic Beverly; a lauded poet and academic at the end of his rope, we only see him at the top of the play, but his presence resonates and stays with us. Batten brings an understated, quiet and boyish bashfulness and sense of anticipation to the Sheriff, a former beau of Barbara’s. And Peterson’s Steve is both charming and skeevy; a smooth operator under that sweet, helpful exterior.

It’s like watching a train wreck – and you can’t look away. The high drama of this family gathering is tempered by sharp-edged, dark humour – which the family uses for both self-protection and sniper attacks – and occasional moments of genuine, loving connection. Nothing brings out a family’s true colours like tragedy.

With shouts to set designer Alexis Chubb’s minimalist, multi-level set, with its inventive and effective multiple playing areas and nooks for the various family vignettes. And to John Stuart Campbell for the sound design and original composition; his song “Can’t Run Far Enough” features vocals by Vivien Shepherd and Ron Smith on harmonica – and haunting, wistful western sounds.

Casual cruelty and family secrets abound in Alumnae’s ferociously funny, devastatingly poignant production of August: Osage County.

August: Osage County continues on the Alumnae mainstage until April 23; check here for ticket purchase/info. Performances include a pre-show chat with the design team at noon tomorrow (Sun, Apr 10); and a post-show talkback with the cast and crew on Sun, Apr 17.

Related trivia/info: Former Alumnae President (and damn fine actor) Dinah Watts is in a London Community Players’ production of August: Osage County in London, ON right now. Lett’s first play Killer Joe is in production at Coal Mine Theatre till April 24 (I’m seeing it on Tuesday). And founder/playwright at Cue6 Theatre Sarah Illiatovitch-Goldman (who was in Alumnae’s production of Wit, and has play We Three running now at Tarragon) is on the Steppenwolf Theater Company’s literary team for the world premiere of Letts’ play Mary Page Marlowe.

Oh yeah, and here’s the awesome trailer for the Alumnae production of August: Osage County (video by Nicholas Porteous):

 

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Amicus Productions’ Cyrano De Bergerac a highly entertaining & moving adventure in wit, swordplay & love

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Valvert (Scott Simpson) challenges Cyrano (Chris Coculuzzi) to a duel.

Spent a highly entertaining afternoon at The Papermill Theatre (Todmorden Mills, 67 Pottery Rd.) yesterday, with Amicus Productions’ performance of Cyrano De Bergerac, written by Edmond Rostand, adapted by Chris Coculuzzi and Roxanne Deans, and directed by Mary Dwyer (Toronto Fringe fans may have seen their marvelous 80-minute memory play version of Cyrano, performed outdoors at the 2004 fest).

Amicus does a really nice job with this classic tale of the mercurial poet, philosopher and swordsman, whose unusually long nose is a distinct social liability among those who are unwilling or unable to look past it. This new, full-length version is a more linear piece of storytelling, hearkens back to Coculuzzi and Deans’ original script, based on the translations of Gladys Thomas, Mary F. Guillemard and Howard Thayer Kingsbury.

Excellent work from the cast, including several multi-tasking supporting players. Coculuzzi does a remarkable job in the title role, bringing a lively yet grounded combination of wit, grace and spleen to a man who, despite his rough edges and brash behaviour, is possessing of a vulnerable heart and a romantic soul. Celeste Van Vroenhoven gives us a nicely layered Roxane, sweet and loyal, also a romantic at heart, and naive at first about love and human behaviour – but unlike both Cyrano and Christian, fearless in the face of love. Paul Cotton does a nice job as Roxane’s earnest admirer Christian, hot and youthful in love – shallow, but not ill-meaning. The triangle here is a lovely illustration of superficial and deep love, both of which can be communicated via poetry and sweet words.

Derek Perks is deliciously diabolical as the smirking and snake-like De Guiche, the noble vying for Roxane’s affections – and not above playing dirty to win her. And Stephen Flett is a delight as the ebullient Ragueneau, the chef with the heart of a poet. And big shouts to Roxanne Deans for stepping in at the top of the show to stand in as Le Bret, when actor Henrik Thessen got stuck in traffic on the way to the theatre.

The design team did a marvelous job, producing a beautifully minimalist set – both practical and aesthetically pleasing – as well as assembling striking costume and evocative music of the period: Arash Eshghpour (set), David Buffham (lighting), Farnoosh Talebpour (costume) and Dave Fitzpatrick (sound). With kudos to Naomi Priddle Hunter for choreographing the exciting and fun sword fights.

Amicus Productions’ Cyrano De Bergerac is a highly entertaining and moving adventure in wit, swordplay and love. This is some big fun for all ages – so get yourselves over to the Papermill Theatre to see this.

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Cyrano (Chris Coculuzzi) prompts Christian (Paul Cotton) as he woos Roxane (Celeste Van Vroenhoven)

Cyrano De Bergerac runs at the Papermill Theatre until November 22. You can get advance tickets online or by phone: 416-860-6176.

A world on a stage – scenic work on The Lady’s Not For Burning @ Alumnae Theatre

Hey all –

As promised, here’s the slideshow extravaganza of the work for my recent scenic artist gig on Alumnae Theatre’s production of The Lady’s Not For Burning (designed by Ed Rosing).

Shouts to:

Building crew: Master carpenter Mike Peck, with additional construction by Cody Boyd, Paul Cotton, Gord Peck, Ed Rosing and Mike Vitorovitch.

Painting crew: Scenic artist (me), with Cody Boyd, Razie Brownstone, Joan Burrows, Margot Devlin, Ed Rosing and Dorothy Wilson.

The Lady’s Not For Burning is in its final week on the Alumnae mainstage, running tonight (Wed, Feb 5) through Saturday, February 8 at 8:00 p.m.

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Wit, wonder & wisdom in The Lady’s Not For Burning @ Alumnae Theatre

Lady's Not For Burning - image only“Life, forbye, is the way

We fatten for the Michaelmas of our own particular

Gallows. What a wonderful thing is metaphor!”

– Thomas Mendip in The Lady’s Not For Burning (from director’s program notes)

Alumnae Theatre Company’s production of The Lady’s Not For Burning, directed by Jane Carnwath, brings the wit, wonder and wisdom of Christopher Fry’s play to life through sight, sound and poetic wordplay – an excellent cast and a beautiful show.

The marvelous ensemble includes some remarkable stand-outs. Chris Coculuzzi gives us a Thomas Mendip that combines the melancholy philosophy of a Jacques with the good-humoured wit of a Fool, and Andrea Brown is luminous as Jennet Jourdemayne, quirky, sharp-witted and compassionate. Together, their performances show us opposite perspectives of the all too fleeting realization of the nature of the human condition: we live, suffer out our short time in these bodies – yes – and we can choose to bemoan that fact or savour the brief moments we are given. Two sides of the same coin. Chris Whidden, as the put-upon but boyishly optimistic Mayor’s clerk, takes young Richard from boy to man as he stands up for what is right as well as for himself, with particularly sweet bashfulness in the presence of love. Paul Cotton brings to Humphrey Devize a lovely combination of wry wit and desperate longing born of boredom and ennui. Peter Higginson is adorable as the kind-hearted, thoughtful Chaplin who longs to be a musician, and Ian Orr is hilariously convincing as the drunken and disoriented Matthew Skipps.

With big shouts to the most excellent design team: Margaret Spence (costumes), Ed Rosing (set/lighting), Mike Peck (master carpenter), Angus Barlow (sound) and Razie Brownstone (props) for bringing the sights, sounds and textures of this world to life. My personal thanks to the painting crew, who assisted Ed and me with the set: Cody Boyd (who was also Ed’s design assistant), Razie Brownstone, Joan Burrows, Margot Devlin and Dorothy Wilson. And to the intrepid producer team of Barbara Larose and Ellen Green, and stage manager Margot “Mom” Devlin and ASM Tara Gostling for holding this massive production together.

A world-weary soldier longing for the noose. A bright young woman accused of witchcraft. Both eccentric in their own way, standing out from ordinary folk who don’t look beyond their own front doors. The silly superstitious collective mind of the mob. Kind spirits and good hearts. What’s not to love?

Alumnae’s production of The Lady’s Not For Burning continues on the mainstage until February 8, with a talkback with the director, cast and design team after the matinée on Sunday, February 2.

Coming soon to the cowbell blog: The Lady’s Not For Burning set comes to life. A slide show of the scenic painting process.

Science, politics & egos collide – Measure of the World @ FireWorks

fireworks-bannerAlumnae Theatre Company opened their FireWorks program this past Wednesday, a new three-play repertory program of original works developed in conjunction with Alumnae’s New Play Development (NPD) group or the New Ideas Festival.

Science, politics and egos collide amidst the passion of discovery and desire for freedom in Shirley Barrie’s Measure of the World, directed by Molly Thom.

The play follows the work of a French expedition, guests of the Spanish government as they strive “to measure the length of a degree of the earth’s arc at the equator near Quito (at the time part of Peru)”* – and determine the exact shape of the earth. Three alpha male scientist egos come to loggerheads as Godin (Paul Cotton), Bouguer (Jason Thompson) and De La Condamine (Michael Vitorovich) struggle with the harsh terrain – extremes of heat and cold, across jungle, swamps and mountains – local government bureaucracy and even their own academic institution over the course of a multi-phased project that takes years to accomplish. All closely observed by the beautiful and mysterious servant Florenza (Jessica Zepeda).

A strong ensemble cast deals with the tech speak well – the mathematical equations and make-shift survey equipment are fascinating if not highly academic. It is the drive and passion of these characters that is particularly interesting – and Vitorovich and Zepeda stand out in this regard. Careers and livelihoods are not all that’s at stake for these characters, it’s freedom – to pursue the work they love without restraint and to return home. For Florenza, it’s freedom from slavery.

No one is as he or she appears – and one can only imagine what further secrets, both personal and political, simmer beneath the surface. It also struck me that Florenza embodies the secrets of this new, Spanish-controlled world. Secrets that the scientists, as French citizens and men, wish to uncover.

The set design (set and lighting by Ed Rosing) was created to accommodate all three plays for the FireWorks program. Neutral shades of beige and pale army green were used on the multi-levelled set, with show-specific furniture and props used to fill in the details. Lighting and, especially, sound (sound by Gabrielle D’Angelo) were tailored for each show, as were costumes (Bec Brownstone). Minimalist and effective, the design serves the overall program in an effective and understated way, allowing the individual plays to dominate the space. With shouts to producer Dahlia Katz, who did triple duty (she was also the production photographer and came out to work on the painting crew).

Measure of the World continues to run in rep with two other plays (Gloria’s Guy, by Joan Burrows/directed by Anne Harper; and Theory, by Norman Yeung/directed by Joanne Williams) until December 1. Check the Alumnae website for exact performance dates and times for each show.

*From Shirley Barrie’s program notes.