Toronto Fringe: Reaching back & out to overcome loneliness in the entertaining, heart-wrenching The Big House

Tracey Erin Smith. Set and lighting design by Steve Lucas. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

There’s nothing like a family dinner to bring out the best and the worst in us; and maybe even an insight or two on the nature of loneliness. SOULO Theatre founder/A.D. Tracey Erin Smith takes us on her deepest, most personal storytelling journey yet in the entertaining, heart-wrenching The Big House, directed by and co-created with Sarah Garton Stanley; running in the Factory Theatre Mainspace.

Set during a Passover Seder, Smith has invited her family to her small apartment as she  seeks a way to overcome loneliness during the holiday. A fraught family history and long-held resentments burst out around the dinner table. And then, branching out from this gathering, memories from childhood and the recent past: her father’s incarceration when she was seven, and a unique volunteer experience at California’s Kern Valley maximum security men’s prison in 2018, where she provided feedback on inmates’ ideas for starting up their own business after they get out. Beyond being a common colloquialism for jail, “big house” is also the large Forest Hill home her mother was forced to downsize from with two small children after Smith’s father went to jail. Forced confinement and forced exodus—both huge, life-changing events.

Believing that everyone has a story to tell and making a safe space for that to happen, Smith walks the talk as she dives deep into the messy, wonderful place that is the human soul to discover what hidden gems of wisdom she may find there. Smart, funny and insightful as she shifts from character to character, her performance is vulnerable, edgy and full of chutzpah—delivered with heart, charisma and even a song or two as she takes us along to witness these unfolding moments along the road to realization and release. A gentle storyteller even at the roughest of times, Smith takes us by the hand even as she takes her seven-year-old self by the hand.

While it’s possible to find contentment in being alone, there’s also the hesitant outreach of loneliness in a crowd. We need to be able to tell the difference. And common ground and genuine connection—as well as love and forgiveness—can be found in unexpected places. We just need to be brave enough to go there.

The Big House continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until July 14; check out the show page for exact dates/times and advance tickets. Advance booking strongly recommended; Smith is a popular performer—and the house was packed at last night’s opening.

In the meantime, give a listen to this Classical FM 96.3 interview with Smith on Oasis, hosted by Mark Wigmore.

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Toronto Fringe: Heaven calling in the sharply funny, fiercely candid The Commandment

Phil Rickaby. Photo by Phil Rickaby.

 

Have you heard the one about God and the atheist? Simple Truth Theatre present this unlikely match in its sharply funny, fiercely candid Toronto Fringe production of The Commandment; written and performed by Phil Rickaby, directed by Richard Beaune, assisted by Adrianna Prosser, and running in the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace.

Compelled to speak, with an important message to deliver, Thomas (Rickaby) crashes an open mic night. He’s been called upon by God to deliver a new commandment. Thing is, Thomas is a mildly misanthropic atheist whose already shattered life becomes even more so as a result of this heavenly contact. A reluctant prophet hell-bent on sticking it to the Almighty, he finds himself having to come up with non-stop chatter in order to avoid blurting out God’s message.

Part rant, part confession, part personal storytelling, The Commandment is irreverent and intensely candid, with a comic edge; and there’s a lovely balance of vulnerability, rage and tenderness in Rickaby’s performance.

Bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people—and it’s hard to keep the faith when your world has fallen completely apart. So what’s the new commandment? You’ll have to go see for yourself. It just might do your soul some good.

The Commandment continues in the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace until July 14; check the show page for exact dates/times and advance tickets.

Ancestors calling on a hero’s journey through fear to true self in the engaging, powerful 11:11

Samson Bonkeabantu Brown. Set design by d’bi.young anitafrika. Costume design by Samson Bonkeabantu Brown. Lighting design by André du Toit. Photo by Brett Haynes.

 

A.V.O. Collective brings the world premiere of its engaging, powerful production of 11:11, presented as part of Why Not Theatre’s RISER Project 2019, to the Theatre Centre’s Incubator stage. Written/performed by trans-identified artist Samson Bonkeabantu Brown and dramaturged/directed by d’bi.young anitafrika, 11:11 is a bio-mythical monodrama journey, stretching across time, space, and the realms of life and afterlife, as our hero connects with his Portuguese and South African ancestors, and moves through fear to become the man he was meant to be.

In a one-person show that encompasses both broad and immediate personal history, Brown draws out his tale as he gradually constructs a pattern on the floor with white stones. Incorporating storytelling, history, movement, ritual, language and music, he shape shifts in and out of a cast of characters that include the precocious, curious seven-year-old girl he once was and the joyful, prophesying, matter-of-fact South African ancestor he’s about to meet.

Becoming a bridge between past and present, female and male, he connects with the spirit world through dreams and visions—and gradually the messages become clear as the little girl who experiences strange dreams and headaches, and is shunned in the schoolyard, grows up and comes to learn that there’s nothing medically wrong with her. She is a receiver, a prophecy made flesh, a shape shifter.

In a world where white men divided up a continent they claimed as their own, and forced their alphabet onto environment-based African dialects—and, later, Western medicine onto African descendants—how does our hero reconcile his connections to both the colonized and the colonizer? And, through the pain of the struggle for true identity, and the ancestral pain of apartheid and displacement, he comes to realize the complex—and even contradictory—aspects of identity and experience that have combined to create him.

1111 by Samson Bonkeabantu Brown (featuring Samson Bonkeabantu Brown) photo by Brett Haynes #2
Samson Bonkeabantu Brown. Set design by d’bi.young anitafrika. Costume design by Samson Bonkeabantu Brown. Lighting design by André du Toit. Photo by Brett Haynes.

Brown, who recently wrote for/performed in the RARE Theatre/Soulpepper production Welcome to my Underworld, is a compelling and entertaining storyteller. Engaging, bold, unashamed and vulnerable, he invites us along on his journey—part autobiography, part personal mythology, part history lesson, part supernatural revelation—as he connects with his roots and finds his true rhythm. From the child-like playfulness of a little girl to the wry-witted wisdom of an elder, the fear, confusion, joy and humour Brown expresses throughout resonate in a deeply profound, intimate way. And I know I wasn’t the only one in tears at the end.

11:11 continues in the Incubator at the Theatre Centre until June 1, with performances on:

Tuesday, May 28 – 6:00PM
Wednesday, May 29 – 9:00PM
Thursday, May 30 – 6:00PM
Friday, May 31 – 9:00PM
Saturday, June 1 – 6:00PM

Tickets available online, in person at the box office, or by calling 416-538-0988.

Identity, recognition & family in the fascinating, moving, intimate Canadian Rajah

Jon De Leon & Barbara Worthy. Costumes by Jennifer Triemstra-Johnston. Photo by Kelsi Dewhurst.

 

The Canadian Rajah Collective presents the world premiere of Dave Carley’s Canadian Rajah, directed by Sarah Phillips and running in the ballroom at Campbell House Museum; it’s the true story of Esca Brooke, the first-born son of one of the White Rajahs of Sarawak who was whisked away as a small child and into the care of an English vicar and his wife, who eventually settled in Madoc, Ontario. This fascinating, moving and intimate two-hander gives a fly-on-the-wall perspective of the history, memories and motivations observed by Brooke and his father Rajah Charles Brooke’s English wife Marguerita (Ranee Ghita), culminating in a tension-filled and revelatory meeting at her home in England.

Canadian Rajah begins with two individual pieces of personal storytelling as Esca Brooke (Jon De Leon) waits and his white Rajah father’s English wife Ranee (Barbara Worthy*) prepares and stalls in advance of their meeting at her home in England. Each fills in the events that transpired before and after Esca’s birth; and the subsequent discovery of his identity and his pursuit of recognition from her are revealed from very different perspectives.

Esca is a brown boy raised by the white British Daykins in Canada, an object of curiosity and gossip in his adopted country. Earning scholarships and respect in his academic and professional endeavours despite his otherness—and aided by the addition of the second name Brooke—he discovers that his mother was Dayang Mastiah, a Malay princess, and his father was the white British Rajah of Sarawak, Charles Brooke. Ranee was Brooke’s British wife; a “brood mare” and vital source of income to his Rajah title, courtesy of her wealthy family; she also bore him sons. Reminiscences are shared through bittersweet swatches of memory—rife with the excitement and adventure of new worlds, experiences and people; and seasoned with grief, loss, and an unbreakable sense of family loyalty and protection.

Compelling and sharp-witted performances from De Leon and Worthy, who both portray various other characters native to the respective landscapes of these individuals. In a performance that conveys both profound dignity and a heartbreaking sense of pain, De Leon’s Esca is a proud, well-educated man without a country; not looking for fame, fortune or position from official public recognition from the Brooke family, he seeks only to ease the hurt of prejudice and racism experienced by his children—in particular, his daughter Grace. Worthy’s sharply drawn portrayal of Ranee is both playfully bold and mercilessly cunning; ranging from Ranee’s precocious youth as a forward-thinking young woman out for adventure in an exotic new world, to the imperious dowager keeping a close watch and tight rein on her family, with special attention on the political climate at large. Eschewing British culture and social expectations, and relishing her new title and position, Ranee embraces the culture and language of her new home; but the discovery that her husband has a “native” wife and son is too much—and sets off a calculated series of events aimed at protecting her family and their kingdom.

And though these two characters are at odds, facing off in the final scene during their meeting, similar traits and motivations emerge: they’re both survivors of unusual and tragic circumstances, adapting to and thriving in their new homes, and fiercely determined to secure a bright and prosperous future for their children. And while British imperialism and publicly recognized noble status have the upper hand in this scenario—one gets the sense that there were no winners here.

Canadian Rajah continues at Campbell House Museum until February 17; advance tickets are available online—strongly recommended, given the intimate nature of, and limited seating in, the upstairs ballroom venue.

*After Chick Reid came down with pneumonia and was unable to continue with the production, Worthy stepped into the role of Ranee as a last-minute replacement. Reid is recovering and doing well.

 

A photo album of family, love & memento mori in the profoundly moving, nostalgic, candid Dividing Lines/Líneas Divisorias

Beatriz Pizano & Julia (projected photo). Scenography by Trevor Schwellnus, with associate lighting designer Rebecca Vandevelde. Costume design by Andjelija Djuric. Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh.

 

“They say blood is thicker than water —
I say, love is thicker than blood.”

Aluna Theatre premieres Beatriz Pizano’s Dividing Lines/Líneas Divisorias, a photo album of family, love and memento mori; written and performed by Pizano, and created with director Trevor Schwellnus and composer/sound designer Brandon Miguel Valdivia, and running now at The Theatre Centre.

Losing her mother when she was a toddler, Pizano was adopted by her Aunt Julia and Uncle Jorge after her “Marlboro Man” father took off, leaving her and her two siblings behind—and a deep and lasting connection evolved with her new parents. Years later, after Pizano has moved to Canada, when an aged, widowed Julia drifts away in a lost, confused haze of dementia, she keeps her promise, returning home again and again to be with Julia during her “Calvary.” Weaving a personal history of distant and recent past—from her years growing up with Julia in Columbia to travelling back and forth from Canada during Julia’s final years, to and from hospital and nursing home; Pizano shifts from romantic nostalgia to harsh, heartbreaking life and death reality. And then, a chance meeting with a doctor at the nursing home—there to perform euthanasia on another patient—and an act of love, mercy and personal sacrifice to make a decision for a loved one who is unable to do so.

dividing lines
Beatriz Pizano. Scenography by Trevor Schwellnus, with associate lighting designer Rebecca Vandevelde. Costume design by Andjelija Djuric. Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh.

Incorporating photographs and props, projected on a row of overlapping burlap legs that flare out and merge together on the floor, we see an evolving collage of life and family—from the broad strokes of wide-ranging world events to the God-is-in-the-details moments and wisdom of shared lives. The storytelling, relayed in English and sometimes Spanish, is visually rich; full of a lust for life, liberty and equality; and resonating with the music of childhood and the revolution—and, ultimately, with hope and closure. Pizano gives us a deeply personal, candid, raw and romantic—at times interactive—performance; balanced with a cheeky sense of irreverence where religion is concerned, and a revolutionary bohemian spirit when it comes to class and politics.

Part personal memory play, part confessional, part memorial, Dividing Lines/Líneas Divisorias reminds us that the one thing that’s certain in life—and we all have in common—is that we die. What would you do for a loved one who’s lost to the world, incapacitated and in pain—to set them free?

Dividing Lines/Líneas Divisorias is in its final week, closing on December 2. Advance tickets available online or by calling The Theatre Centre’s Box Office at 416-538-0988.

Check out this CBC piece on Dividing Lines/Líneas Divisorias, including Matt Galloway’s interview with Beatriz Pizano on Metro Morning.

Preview: Professional & personal responses to tragedy collide in the darkly funny, deeply human Vitals

Lauren Wolanski. Photo by John Wamsley.

 

After mounting a successful workshop reading of selections of Rosamund Small’s Vitals at Paprika Festival this year, Theatre Born Between (TBB) mounts the play in its entirety in its first full-scale production, directed by TBB co-founder Bryn Kennedy and running at The Commons Theatre. Darkly funny, deeply human and candid, Vitals is an up close look at the collision of a paramedic’s personal and professional responses to the serious, sometimes tragic, situations she’s called upon to attend.

Anna (Lauren Wolanski) is a Toronto paramedic—and a damn good one at that. A fierce, knowledgeable professional who suffers no fools and makes daily split-second life and death decisions, Anna has a strong sense of empathy and understanding for those she’s called upon to help. But her sharp, insightful sense of observation tells her when the tragedy in front of her is human-made—either through malice or negligence; and she has little patience or sympathy for the perpetrators. This goes for her colleagues, some of whom she has great respect for—like Afghanistan war vet Amir—focused, effective professionals she enjoys partnering with. Then there are the scattered, overly talkative, hero wanna-be types like Harry, who she despises. “People are terrible”—but helping people is her job.

Part anecdotal, part confessional, Anna takes us through a series of calls—the aftermath of which varies, depending on the situation. Gore doesn’t faze her, but rape and cruelty are hard to take. And sometimes, for reasons beyond their control, the ambulance just can’t get there fast enough; and she tries to swallow those situations as best she can. Experiencing the best and worst of people as she arrives in their lives during moments of extreme stress, vulnerability and tragedy—the clock ticking and every second counting—some calls get too close and stick. Some calls haunt and tear at her soul; triggering profound, life-changing responses to extreme situations.

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Lauren Wolanski. Photo by John Wamsley.

Wolanski is a brilliant storyteller; complementing the taut, razor-sharp observations of the script, hilarious gallows humour, and engaging, theatrical staging with a sharply rendered performance that weaves in and out of each 911 story with profound candour, intelligence and vulnerability. Rounding out the feisty, hard-ass side of Anna with an abiding sense of empathy and compassion, Wolanski takes us right along this ride with Anna’s deep, personal sense of commitment to the job and her raw personal reactions to the horrific, human mess of it all.

Vitals opens tonight and continues at The Commons (587A College St., Toronto—just east of Clinton) until November 25. Get advance tickets online or purchase at the door (cash only); PWYC/discounted advance tickets on November 21. It’s an intimate space, so advance booking or early arrival are recommended.

Audience warning: This production includes mentions of sexual assault, detailed descriptions of violence and suicide, and strong language. Suitable for audience members 14+. 

 

 

SummerWorks: Memory, nostalgia & queer men longing to connect in the quirky, charming, poignant Box 4901

Thirteen letters responding to a 1992 gay personals ad sit in a box unanswered. What does the recipient say to these men 26 years later? Memory, nostalgia, connection and hindsight figure prominently in timeshare productions’ SummerWorks presentation of novelist Brian Francis’ autobiographical Box 4901; directed by Rob Kempson and running on the Theatre Centre’s Incubator stage.

Long before the age of smartphones and Grindr, a 21-year-old Francis—then a student at the University of Western Ontario—posted a personals ad in The London Free Press looking for a connection in the small LGBTQ world of conservative London, Ontario. Of the approximately two dozen letters he received, 13 went unanswered and were discovered years later. Francis narrates and responds as 13 queer actors perform each letter.

Featuring actors Bilal Baig, Hume Baugh, Keith Cole, Izad Etemadi, Daniel Krolik, Michael Hughes, Tsholo Khalema, Eric Morin, G Kyle Shields, Chy Ryan Spain, Jonathan Tan, Chris Tsujiuchi and Geoffrey Whynot, the responses to the ad range from the bashful to the pornographic. Coming from a variety of men—ranging in age from high school senior to father figure—from various walks of life (“regular guy,” teacher, farmer, jock, “straight-acting,” leather community), the letters are sassy, charming, eloquent and humourous. The replies are frank, witty, sharply observational; and tempered with kindness, and the hindsight of age and wisdom.

There are some missed chances and missed bullets. All of these men share the same desire to reach out; longing for connection and a cure for aloneness, there’s a vulnerable authenticity in even the cockiest of responses. And the fear of being outed to family or housemates is as palpable and strong as the excitement and anticipation of a new connection.

Box 4901 has one more SummerWorks performance at the Theatre Centre on Aug 19 at 4:45 p.m.; it’s already sold out, but you can try your luck by arriving early to see if there are any no-shows.