Questions of perception, assumption & expectation in the powerful, riveting, provocative Actually

Tony Ofori & Claire Renaud. Set design by Sean Mulcahy. Costume design by Alex Amini. Lighting design by Steve Lucas. Photo by Joanna Akyol.

 

The Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company, in association with Obsidian Theatre, opens its 13th season with Anna Ziegler’s Actually, directed by Philip Akin, assisted by Kanika Ambrose; and running in the Greenwin Theatre at the Meridian Arts Centre (formerly the Toronto Centre for the Arts). Two Ivey League freshmen, a Black male student and a Jewish female student, make a connection that becomes sexual in nature—and each has a very different experience and account of the night they spent together. Powerful, riveting and provocative—featuring compelling and genuine performances—this timely two-hander takes you on a see-saw ride of belief, empathy and understanding; highlighting perceptions, assumptions and expectations based on race, gender and class.

Excited, terrified and determined to do well, Amber (Claire Renaud) and Tom (Tony Ofori) arrive at Princeton for their first year of studies. She’s quirky and awkward, with romantic notions of sex and limited experience; he’s got swagger and game, with a sexually active lifestyle and a commitment to sowing his youthful wild oats. Opposites attract on common ground as the two make a connection; and attraction brings them together in Tom’s bed.

During their encounter, Amber finds that something changes for her; and their initially sexy fun times experience becomes uncomfortable and unwanted. She relates how she attempts to put a stop to it by getting off the bed, saying “Actually…” Tom believes she was into it, and later remembers nothing from her verbal communication or body language that would have suggested otherwise. Amber comments on the night to a friend, and the response prompts her to report the incident to the university, which launches a sexual misconduct investigation and hearing. Amber believes she was raped, and Tom is shocked and mortified by the allegation.

As their individual and collective stories unfold, the audience goes from being confidante—as we hear about their lived experiences with family, sex, desire, what inspires them—to university hearing panelist as they make their statements. Both had a lot to drink on the night in question. Both feel like outsiders with much to prove, anxiously navigating their first year at a prestigious school, along with raging 18-year-old hormones, and a culture of sex and partying. Not the best conditions for making good choices. Both live with body issues: Amber with the pressures of traditional feminine beauty standards; and Tom with the everyday racism and prejudice that accompany the colour of his skin. The seriousness of Amber’s rape charge lands particularly hard on Tom—a young Black man living in a world stewed in toxic, ongoing systemic racism. And Amber’s initial tacit consent that night, going to his room for the purposes of sex, combined with her behaviour earlier that evening, puts her credibility in question.

Compelling, genuine and nuanced performances from Renaud and Ofori in this vital, timely piece of theatre. Renaud brings a big spark of light, energy and pathos to the adorkable, hyper-talkative Amber; a young woman desperately treading water to stay afloat in a new world of classes, assignments, squash practice and obligatory partying. Amber finds herself wanting and not wanting at the same time; pressed forward by social media-driven peer pressure, she engages in activities and behaviour even when her heart isn’t really in it. Ofori’s Tom is a complex portrait of a confident, frank young man who wants to do his family proud; Tom is the first of his working class family to attend university, let alone at an Ivey League school. There’s a sensitive soul beneath the swagger, expressed through Tom’s love of classical music and piano playing—where he finds a space to be free.

It would be grossly simplistic to call this a “he said/she said” story. As you vacillate between believing and sympathizing with one, and then the other, in the end you may find yourself believing both of them. And if both are right, on which side of this 50/50 situation will the feather land in the final decision? In this age of #MeToo and #consent, and with all of these complex and intersectional variables to consider, audiences will no doubt come away with questions, conversations and reflections. This story is a prime example of why sex, sexuality and consent need to be taught in elementary and secondary schools.

Actually continues in the Greenwin Theatre at the Meridian Arts Centre (formerly the Toronto Centre for the Arts) until September 29. Advance tickets available online by clicking on the show page calendar.

ICYMI: Check out assistant director Kanika Ambrose’s Artist Perspective piece for Intermission Magazine.

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Deconstructing art & friendship in the razor-sharp, scathingly funny Art

Diego Matamoros, Oliver Dennis & Huse Madhavji. Set design by Gillian Gallow. Costume design by Dana Osborne. Lighting design by Bonnie Beecher. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Soulpepper gives us a fly-on-the-wall look at how a debate on the merits of post-modern art turns to an exercise in deconstructing friendship in its razor-sharp, scathingly funny production of Yasmina Reza’s Art, translated by Christopher Hampton and directed by Philip Akin, assisted by Daniel Spragge. The cerebral and emotional responses to a newly acquired painting set off intense and surprising ripples, impacting the relationship of three friends. Art opened to an enthusiastic crowd at the Young Centre last night.

Serge (Diego Matamoros) is very excited and happy about a new painting he’s just purchased and proudly shows it off to his friend Marc (Oliver Dennis), who despite attempts at a tactful response, laughs and proclaims it to be shit. And not only that, Marc is extremely concerned about Serge—for spending a ridiculous amount of money on a painting that he believes to be worthless, and for possibly turning into a poser. Looking for a second opinion on the interaction, Serge and Marc individually approach their friend Yvan (Huse Madhavji), using him as a sounding board as they relate their description of what transpired.

Yvan is more tolerant and accepting of choices and differences, he doesn’t see what the big deal is. Plus, he’s got problems of his own to deal with—namely, the wedding planning hell he’s navigating with his fiancée and their respective parents and step-parents. And when he gets his own unveiling of the piece, he doesn’t like it—but he also doesn’t hate it either—and respects Serge’s choice.

The debate between friends on the merits of the painting and post-modern art in general  turns into a deconstruction of their relationship, whereby barbed quips become savage accusations and revelations. Brutal honesty on steroids unveils hidden jealousies, revulsion—and even a heated battle for dominance in friends’ social and intellectual lives.

Excellent work from this three-hander cast in this hilarious and revealing look at art and friendship. It’s delightful to watch the child-like level of glee and enthusiasm with which Matamoros’s Serge unveils his painting to his friends, navigating sight lines and pondering the canvas, hand on chin; this coupled with the pride of a burgeoning art collector who’s acquired an important work. With the heart of a philosopher and more than a few hints of a status-seeker, Serge is a complex man. Dennis brings an amiable but somewhat aloof air of precision and worldliness to the urbane Marc; a fan of the classics, Marc looks with withering skepticism upon modernity in art and lifestyle—and any whiff of the poseur is met with great derision and suspicion. Marc’s vehement opposition to and concern over Serge’s purchase of the painting is obviously masking something deeper about their relationship. Madhavji is a treat as Yvan, the understanding and open-minded friend in the middle who laughs with, as opposed to at, the situation; the Switzerland of the trio, Yvan often acts as an umpire for his two friends. Accused of being disingenuous, a doormat and a coward, he’s able to see both sides of the argument and feels no need to dominate his relationships—he just wants to be a good friend and husband.

A savage comedy of manners, Art is a compelling exploration of how a response to outside stimuli (in this case, a painting) can trigger a deeper, visceral reaction to those closest to us. Passions flare with biting criticism and conflict, only to be salvaged by good humour, good nature and agreeing to disagree.

Art continues at the Young Centre until September 1; advance tickets available online, or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

The uniforms of home on faraway grass in the funny, moving The Men in White

Chanakya Mukherjee & John Chou. Set and lighting design by Steve Lucas. Costume design by Lindsay Dagger Junkin. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography.

 

Factory Theatre opens its 49th season with Dora award-winning playwright Anosh Irani’s funny and moving The Men in White, directed by Philip Akin, assisted by Miquelon Rodriguez. Set in both India and Canada, a struggling Vancouver cricket team needs a miracle to put an end to a humiliating losing streak—and one team member’s little brother back home might be just the ticket. Now, the team just needs to agree on the plan and find a way to get him over from Mumbai.

Taken in as a child by family friend Baba (Huse Madhavji, who fellow Saving Hope fans will recognize as neurosurgeon Dr. Shahir Hamza) along with his older brother Abdul following the death of their parents, 18-year-old Hasan (Chanakya Mukherjee) works as a chicken cutter in Baba’s shop in the Dongri neighbourhood of Mumbai. As he executes and dismembers chickens, his heart and mind are set on becoming a professional cricket player and capturing the attention of pretty local pre-med student and customer Haseena (Tahirih Vejdani). These dreams are a stretch, as he’s a relatively uneducated working class orphan living and working in a tough neighbourhood—and his extreme awkwardness has him constantly putting his foot in his mouth around Haseena. On top of that, Haseena has also caught the eye of a cool motorcycle dude with ties to a local gang.

MeninWhite-Tahirih Vejdani, Chanakya Mukherjee, Huse Madhavji photo by Jospeh Michael Photography
Tahirih Vejdani, Chanakya Mukherjee & Huse Madhavji. Set and lighting design by Steve Lucas. Costume design by Lindsay Dagger Junkin. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography.

Over in Vancouver, Hasan’s older brother Abdul (Gugun Deep Singh), who cooks for and lives in the back of an Indian restaurant, has found home with a local cricket team comprised mainly of South Asians. But the team can’t seem to shake a brutal losing streak, and on top of struggling to motivate his players—including on and off the field player Ram (Farid Yazdani) and the athletically challenged Sam (John Chou)—team captain Randy (Sugith Varughese) also finds himself navigating Doc’s (Cyrus Faird) anti-Muslim sentiment as he referees Doc’s outbursts against Abdul. And when Abdul suggests bringing Hasan, a gifted bowler and batter, over to save the team’s tarnished reputation, the team is faced with internal debate and the problem of sorting out how they’d even accomplish such a plan.

As Hasan and the team are both faced with being labelled “losers,” having him join the team appears to be a match made in heaven; and the prospect of having a chance to win for a change injects some much needed excitement and confidence all around. It also makes for some deep soul-searching about religious and cultural tensions, and why they play cricket, as confessions and revelations of hard realities emerge. Some play cricket because it reminds them of home, some play to forget, some play to belong, and some play to rise above the dullness of a workaday life and tragic lived experience.

Stand-up work from the ensemble in this story of family, life and belonging. Madhavji is a laugh riot as the testy Baba; and though he’s highly adept at mercilessly teasing Hasan, Baba has a good, loving heart under that cranky exterior. Mukherjee’s Hasan is an adorkable combination of gritty determination and hopeless awkwardness; particularly in his scenes with Vejdani, whose intelligent and sharp-witted Haseena is matched by her equally barbed retorts—Haseena is no wilting flower and suffers no fools.

MeninWhite-JohnChou, SugithVarughese, CyrusFaird, FaridYazdani, GugunDeepSingh photo by Jospeh Michael Photography
John Chou, Sugith Varughese, Cyrus Faird, Farid Yazdani & Gugun Deep Singh. Set and lighting design by Steve Lucas. Costume design by Lindsay Dagger Junkin. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography.

The men in the locker room walk a fine line between comedy and tragedy as they deal with the underlying personal histories they bring to the struggling team. Yazdani’s devil-may-care bro/ ladies’ man Ram and Chou’s dim-witted, movie aficionado Sam make for some great comic relief. There’s more than meets the eye with these two, as Ram has government connections to assist with bringing Hasan over; and Chou, who’s Chinese and therefore an unlikely cricketer, got into cricket because of an Indian childhood BFF. Singh’s nicely understated performance as the unassuming Abdul mines the fading hopes and dreams of a man who left his home in search of a better life for himself and his brother—only to find broken promises and more hardship. Faird’s tightly wound, resentful, white-collar professional Doc is a perfect foil to Abdul; Doc’s animosity is underpinned by a tragic history and broken heart—and he has more in common with his perceived enemy than he would care to admit. All held together by Varughese’s aggravated but good-natured team captain Randy; despite the idle threats, Randy loves this Bad News Bears bunch of guys—and he has ghosts of his own to deal with.

With shouts to Steve Lucas’s clever and effectively designed set, which neatly splits the stage into Baba’s chicken shop and the locker room. The bamboo and chicken wire of the shop merge with the metal poles and chicken wire (standing in for chain link) of the cricket pitch locker room; Astroturf is incorporated into the checkerboard floor and a projected map of the world dominates up centre.

The Men in White continues in the Factory Theatre mainspace until November 4; advance tickets available online, or by calling 416-504-9971 or visiting the box office (125 Bathurst Street, Adelaide Street Entrance).

 

A world in a tea room in the powerful, sharply funny, deeply moving “Master Harold” …and the Boys

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James Daly & André Sills, with Allan Louis in the background, in “Master Harold” …and the Boys – photo by Harold Akin

Obsidian Theatre, in association with the Shaw Festival, brought its production of Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold” …and the Boys to Toronto, opening last night at the Toronto Centre for the Arts Studio theatre.

Directed by Philip Akin, and inspired by Fugard’s childhood relationships with the black employees of his mother’s tea room, “Master Harold” …and the Boys is set in 1950s South Africa, in St. George’s Park Tea Room. It is here that young Hally (James Daly) spends most of his after-school hours, doing homework and hanging out with tea room employees Sam (André Sills) and Willie (Allan Louis). The three have an easy-going, friendly relationship, particularly Hally and Sam; full of witty banter, good-natured teasing and philosophical debates on everything from men of magnitude and social reform, to education and art, to the global vision gleaned from the local black community ballroom dance competition. Darkening Hally’s mood is the possibility that his crippled, alcoholic father will be returning home from hospital – a prospect that pricks resentment over having to help his mother be nurse maid, and keep an eye on the household and tea room cash.

Forced into adult responsibilities early in his life, and now the de facto man of the house, Hally is coming of age during apartheid; and as the action progresses, we see him waver between familiar pal “Hally” and stern boss “Master Harold.” Ironically, Hally – the privileged one in the room – is the most cynical and pessimistic about the world, seeing only ugliness. Meanwhile, Sam and Willie see beauty and possibility; their enjoyment of ballroom dancing a metaphor for harmony. Sam and Willie have hope, while Hally has none. Perhaps Hally has only fear. As the discussion between Hally and Sam becomes more heated, things are said that cannot be unsaid.

Beautifully nuanced, committed performances from the cast. Louis brings a lovable, child-like sense of joy to Willie, who is excited to be competing in the upcoming ballroom dance competition and determined to master the quick step. A simple man of the old school, Willie sees nothing wrong with laying a beating on his girl Hilda when she steps out of line – but at least he’s smart enough to take Sam’s advice to stop it. Sills gives Sam a quiet strength and dignity, combined with a sharp sense of humour. Pragmatic, but forward-thinking, Sam has a quick mind and a precise memory – and he genuinely cares for Hally, even to the point of being an unexpected father figure. Daly plays nicely on the brink of manhood as Hally; with a Holden Caulfield edge about him, Hally is self-involved, smart and arrogant. Playful and familiar at first with his parents’ employees, hints of a little dictator begin to show as he feels increasingly stressed out over his family situation – and during his tantrums, he takes it out on Sam and Willie. In the end, the boy who hadn’t noticed the Whites Only sign on the park bench must decide if he wants to be a man who sits on that bench or walks away from it. And while some things cannot be unsaid, they can perhaps become a source of learning and growth.

The tea room serves as a microcosm of the larger world it inhabits. And though the play takes place in another time and place, it has much to teach us today about everyday and systemic racism, and the subtle and blatant ways in which it creates barriers based on assumptions, fear and ignorance. Go see this production.

With shouts to the creative team for bringing this world to life – and creating a space that’s not only practical for the purposes of the play, but has an inviting aesthetic that makes you want to sit down for a snack: Peter Hartwell (set and costumes), Kevin Lamotte and Chris Malkowski (lighting), Corey Macfadyen (sound) and Valerie Moore (dance sequence).

A world in a tea room in the powerful, sharply funny, deeply moving “Master Harold” …and the Boys.

“Master Harold” …and the Boys continues at the Toronto Centre for the Arts until October 23. You can get advance tickets online; strongly recommended, given last night’s standing ovation.