Power, identity & politics: Women come out from behind the men in the potent, thoughtful Portia’s Julius Caesar

Nikki Duval & Christine Horne. Set & costume design by Rachel Forbes. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Shakespeare’s women continue to take centre stage this summer—this time, with Shakespeare in the Ruff’s production of AD Kaitlyn Riordan’s Portia’s Julius Caesar, a potent and thoughtful adaptation of Julius Caesar from the point of view of the women in this story. The sharply wrought script weaves the text woven from 17 Shakespeare plays, four sonnets and a poem with new dialogue—and the women behind the men come to the fore as they wrestle with their own issues of identity, power and justice. Directed by Eva Barrie, Portia’s Julius Caesar is currently running outdoors in Toronto’s Withrow Park.

While all of Rome celebrates Caesar’s (Jeff Yung) triumphant return from a successful campaign against the sons of Pompey, his wife Calpurnia (Nikki Duval) confides in her bosom friend Portia, wife to Brutus (Christine Horne), regarding her concerns over their lack of an heir and Caesar’s relationship with the legendary Cleopatra, who she fears may usurp her. Nursing a newborn son herself, Portia is supportive and optimistic for her friend’s chances of bearing a child; but soon finds herself uneasy in her own marriage as Brutus (Adriano Sobretodo Jr.) becomes increasingly distant and absent from their home.

Meanwhile, some in Rome are troubled by Caesar’s desire for a crown, which he hides with false humility; and there are those who fear that the republic may become a monarchy ruled by a boisterous, boasting tyrant. Among these are Servilia (Deborah Drakeford), Brutus’s imperious power-brokering mother and Cassius (Kwaku Okyere), Brutus’s friend—who both fan his deep concerns over Caesar’s popularity and hunger for power. Choosing his love of Rome over his love of Caesar, Brutus joins Cassius and a group of like-minded conspirators in a deadly plan to put a stop to Caesar’s rise to power. Hiding in the shadows to learn what is afoot, Portia catches wind of the plan; now faced with wanting to warn her friend Calpurnia but not betray her husband, she goes to Calpurnia with a story of a dream of Caesar’s bloody statue. Coupled with the Soothsayer’s (Tahirih Vejdani) recent warning, Calpurnia attempts to stop Caesar from going to the Senate on that fateful day—even after Brutus has persuaded him to do so—but fails to convince.

The actions that follow create a heartbreaking rift between Calpurnia and Portia, and make for additional tragedy in this tale of power, propaganda and loyalty. Portia fears for her life and that of her son when Marc Antony (Giovanni Spina) turns the people against Brutus, Cassius and their fellow assassins. Returning home to find Brutus gone, Portia learns that Servilia has secreted their son away to keep him safe. But how safe can anyone be in these chaotic, bloody times? In the end, the living are left to mourn their dead—and judge themselves for their actions in the outcome.

Remarkable work from Duval and Horne as Calpurnia and Portia; friends of their own accord, with a relationship separate from that of their husbands, these women truly love, nurture and support each other. Duval gives a moving performance as Calpurnia; an intelligent woman, well aware of her husband’s station and rise to power, Calpurnia beats herself up for not having children and blames herself for his womanizing. And seeing her friend nurse her baby makes Calpurnia want a child even more. Horne deftly mines Portia’s internal conflict as a contented, happy mother and supportive wife and friend whose reach only goes so far. Portia simply can’t wait on the sidelines when she knows that something serious is afoot with Brutus—and her insistence that he confide in her comes from a genuine desire to help. Longing to not only do their duty, but be real, invested partners to their husbands, Calpurnia and Portia can only respond as events emerge—and do what they believe is right under the circumstances. Drakeford gives a striking performance as the sharp-witted, intimidating yet vulnerable Servilia. Unable to wield direct political power herself, Servilia employs what influence she has to persuade individuals and manage events; and with no female role models at the time, she appears to model her behaviour after that of powerful men—perhaps finding herself at odds with her natural instincts.

The outstanding ensemble also includes a Young Ruffian Chorus (Troy Sarju, Sienna Singh and Jahnelle Jones-Williams); and the male actors also portray the various washerwomen—as women and slaves, they represent the lowest among the 99% in Rome. Okyere’s fiery, volatile, hasty Cassius is the perfect foil to Sobretodo’s cool, diplomatic, calculating Brutus. Spina does a great job balancing Antony’s fired-up warrior and eloquent orator; and, in addition to the enigmatic Soothsayer, Vejdani gives us a playful and seductive Casca, a Roman courtesan in this adaptation whose part in the plot includes distracting Antony from the impending plot against Caesar.

Portia’s Julius Caesar continues at Withrow Park (in the space just south of the washrooms) until September 3, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday (no show on August 27, but there will be a special Labour Day performance on Sept 3); the show runs 110 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets are PWYC at the venue (cash only: $20 suggested); advance tickets available online for $20 (regular) or $30 (includes camp chair rental).

Bring a blanket, beach towel or chair; bug spray also recommended. Concerned about the possible impact of weather conditions on a performance? Keep an eye out on Shakespeare in the Ruff’s Twitter feed or Facebook page for updates and cancellations.

In the meantime, check out this insightful and revealing Toronto Star piece by Carly Maga about the show, including an interview with AD/playwright Kaitlyn Riordan.

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Interview: Director Amanda Smith

Amanda Smith. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra will present the fourth installment of its Haus Musik series on April 26 at the Great Hall, directed by Amanda Smith. Topping Ludwig van Toronto’s 2017 list of breakthrough women in the local classical music scene, Smith is known for her multidisciplinary collaborations with actors, singers, DJs, instrumentalists, visual artists and filmmakers—creating dramatic and remarkable classical music performances that translate the music into the physical world. Smith recently directed Belladonna – a queer techno opera, produced by her company Fawn Chamber Creative.

This upcoming performance of Haus Musik takes us to a post-apocalyptic world, with Tafelmusik performing live in a bunker, where survivor Alex (Ally Smither) has taken shelter. Alex’s only connection to the outside world—and her only source of hope—is the radio and music.

I interviewed Smith, asking her about this upcoming iteration of Haus Musik, as well as her drive to create multidisciplinary classical music experiences.

With this fourth installment of Tafelmusik’s Haus Musik series, you’re exploring political extremes and isolation—timely themes in these turbulent times. In a world on the brink of apocalypse, radio becomes a life line and music a source of comfort. What can you tell us about the genesis of this project?

Truth be told, I thought of it while lying on my bed and listening to CBC Radio. They were talking about tensions between the United States and North Korea, so my thoughts naturally jumped to the worst case scenario. Mostly, I was wondering how it would be possible to maintain mental resiliency in addition to physical safety—they go hand-in-hand, but we so often forget about our psychological needs. I remembered that UK radio stations have a thing called the ‘obit procedure’, which calls for specifically chosen music to be played in the event of a national disaster. This got me thinking about the role of the radio as a primary source of public information during a disaster, and thought about how interesting it is that music is a decided method of keeping the public united and calm. I thought that the music selected for the upcoming Haus Musik had the kind of uplifting, hopeful sound that would be helpful in keeping people going during a moment of darkness.

You’re collaborating with synth artist ACOTE, and including the works of 18th century classical composers (Mozart, Vanhal and Boccherini), as well as James Rolfe’s Oboe Quartet. How did these musical flavours come together for you for this project?

The classical music in the program was selected by the Tafelmusik team. With this program, I’ve created a narrative arc that will be interpreted and driven forward by ACOTE’s electronic music. I have worked with ACOTE fairly regularly over the past couple years and love his musical sensitivity when collaborating with classical music. He manages to always find a cohesion between the different styles of music that also puts us in the dramatic world I’m looking to create.

In addition to including various takes on classical repertoire, you also incorporate acting and dance into your work. What drew you to creating these multidisciplinary pieces?

My relationship with music has always been very visual. This was apparent while studying music in my undergrad, when I began to seek out platforms that allowed me to physicalize music in different ways. This just seems to be the way I connect with music. I like to work with artists from different industries, such as dance, visual art, experimental electronic music, film, etc., because they bring new perspectives and wonderful ideas. I think it’s a lot harder to grow if you remain exclusive to one way of thinking.

What do you hope audiences will take away from the experience of this performance of Haus Musik?

Simply, I would love for audiences to leave with the message that art serves an important role in our society. Not only is it a source of personal and cultural expression, but it’s often used to keep people united, especially music. When there seems so much wrong in the world, it’s easy for artists and the public to doubt the value of creative work—I think about this quite often. It’s good to remember that sometimes singing a song with your community is what keeps people fighting and pushing forward.

Now, for the fun part of the interview. I’d like to finish up with James Lipton’s Pivot questionnaire:

What’s your favourite word? I don’t have a favourite but the first word that came to mind was cuddle.

What’s your least favourite word? Slut—such poison to hear and say.

What turns you on? Good dancing.

What turns you off? Narcissism.

What sound or noise do you love? My cats purring.

What sound or noise do you hate? Open mouth chewing sounds.

What is your favourite curse word? Fuck.

What profession other than your own would you like to pursue? Literally, nothing.

What profession would you not like to do? Performer.

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Your family and friend are here.”

Before we go, anything you’d like to add or shout out?

Only that I’m looking forward to the show on April 26th. I think it’s going to be a really unique experience.

 

Haus Musik runs for one night only: April 26 in Longboat Hall at the Great Hall; doors at 8 pm. Get advance tickets online.

Toronto Fringe: Two men reach out for each other in times of division & change in the intimate, tender, layered The Seat Next to the King

Tanisha Taitt directs Minmar Gaslight Productions’ run of Steven Elliott Jackson’s beautifully compelling The Seat Next to the King, winner of the 2017 Toronto Fringe Best New Play contest, now running in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Mainspace.

Opening in 1964 in a public washroom in Washington, D.C., The Seat Next to the King presents an imagined relationship that develops between two men who work for two of America’s most important political figures of the time.

Bayard Rustin (Kwaku Okyere) and Walter Jenkins (Conor Ling) meet and interact in a beautiful, intricate dance of desire, race, politics and confronting one’s true self unfolds in the push/pull of their initial meeting as strangers, shifting to brief moments of genuine connection and sharing as they get to know each other. Bookended by another washroom meeting years later, we see how their lives have changed—for the world and for themselves.

Lovely, connected work from Okyere and Ling. Okyere’s Bayard is outspoken, frank and charming, with keen, sharp powers of observation; despite being shunned by family and friends, Bayard is out. His choice has cost him, and while he doesn’t appear to regret it, there is profound pain and loneliness beneath his joyful, extrovert manner. Ling goes deep into the layers of Walter’s inner conflict; an introverted man, full of desire and shame, Walter longs for a man’s touch, but can’t bring himself out of his double life. And the chemistry between these two men makes their encounters both beautiful and heartbreaking to witness.

Two men reach out for each other in times of division and change in the intimate, tender, layered The Seat Next to the King.

The Seat Next to the King continues in the TPM Mainspace until July 16. With a standing ovation in a packed house at last night’s 11:30pm performance, advance booking is a must for this one.

Creatures of myth & memory in the playful, pointed, evocative Cryptids: Prose-Poetry from Creatures of Memory

Cover art from Cryptids: Prose-Poetry from Creatures of Memory by Dee Sparling     

dee original smallDee Sparling is a local Toronto poet/spoken word artist and singer. We’ve been friends for about 16 years, and folks who frequented Lizzie Violet’s Cabaret Noir, either at Q Space or The Central, will recognize Sparling, who performed poetry and a cappella songs during the open mic spots. She’s previously self-published two poetry collections, Sol Believers: Prose-Poetry from the Orion Spur and Freedom Codes: Prose-Poetry from Empires Within, and has recently published Cryptids: Prose-Poetry from Creatures of Memory.

In the Author’s Note, Sparling describes Cryptids as playing “upon the concept of nostalgia and the role it takes in shaping personal and societal narratives,” as well as featuring “various types of mythical beasts and conjurings.” Cryptids as pieces of memory, and also as mythical creatures and monsters.

Cryptids is a magical, evocative collection of 16 poems, woven with rich, textured language that includes ancient biblical (“Ecce Venus” and “Gethsemane”) and mythological (the nod to the Kraken in “Fimbulwinter”), as well as political and natural, references. Reading these poems, one gets the feeling of being gathered around a campfire, hearing tales both fictional and non-fictional—especially “Credit Valley Cryptids (A Final Goodbye),” which conjures up reminiscences of a different time and place with its compass-eye view of ghosts, shades of history and natural landmarks.

Some of the pieces are playful in their observations, taking the point of view of the creatures themselves (“The Underground” and “Memory and the Moray Eel”) or ponder the situation of a creature (“Sparrow without a Care”). And “Painted Desert” portrays the otherworldly, deadly beauty of a landscape with a cheeky, Wild West flavour—the High Noon of the cacti—while drawing a metaphor for the will to thrive and live, coupled with warnings of more parched earth on the horizon.

The cautionary tone continues into space with “Centaurus Loves Cassiopeia,” highlighting humanity’s sense of entitlement with the line “Earth, thy vanity begins… with the licking of your lips;” into the digital realm in “Troll Bytes” and the perception of power in a world of ongoing obsolescence.

Creatures of politics aren’t spared in the pointed and sharply funny “A Day in the Counter-Revolution,” a satirical evolution of man as political animal. Or was it all a dream? And ruminations on the younger generation and nature take on an introspective, speculative tone in “Millennial Breeze” and “Nature Remembers You.”

Words that paint pictures, reminding us of how tricky memory and perception can be—and how these combine to create our own mythology.

Creatures of myth and memory in the playful, pointed, evocative Cryptids: Prose-Poetry from Creatures of Memory.

Keep an eye out for Dee Sparling at Toronto poetry/spoken word events.

Speaking truth to power in raw, real, fierce & funny Sound of the Beast

Tamyka Bullen (onscreen) & Donna-Michelle St. Bernard in Sound of the Beast—photo by Michael Cooper

 

Hear ye, hear ye

let it be known,

No one on my block walks alone.

 

Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) closes its 2016-17 season with Donna-Michelle St. Bernard’s (aka Belladonna the Blest) Sound of the Beast, co-directed by Andy McKim and Jivesh Parasram, with ASL components by Tamyka Bullen, and featuring composition and sound design by David Mesiha. Sound of the Beast opened in the TPM Backspace last night.

Inspired by the story of Tunisian rapper Weld El 15, whose artistic freedom of speech was muzzled by police and government, and part of St. Bernard’s 54ology (her commitment to create a performance piece from each country in Africa), Sound of the Beast combines rap and spoken word with lived experiences for an up-close, profoundly personal and resonant performance. Complementing St. Bernard’s storytelling is a projected performance of Tamyka Bullen’s poetry, performed in ASL with English surtitles (projection design by Cameron Davis). And a series of radio voice-overs (Glyn Bowerman), updating us on news of an “incident” in a “priority neighbourhood,” provide a bleak commentary on the clueless, one-sided and white-washed view of mainstream media.

Autobiographical, observational and replete with first-hand lives lived in an environment of racism, mistrust and injustice, words and stories that we may only have read or seen on the news come to life. Urgent. Shocking. In front of us. What is the most shocking is that stories of oppression and injustice are not shocking, but part of our everyday lives.

Sound of the Beast
Donna-Michelle St. Bernard in Sound of the Beast—photo by Michael Cooper

A compelling and engaging storyteller, St. Bernard shifts easily from pointed remarks and calling out prejudice, to casual and conversational moments. She puts forth hypothetical scenarios and asks us how we would respond; making us active participants as we silently think about the choices in front of us. And during two poignant and charged scenes, she speaks to her imaginary young son; guiding him on how to behave, speak and even set his facial expressions in order to stay safe out there when confronted by the authorities. At times speaking to us as friends, she takes us in and along on her journey—her research on Weld El, her personal experiences—genuine, infuriating, heartbreaking, hilarious. Shifting from a stand-up storytelling vibe, to in our faces or in emcee performance mode, St. Bernard moves through the space with ease and fluidity, with professionalism and personality. Singing and speaking with strength, emotion and moving beats, her job is to tell it—and she brings it big time.

Speaking as a Deaf woman born into a “hearing Indian-Guyanese Hindu-Christian family”—and living in a “hearing, straight Eurocentric Christian patriarchal country,” Bullen’s poetry is beautiful, moving and revealing. Highlighting the intersectionality of experiences of oppression and prejudice among the Black and Deaf communities, she points to how heavy unemployment and underemployment leave marginalized people struggling to get by in a system that “operates for so long based on ignorance and hate.” Writing of poverty, PTSD, the immigrant experience and her relationship with the earth, Bullen reminds us of the ever present need for mindfulness, awareness and compassion—and how we are all we are all born of the same Mother Earth.

Coiled on the floor and ready, the microphone is St. Bernard’s weapon and bridge; and the black hoodie she dons at the opening of her performance and sheds at the close is her storytelling cloak. If you are not black or marginalized, you can only glean so much from what you see and hear in the news about these lived experiences. Of being constantly under surveillance because of the colour of your skin and the neighbourhood you live in. Of being questioned by law enforcement for no reason. Of being misunderstood and not knowing what you’re supposed to say. Of unarmed youth being shot by police. Sound of the Beast brings it in closer. Come and hear for yourself.

Speaking truth to power in raw, real, fierce and funny Sound of the Beast.

Sound of the Beast continues in the TPM Backspace until May 7; book tickets online or call 416-504-7529. Advance booking strongly recommended—it’s a powerful show and an intimate space.

NSTF: Past & future collide with biting political satire in the hilariously trippy The Death of Mrs. Gandhi & the Beginning of New Physics (a political fantasy)

Everything but the Bard takes us on a time travelling, feminist political fantasy in Kawa Ada’s The Death of Mrs. Gandhi and the Beginning of New Physics (a political fantasy). Directed by Ada and overseen by artistic producer Renna Reddie, The Death of Mrs. Gandhi is currently running in the Factory Theatre Mainspace during the Toronto Fringe Next Stage Theatre Festival (NSTF).

In 1984, a group of female political heavyweights meet for Indira Gandhi’s funeral: Margaret Thatcher (Elley-Ray Hennessy), Benazir Bhutto (Tennille Read), Imelda Marcos (Nina Lee Aquino) and a young go-getter intern named Kim Campbell (Trenna Keating). When their gathering is interrupted by a mysterious woman named Malala (Ellora Patnaik), they find themselves trapped in a quantum bubble. The new arrival claims to be from 2030, and she has some information and instructions for them to get back to their time and space—and save the world!

Outstanding work from the cast, serving up sharp and darkly funny renderings of these women. Hennessy is hilariously imperious as Thatcher; condescending and imperialist to the core, the Iron Lady has a soft spot for “boyfriend” Ronny Reagan. Read does a lovely job with the ambitious young Bhutto; vain and privileged, she’s a favourite of Thatcher, who’s taken the young leader in waiting under her wing to be her mentor. Aquino gives an LOL turn as Marcos; cluelessly decadent, fancying herself a modern-day Marie Antoinette and crazy like a fox, she’s the penultimate 80s material girl.

Keating is adorkably mousy as the anxious young intern Campbell; super apologetic and deferring to Thatcher in all things, she shows her teeth when she comes to realize that Malala has something important to say. Patnaik gives us a sassy and determined grown-up Malala; brutally honest and ballsy, she stands her ground with this group of impressive, powerful women to fulfill her mission. And she has some startling and unusual ideas to save the future.

Featuring intrigue, espionage, top secret machinations and some wacky new physics, The Death of Mrs. Gandhi lampoons sexism, racism, imperialism and political propaganda.

Past and future collide with biting political satire in the hilariously trippy The Death of Mrs. Gandhi and the Beginning of New Physics (a political fantasy).

The Death of Mrs. Gandhi and the Beginning of New Physics (a political fantasy) continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until Jan 15. Get your advance tix and passes online; and check out the full NSTF schedule.

Photo: Tennille Read and Elley-Ray Hennessy – by Cylla von Tiedemann

SummerWorks: Fire & ice, & the terrible toll of oil production & transport in powerful Lac/Athabasca

LacAthabasca-400x320Started my SummerWorks 2015 adventures at Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) last night, with the opening of Theatre Free Radical’s production of Len Falkenstein’s Lac/Athabasca, directed by Falkenstein and running in the Mainspace.

Oil and water, crossing over land and across provinces. Like the fur traders of Canada’s infancy, you gotta get the product to market. But at what cost?

Inspired by the tragic train disaster at Lac Mégantic, Lac/Athabasca is not a documentary, but a geographical, socio-political commentary on corporate greed, muzzled scientists, climate change and an accident that devastates a small town. And there’s a scary, ancient and mysterious creature that lurks in the woods.

Using storytelling, projected imagery and a model train surrounded by a miniature village, Lac/Athabasca gets at the heart of a town’s grief, the vastness of a glacier landscape, and the horror of the rail accident that destroys a large portion of the town and kills many of its inhabitants – the latter given added poignancy due to the child-like size of the scene.

The ensemble cast – Emily Bossé, Rebekah Chassé, Jean-Michel Cliché, Alex Donovan and Jake Martin – does a remarkable job of weaving this story, shifting in and out of character, location and time period. Some interesting character parallels emerge: Chassé’s oil sands tour guide and Martin’s glacier tour guide – all put-on cheerfulness and spinning the situation – ‘no problems here.’ Bossé’s young Aboriginal woman and exotic dancer – both thrown into unsavory and dangerous arrangements by circumstance, but maintaining their dignity and more acutely aware of their situations than they’re given credit for.

Moments that especially stand out are those between two oil sands company biologists and the eye-witness accounts of the town survivors. Donovan is wide-eyed and curious as the new scientist guy, and has discovered some troubling chemical facts about the local river and lake that he wants to share; Chassé is jaded, damaged and wary as the more seasoned scientist, seeing no use in reporting her younger colleague’s findings, as these will be spun and denied by the corporate powers that be – not to mention professionally risky. The survivors of the train derailment and oil explosion (Bossé, Chassé, Cliche and Martin) each bring out tiny buildings with them, telling us what it was, and who lived or worked there as they set the scene; Chassé is particularly heartbreaking as the town’s Mayor, describing each building and inhabitant with much love and respect, a catch in her throat even as she vows that they will rebuild.

And then there’s that unseen beast. In the past, English (Donovan) and French (Martin) fur traders, and in the present, the female biologist (Chassé), encounter something terrible in the woods. Cliche’s Thierry, an ambitious and adorably awkward Lac Madawaska resident who travelled west to make a pile of cash at Ft. McMurray (aka Ft. McMoney), like Donovan’s biologist, makes a grisly discovery in the slime. And no one wants to talk about mutations – natural or otherwise.

Water and oil – risking the sustainability of a precious, life-giving resource to extract an extremely lucrative resource. And what will you create – or awaken – as you process those oil sands, extract that oil and deposit the waste water in tailings ponds?

With shouts to Eric Hill for the haunting original music, and Mike Johnston for the evocative set and projection design.

As I sat down to write my notes after the show last night, thinking about the monster, I was reminded of some lyrics from “Synchronicity II” by The Police:
Many miles away, something crawls from the slime at the
Bottom of a dark Scottish lake…

Fire and ice, and the terrible toll of oil production and transport in Theatre Free Radical’s powerful production of Lac/Athabasca.

Lac/Athabasca continues at the TPM Mainspace until August 15 – see their show page for exact dates/times.