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.

Entertaining, topsy-turvy romp of political shenanigans & scandal in Ubu Mayor

UBU #2 - Richard Harte centre - w Astrid Van Wieren& Michael Dufays - Yuri Dojc photo
Astrid Van Wieren, Richard Harte & Michael Dufays – photo by Yuri Doje

One Little Goat Theatre Company opened its run of Adam Seelig’s Ubu Mayor at the Wychwood Theatre last night. Inspired by Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi – and the wacky antics and scandals of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and his brother, Councillor Doug Ford – Seelig describes Ubu Mayor as “an all-out romp of asinine absurdity. With music.” This is One Little Goat’s first production with music, and Seelig is wearing several hats for this piece – also the composer and director – with music and live band direction by Tyler Emond.

Mayor Ubu (Richard Harte) is a well-meaning, but not too bright, bicycle riding guy with a vision who wants the best for his city. He also thinks his wife Huhu (Astrid Van Wieren) is cheating on him with his older brother Dudu (Michael Dufays). The audience knows this to be true, but Huhu and Dudu manage to manipulate and distract the gullible Ubu away from the issue of marital infidelity onto their own schemes for the city. Huhu and Dudu’s selfish grasping for personal power within the halls of municipal politics stands in stark contrast to Ubu’s selfless dream of inclusive city building.

Harte brings a sweet, but dim-witted, teddy bear quality to Ubu – a child-like, simple-minded man who holds power publicly, all the while the unwitting pawn of his wife and brother in private. Van Wieren’s Huhu is both sly and sexy, fetishizing macho dominance – but, much like Ubu, just wants to be loved. Dufays is repulsive yet compelling as the foul-mouthed, thuggish Dudu – a racist, misogynistic, homophobic bully and the polar opposite of his younger brother – a cold puppet master with a primal urge to mount.

The opening of Ubu Mayor’s run coincided with some dramatic, eyebrow-raising events at Toronto City Hall just hours before. In the eleventh hour before the nomination deadline, embattled Mayor Rob Ford withdrew from the mayoral race to focus his fight on a personal medical battle, with brother Doug throwing his hat into the race for mayor, Rob displacing their nephew Michael in the run for councillor of Ward 2 (Etobicoke North) and Michael switching to run for public school trustee. I know; you need a program just to follow all the role switching and understudies in that situation. It should be noted that the production of Ubu Mayor neither represents actual politicians nor is meant as journalistic theatre.

Seelig is not presenting the Ford brothers here, but was inspired by their antics, weaving Ford sound bites into hilarious dialogue (e.g., “Those Oriental people work like dogs.”) and original songs like “Plenty to Eat at Home” (one of my personal faves). Individually and collectively, the cast has an impressive set of pipes, with strong solo work and bang-on harmonies. “Etobicokaine” is another stand-out song. The cast is accompanied by a tight live band: Seelig (piano), Emond (bass) and Jeff Halischuk (drums).

With shouts to the design team Jackie Chau (set and costumes) and Laird MacDonald (lighting) for creating this world, civilized on the surface, with an absurd circus underbelly. The hanging smoked pigs, chandelier and bicycle wheel set the environment perfectly.

Much like the news-grabbing events of City of Toronto politics under the Ford administration, Ubu Mayor is an entertaining, topsy-turvy absurdist romp of political shenanigans and scandal. With music. It really is better to laugh than cry.

The script, including sheet music, published by BookThug is available for purchase online. And you can find updates and info about Ubu Mayor on Facebook.

And check out this L’Express interview with Seelig here (in French, by Charlotte Dupon).

Ubu Mayor runs until September 21. You can purchase advance tickets online or by calling 416-915-0201.