Preview: Survival, resilience & resistance in the powerful, raw, timely Four Sisters

Bea Pizano & Company. Production design by Kaitlin Hickey in collaboration with Susanna Fournier. Wardrobe and props design by Patrick Peachey Higdon. Video design by Steph Raposo. Photo by Bernie Fournier.

 

Four Sisters is the final installment of Susanna Fournier’s Empire trilogy; produced by Paradigm Productions and commissioned by Luminato, and running this week at the Theatre Centre. Directed by Fournier and choreographed by Amanda Acorn, this powerful, raw and timely tale takes us to the Empire 259 years after the events of The Scavenger’s Daughter; into a world of plague and social cast-offs, where a 279-year old former madam raises the orphaned children of women who worked for her. A doctor arrives, promising to help as she works to come up with an inexpensive cure for marginalized, low-income populations; and she needs to experiment on the children.

We are in the Skirts, an outlying neighbourhood on the outskirts of the city where society’s marginalized and cast-off people dwell—the poor, mostly women and sex workers. And because this is the Empire, this is a world where only those with money, power and connections can afford to survive and thrive in the toxic, disease-ridden mess left behind after centuries of greed, violence, war and cut-throat capitalism. Former madam Sarah (Bea Pizano) has managed to cheat Death and now finds herself being mother to Abby (Chala Hunter, Krystina Bojanowski, Yolanda Bonnell), Beah (Aria Evans, Ximena Huizi, Jennifer Dahl), Cassie (Claudia Moore) and Dee (Virgilia Griffith)—children of women who worked for her, who all died of plague. When a Doctor (Krystina Bojanowski, Yolanda Bonnell), driven by the desire to find an inexpensive cure that can be used on the low-income population, arrives from the city with the promise of medical help, Sarah must decide if she’s willing to let her girls be Guinea pigs or die of plague.

The story plays out both within and without time and space—on a bare stage, sculpted with light and punctuated with video on a solitary TV screen (designed by Steph Raposo), the chilling atmosphere hauntingly complemented by Christopher Ross-Ewart’s sound design. Time folds and bends in on itself, with the multiple casting for Abby and Beah allowing for both younger and inner selves to speak to these characters, with shades of things to come for an older Beah. And the ongoing role swapping between the actors playing Abby and the Doctor (Bojanowski and Bonnell) shines a light on the choices health care practitioners have when it comes to their practice: to play a role in the male-dominated arenas of capitalism and Big Pharma, promising low-cost health benefits at unknown personal and societal cost, or working on the front lines of health care among those who society has discarded.

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Krystina Bojanowski & Company. Production design by Kaitlin Hickey in collaboration with Susanna Fournier. Wardrobe and props design by Patrick Peachey Higdon. Video design by Steph Raposo. Photo by Bernie Fournier.

Compelling work from this remarkable cast, as the staging incorporates movement, video and voice-over to tell a story that, like the earlier parts of this trilogy, is both visceral and cerebral, past and present, present and future. Pizano nicely balances Sarah’s wry-witted madam pragmatism with the tender-hearted, concern of a good mother. Bojanowski and Bonnell mine the Doctor’s clinical detachment and sense of social responsibility to great effect. Are the Doctor’s later efforts a move toward redemption—or too little, too late?

The four girls grow before our eyes, from children playing in Sarah’s kitchen into conflicted adults struggling to choose a path in a world where paths are being cut off and replaced with walls—literally and figuratively. Hunter, Bojanowski and Bonnell bring sharp focus and inner conflict to Abby, who becomes an apprentice to the Doctor even as she longs to be a mother—and in the painful light of her new-found medical knowledge and expertise. Evans, Huizi and Dahl are loveable and heartbreaking as the energetic, resilient Beah; the dancer sister who longs to study at the academy—her exhausted, battered feet continuing to create despite the unexpected turns her life takes. Griffith brings both profound vulnerability and power to the deeply wounded, angry Dee; self-medicating in an effort to deal with troubling visions, Dee becomes an addict and an outcast among her own marginalized family, setting her on the path toward a surprising evolution. And Moore’s Cassie is adorable and wise; ever a child, Cassie sees and responds to unfolding events with innocent honesty.

Operating both in and out of time and space, we witness what the Empire has come to following centuries of war and social disintegration—leaving us wondering what, if anything, will rise from the ashes. (During intermission, you can view artifacts in the National Museum of the Empire installation in the upper lobby, outside the theatre.) In the end, through pain, grief and loss, there is resilience and resistance. It is apocalypse with a glimmer of hope. And all with the recognition—both disturbing and reassuring—of our own time and place.

Four Sisters continues in the Franco Boni Theatre space at the Theatre Centre until June 16. Post-show talk backs with the artists are scheduled to follow the 8 pm performance on Fri, June 14 (hosted by Ted Witzel); and the 2 pm performance on Sat, June 15 (hosted by Maria Vamvalis). Advance tickets available online; it was a full house at last night’s final preview performance, so advance booking or early arrival is strongly recommended.

If you’re like me and missed the first two installments of the Empire trilogy, or want a refresh before seeing Four Sisters, you can catch up and listen to the podcasts of The Philosopher’s Wife and The Scavenger’s Daughter on The Empire website, co-produced with Expect Theatre’s PlayMe Podcast.

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A Christmas Carol in a delightful, unique, immersive production at Campbell House

Thomas Gough & Christopher Fowler. Costume & prop design by Chelsea Driver. Photo by Graham Isador.

 

The Three Ships Collective and Soup Can Theatre have teamed up to present a delightful, unique, immersive production of holiday favourite A Christmas Carolwith original text by Justin Haigh, direction by Sarah Thorpe and musical direction by Pratik Gandhi—opening last night at Toronto’s Campbell House Museum. Incorporating live music and song, this version of the Charles Dickens classic ranges around the various rooms at Campbell House; the dynamic, effective staging taking us through time and space as we follow in the footsteps of Ebenezer Scrooge’s eye-opening, heart-wrenching and frightening journey of enlightenment and redemption.

This version of A Christmas Carol has a dark, Gothic edge that goes beyond the staging in a historic house that surely has ghosts of its own. Opening in the basement room opposite the kitchen, which serves as Scrooge’s office in the present and Fezziwig’s in the past, our tale opens with a haunting solo violin version of a familiar Christmas carol (performed by actor Amy Marie Wallace), as Scrooge’s clerk Bob Cratchit (played with affable put-upon optimism by William Matthews) huddles over his desk, trying to keep warm as the coal fire dies.

Joining us as narrator and guide is the ghost of Jacob Marley (Christopher Fowler, nicely combining gravitas and melancholy), who looks on as Scrooge arrives (Thomas Gough, exuding stone cold malice and disdain), adding an extra chill to the already glacial office. Rebuffing a dinner invitation from his nephew Fred (played with jovial cheer by John Fray) and a request for a donation from two local philanthropists (the earnest Jim Armstrong and the crisp Kholby Wardell), Scrooge goes on to later refuse the pleas of a young woman (Tamara Freeman, in a moving, impassioned performance) whose injured father and struggling family are facing foreclosure of their home on Christmas Day.

Left alone in his home after vexing his housekeeper Mrs. Dilber (played with feisty cheek by Alex Dallas), Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his old friend/former partner Marley—and his journey of reclamation at the hands of three spirits begins: the Ghost of Christmas Past (an ethereal, eerily calm turn from Wallace), the Ghost of Christmas Present (a hilariously rowdy, brutally honest Christopher Lucas) and the Ghost of Christmases Yet to Come (played with eerie, imperious silence by Tiffany Martin).

The alternate back story on Scrooge’s youth (Little Scrooge played with adorable, wide-eyed sweetness by Makenna Beatty, who also plays Tiny Tim; in rotation throughout the run with Chloe Bradt) reveals a loving home, with a father (Fray) who made bad financial decisions and subsequently forced to leave his wife and two young children at Christmas for a three-year sentence in debtors’ prison; this makes Scrooge’s miserly ways all the more poignant and his callous disregard for the destitute all the more despicable. The shy, introverted young Scrooge (played with wallflower likability by Mike Hogan) who falls in love with the adventurous extrovert Belle (Martin, with lovely, playful forwardness) at his mentor/boss Fezziwig’s (a jolly, hearty Armstrong, with Dallas as Fezziwig’s well-matched wife) rollicking Christmas office party later takes over the business—and we see the money-grasping materialism start to take hold, destroying his engagement to Belle and distancing him from the world.

And as Scrooge’s heart softens over the nostalgia of good times and lost love, it begins to break when he sees the hardship at the Cratchit house—and how, even in the most dire of circumstances, Bob and wife Emily (played with warmth, pragmatic perseverance and fierceness by Margo MacDonald) put on a brave face to make the best holiday celebration they can for their children. Then, the terror at the realization of his own mortality, and how all he strived to gain in this world can be sold off to local pawn dealer Old Joe (an edgy, menacing turn from Hogan). His heart and soul reclaimed, he joins his fellow men for the holiday, reaching out with newfound warmth and generosity to those around him (lovely work from Gough on Scrooge’s transformation).

It’s a classic cautionary tale that still speaks to us today—perhaps even more so, now that hard-right conservatives are emerging in positions of power all over the world. The hard-hearted philosophy that the poor should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps is unfortunately still alive and well. And maybe a certain president and premier would benefit from some ghostly visitations.

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Top row: Mike Hogan, Tiffany Martin, Christopher Fowler, Christopher Lucas, Amy Marie Wallace, Kholby Wardel. Middle row: John Fray, William Matthews, Thomas Gough, Jim Armstrong. Bottom row: Margo MacDonald, Tamara Freeman, Chloe Bradt, Makenna Beatty, Alex Dallas. Costume & prop design by Chelsea Driver. Photo by Graham Isador.

A Christmas Carol continues at Campbell House Museum until December 22; check here for exact dates and times. The run officially sold out before opening, but keep an eye out on Soup Can’s Twitter and Facebook feeds for released tickets. Due to the intimate nature of the performance, audience size is limited—so you must book ahead online.

In the meantime, give a listen to host Phil Rickaby’s Stageworthy Podcast interview with actor Thomas Gough on his experience playing the iconic Ebenezer Scrooge in this unique, immersive production.

Note from the production team: Due to the immersive and mobile nature of this production, audience members will be required to stand for a significant portion of the performance. A very limited number of seats can be reserved for patrons unable to stand for extended periods of time. Please contact the Campbell House Museum at 416-597-0227 ext. 2, or antonia@campbellhousemuseum.ca, to confirm availability of these seats and to reserve in advance.

While this production is family-friendly, it does touch on some mature themes and is recommended for children 10 and older.

Note from me: Cellphone gawkers beware! Jacob Marley has his eye on you, and will silently and swiftly call you out on your naughty behaviour.