The power, magic & malice of words in the fascinating, visceral, philosophical, sensual Knives in Hens

Clockwise from top: Jonathon Young, Diana Bentley & Jim Mezon. Set and lighting design by Kaitlin Hickey. Costume design by Michelle Tracey. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Coal Mine Theatre kicks off its 6th season with David Harrower’s Knives in Hens, directed by Leora Morris. Set in 15th century Scotland in the outskirts of a small, stifling rural village, it’s a fascinating, visceral, philosophical and sensual look at the evolution of words and language—and the power such awareness brings. Knives in Hens opened at the Coal Mine Theatre to a sold-out house last night.

Pony William (Jim Mezon) is a ploughman; growing and harvesting grain on his land with his young wife, simply known as Young Woman (Diana Bentley). He keeps a tight rein on her, her micromanaged days working around their home dutifully reported to him; he even manages her thoughts. She’s not allowed in the barn; he says it’s because the horses don’t know her and she’ll fright them. She has pensive flights of fancy, wondering about what things are called and struggling to describe what she sees out in the small world around her; and he discourages these, especially around their village neighbours.

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Diana Bentley & Jim Mezon. Set and lighting design by Kaitlin Hickey. Costume design by Michelle Tracey. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

When a young mare shows signs of a difficult oncoming labour, and with the grain harvested and needing immediate grinding, William sends his wife to the mill with five sacks of grain, issuing a stern warning about the character of the miller and precise instructions as to how to behave during the transaction. According to William, the miller is universally hated—a widower rumoured to have killed his wife and child.

The Young Woman finds an unexpected kindred spirit in the miller Gilbert Horn (Jonathon Young), who writes his thoughts down using pen and paper—translating his thoughts into words that will last long after the thoughts have dissipated. As she spends time with him, the Young Woman’s curious, fevered attempts at finding the words for moments she witnesses on the land blossom and grow—and with this mastery comes increased power and self-confidence.

Bentley brings a feisty, curious edge to the Young Woman; always searching and questioning—despite her husband’s insistence that she keep her wondering mind to herself. She reaches out into the world and into her mind for the words to express that world. Mezon’s old patriarchal ploughman combines a gruff severity with doting adoration; but William seems to be more enamoured of his horses than his wife. The Young Woman is something he saw and wanted; something to put to work around the house and to warm his bed. That she has no name is telling, for to name something—or someone—is to make it useful and give it power. Young gives Gilbert a somewhat sly, enigmatic vibe; amused and playful regarding the villagers’ gossip about him, Gilbert is a sensitive, introspective and even lonely man. A man who longs to see and know the world outside the mill and the small-minded confines of the village. Like the Young Woman, his mind and heart are too big for this small life—and he needs to get out. And it is he who asks the Young Woman’s name; and though she writes it, we never hear it spoken aloud.

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Jonathon Young. Set and lighting design by Kaitlin Hickey. Costume design by Michelle Tracey. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Kaitlin Hickey’s earthy set, combined with a heavenly lighting design, puts us in mind both of the sun and the light of knowledge, shining down on the Earth and its creatures—highlighting the divine and profane aspects of this story. And if you cross the raised playing area to the seating on the other side, or to use the washroom, you can feel and smell the earth beneath your feet. Christopher Ross-Ewart’s dramatic string-dominated sound design underscores the beating heart of land and its people, and the soaring, magical and menacing power of words. And Michelle Tracey’s period costumes mark when we are and who these people are; simple rural folk in an age of religion and superstition.

Divine and profane, poetic and pragmatic, visceral and cerebral—the journey from thought to word is fraught with religious and societal meaning and repercussions. Thoughts entering the mind are thought to come from God; whereas words and language are a corporeal, human construct. We are reminded of the Creation story—the characters mirroring the three main players of God, Adam and Eve. The word made flesh. And as God named the creatures of the Earth, so too does man name what he sees. Does that make us God?

Knives in Hens continues at Coal Mine Theatre until October 13; advance tickets available online. Please note the 7:30 p.m. curtain time for evening performances; matinees are Sundays at 2:00 p.m.

 

Love & hate, abandonment & connection in the searing, electric Fool for Love

Cara Gee & Eion Bailey. Set design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Shannon Lea Doyle. Lighting design by Simon Rossiter. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Soulpepper Theatre presents a searing, electric production of Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love, directed by Frank Cox-O’Connell and running at the Young Centre. The shifting temperatures of love/hate and tenderness/cruelty take on new meaning, with the pairing of an Indigenous woman with a non-Indigenous man as the on again, off again lovers—who come together and tear apart, both individually and collectively, in this rough and gentle dance of connection, abandonment, rage and desire.

In a cheap, grotty motel room in the Mohave Desert, May (Cara Gee) and Eddie (Eion Bailey) play out their ongoing cycle of of love, hate, abandonment and connection in a relationship that has come together and broken apart since they were in high school. Fiery, furtive—and playing off each other’s emotional and mental states—the power dynamic shifts as one pulls it together and the other falls apart. Explosions of jealousy, rage and recrimination reveal the simple, awful truth that they can’t live with or without each other.

Watching from the sidelines is the Old Man (Stuart Hughes), a father—a memory or a ghost?—observing the scene, and offering comments and advice from his rocking chair on the sand as he drinks Jack Daniels from a Styrofoam cup. Then, entering this love/war zone is local lawn maintenance guy Martin (Alex McCooeye), there to take May out to the movies. Initially interrogated by Eddie, he becomes an unwitting confessor as Eddie reveals how he and May met—and the nature of their connection.

Outstanding work from the entire ensemble in this intense, fly-on-the-wall look at a deeply complex, conflicted relationship. Gee is both fierce and vulnerable as May; wounded, wary and loving Eddie so much, but refusing to take it any more, May wants him to leave and to stay, to have him and move on. She also doesn’t want to be a dirty secret like her mother. Bailey balances Eddie’s cocky cowboy and hurt little boy; with a family history of abandonment and an unfulfilled longing to connect with an often absent father, he struggles to be his own man—all with the painful realization that he can’t be with May, nor can he quit her. The casting of an Indigenous woman and non-Indigenous man in this production highlights ongoing issues of colonization of Indigenous women’s bodies and minds; and the lies the white-dominated patriarchy feeds to white boys—about women and what they’re entitled to—when only certain white men actually benefit from this system. (Be sure to read Gee’s Artist Note at the front of the program for her lived experience and experience working on this production, as well as shared insights on these themes.)

Hughes and McCooeye provide arms-length—though very different—perspectives of the May-Eddie dynamic. Hughes brings a grizzled, cynical, even haunting vibe as the Old Man; revealing his own life as he reveals theirs. McCooeye’s performance as the sweet but dim Martin rings of a small-town, child-like innocence, and provides some much needed comic relief. There for a simple date at the movies, Martin winds up as a witness to the latest skirmish in Eddie and May’s relationship, and confidante to their personal history together.

With shouts to the design team for their part in creating an environment of heightened realism for this production: the gritty, sparse motel room set (Lorenzo Savoini); regional costuming that is both seductive and practical (Shannon Lea Doyle); the lighting effects that give the room a neon, then a fiery, glow (Simon Rossiter); and sound design and composition (Andrew Penner) that provide both atmospheric highlighting and practical punctuation to the action. And there’s live music, created on the dobro with slide, nicely done by Hughes.

Love as a cycle of possession, addictive desire, oasis, war zone and even shame—it’s easy to see why these lovers can’t be together, yet can’t be apart.

Fool for Love continues at the Young Centre, the run extended to August 11; advance tickets available online, or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188. Advance booking strongly recommended; I saw it on a Tuesday night and it was sold out.

Power, politics & poison in the wickedly funny, sexy, irreverent Bella Donna

Françoise Balthazar, Paul Hopkins & Chelsea Russell. Photo by Tanja-Tiziana.

 

The Bella Donna Artists Collective opened a new, revised production of David Copelin’s Bella Donna, directed by Anita La Selva, to a sold out house at the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace last night. Examining the political intrigue during the latter part of Lucrezia Borgia’s life through a 21st century lens, the wicked funny, sexy and irreverent script features all the salacious intrigue and backroom power plays one would expect—focusing on how she, and other women of the day, wielded political and sexual power despite social, legal and religious limitations.

Like her father Rodrigo (Pope Alexander VI) before her, Lucrezia (Françoise Balthazar) is the subject of grudging select fear and respect, as well as derision and vicious gossip. She’s onto her third husband, Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrera (Paul Hopkins), who has taken his ward and goddaughter Contessa Angela Di Ghilini (Chelsea Russell) as his mistress. As with all of her marriages, this union was arranged by her father for political gain—in this case, d’Este’s army—and Lucrezia is aware of, and disinterested in, her husband’s extramarital dalliances.

Dewey Stewart & Françoise Balthazar. Set & costume design by Jan Venus. Lighting design by Waleed Ansari. Photo by Rene Stakenborg. 

When Alfonso receives word from Rome that Pope Julius II has excommunicated them, and by association all of Ferrera, over allegations of immoral and criminal acts (see rumours about Lucrezia), the house is thrown into a tizzy, prompting Lucrezia to travel to Rome to try to reverse the decision. It is there that she meets Giovanni (Dewey Stewart), a handsome young captain in the Pope’s elite guard. Both in disguise for a masked ball when they meet, Giovanni—who loathes the Borgias, out of duty to the current Pope and based on rumour—doesn’t believe she is who she says she is and the two embark on an affair. We also meet Lucrezia’s friend and confidante Sister Bibiana (Martha Chaves), who acts as an informant for Lucrezia and Alfonso.

Giovanni, on the heels of Lucrezia after she slips away from Rome, is captured and beaten by Alfonso’s henchman Carlo (Michael Giordano); Alfonso has learned of Lucrezia’s tryst with the young captain, and forces her to choose between throat slitting or poison for his execution. An expert with poison and antidotes, she chooses the latter, a decision that offers Giovanni not only the opportunity to live another day, but to meet the lovely young Angela. Like Giovanni, Angela’s derision of Lucrezia melts when she gets to actually know her—and she gets a quick tutorial on Lucrezia’s signature poison, the titular belladonna (deadly nightshade), mixed with snake venom, from Sister Bibiana.

Of course, since we’re talking about the Borgias and the cut-throat politics of that time and place, someone does die and there’s a question about the lineage of someone else—and you’ll have to go see for yourself to find out who. Death, sex, alliances and even devotion to the Catholic Church all hinge on expediency, convenience and political advantage; vengeance is swift and sure, and life such as it is carries on in spite of it all.  Oh—and there’s puppets!

Chelsea Russell & Dewey Stewart. Set & costume design by Jan Venus. Lighting design by Waleed Ansari. Photo by Rene Stakenborg. 

Balthazar gives a stellar performance as the sultry, cunning Lucrezia—a role that seems tailor-made for her, as it showcases her compelling presence and vocal strength. Although technically lower in rank than her husband, Lucrezia is Alfonso’s match in every way: politically savvy, highly intelligent and possessing of an unabashed sexual appetite. Where the two diverge is apparent in Alfonso’s pompous, cruel sense of entitlement, which Hopkins executes with charming yet vicious precision.

Russell is highly entertaining as the bored little rich girl Angela, whose shade-casting ways turn to respect when she actually gets to know Lucrezia; also shouts to her for the puppet show, a hilariously irreverent Punch and Judy-like faceoff between Pope Alexander VI and Pope Julius II (design and construction by Jan Venus). Stewart is a delight as the brash, lusty Giovanni; a one-time true believer of Lucrezia’s rumoured unsavoury reputation, he too becomes a convert when he gets to know her, both biblically and otherwise. Chaves is a treat as the impish, wily Sister Bibiana; like Lucrezia, there’s more than meets the eye to this little nun—and you don’t want to get on the wrong side of those expert snake-handling hands. And Giordano’s strong, mostly silent henchman Carlo adds a gangland-flavoured comic edge.

Poison is often dismissed, mainly by men, as a “woman’s weapon.” But as we see from Sister Bibiana’s chemistry lesson and Lucrezia Borgia’s mastery of it—it involves science, skill and subtlety. And while the use of a plant to kill is perhaps a more velvet glove approach compared to the brute force of cold steel, it gets the job done. After all, one must use what weapons one has at one’s disposal. Underestimate the power of such weapons, and those who wield them, at your peril. Misunderstood, maligned and underestimated, Lucrezia Borgia is a survivor turned thriver, evolving from political bargaining chip to political force in her own right. Just don’t tell the men that.

Bella Donna continues in the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace until June 1; performances run Tues-Sat at 8 pm, with matinées on Sundays at 2:30 pm. Get advance tickets online or at the door (PWYC rush tickets available on Tuesdays and Sundays).

 

Power, politics & cunningly crafted image in the riveting, brilliant The Virgin Trial

Bahia Watson (2017 production). Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper presents Kate Hennig’s The Virgin Trial, directed by Alan Dilworth, assisted by Katrina Darychuk—opening last night at the Young Centre. The companion piece to The Last Wife, the play was originally commissioned and produced by the Stratford Festival in 2017, with the final installment of the trilogy, Mother’s Daughter, to premiere at Stratford in this coming May-October. A riveting and brilliantly orchestrated look at power, politics and the cunningly crafted image of a young queen in waiting, The Virgin Trial incorporates modern dress and language as it explores cat and mouse, life and death interrogations following a plot against the life of young King Edward VI. A teenaged Bess, who would go on to become Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen; and Thomas Seymour, who was married to Bess’s stepmother Catherine Parr, are at the centre of the investigation.

The nicely appointed interview room in the Tower, with its elegant table and chairs, crystal chandelier overhead (set and costume design by Yannik Larivée, lighting design by Kimberly Purtell), belies the minefield of questioning, manipulation and thinly veiled threats that subjects will be subjected to—not to mention the dark and treacherous confines of the plastic-curtained halls without. Enter Eleanor (Yanna McIntosh), a ruthless noblewoman on a mission, and the smooth-talking Lord Protector Ted (Nigel Bennett)—playing good cop to Eleanor’s bad cop—to question young Bess (Bahia Watson) over what she knows about Thom Seymour’s (Brad Hodder) alleged recent attempt on King Edward’s life.

As the stakes get higher, the interrogators dig deep to find dirt on Bess, real or imagined, in an attempt to manipulate her testimony, as well as public opinion of her; slut-shaming,  leaking fake news, and playing on her own loyalties as well as those close to her to get the answers they want. Next in line to the throne—second if you ignore her half-sister Mary’s (Helen Knight) religion—Bess is highly suspect by association: her “traitor” “whore” mother Ann Boleyn and her suspected romantic ties to Thom, coupled with her outspoken, quick intelligence, make her a dangerous player in this game of thrones. The line of questioning turns to Bess’s possible involvement in the plot, pulling in her governess Ashley (Laura Condlln) and assistant Parry (André Morin), who both knew about and supported Thom’s romantic advances.

Outstanding performances from the ensemble in this intense, at times darkly funny and playful, tale of royal intrigue, machinations and a young woman’s growing sense of power. Watson is spellbinding as the complex, mercurial young Bess; a playful yet observant child wise beyond her years, Bess soaks up knowledge like a sponge and is able to manifest it into action with alarming speed and accuracy. On the brink of womanhood, her growing sense of power—both sexual and political—fascinates and excites her, the seeds of the fierce, savvy monarch who made history planted before our eyes.

The Virgin Trial, Stratford Festival 2017
Yanna McIntosh & Bahia Watson (2017 production). Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

McIntosh gives a gripping and intimidating performance as the stone cold, calculating Eleanor. Her menacing tone and bearing illustrate a particularly merciless variation of female badassery in this play, along with Knight’s delightfully wry, gives-zero-fucks Mary and Watson’s ambitious, rising future queen Bess. Bennett’s sleazy spin master Ted complements McIntosh’s Eleanor nicely; a master of image projection, and oozing false warmth and sincerity, while Ted’s methods are decidedly different, the desired outcome is the same. Hodder does a great balancing act with Thom’s likeable handsome rouge exterior and the lechery that lies beneath; a complex man whose alliances appear to shift with circumstance, one wonders what Thom’s true motives are.

 

The Virgin Trial, Stratford Festival 2017
Brad Hodder & Bahia Watson (2017 production). Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Great supporting work from Condlln and Morin as Ashley and Parry—at times offering some much-needed comic relief; as Bess’s closest confidantes, Ashley and Parry are both loyal, supportive and a bit laissez faire with her. Perhaps their close proximity to celebrity, and a possible future queen, has clouded their better judgement, blinding them to what’s really going on behind the scenes and how they’re implicated in Bess’s actions.

 

Ambition, power and public image feature prominently. Underestimated and undervalued, Bess truly believes that she was meant for better things. She is not the innocent she appears to be; and there’s far more than meets the eye to this young woman whose secret heart is set upon the throne.

The Virgin Trial continues at the Young Centre until February 3, including a special matinée performance added on January 31 and a 7:00 performance added on February 3. Advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188. Get on those advance bookings to avoid disappointment.

In the meantime, check out the trailer:

 

A hero’s epic journey in the magical, multidisciplinary Kiviuq Returns: An Inuit Epic

Qaggiq Collective ensemble—Animal Den scene. Costume design by Looee Arreak. Projection design by Jamie Griffiths. Lighting design by Rebecca Picherack. Photo by Jamie Griffiths.

 

Tarragon Theatre presents The Qaggiq Collective’s magical, multidisciplinary hero’s journey Kiviuq Returns: An Inuit Epic. Written by the Iqaluit, Nunavut-based collective, and inspired by the legends of the Inuit hero Kiviuq, the multimedia performance is based on stories remembered and shared by Inuit elder storytellers Miriam Aglukkaq (from Kugaarjuk), Susan Avingaq (from Igloolik), Madeline Ivalu (from Igloolik) and Qaunaq Mikigak (from Kinngait)—passed on in the oral tradition. Directed by Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, Kiviuq Returns is performed entirely in Inuktitut, with no surtitles,* incorporating music, dance, movement, mask and projections—immersing the audience in Inuit culture, community and storytelling.

Starring Natar Ungalaq, Charlotte Qamaniq, Vinnie Karetak (last night, understudy Jerry Laisa stepped in for Karetak), Christine Tootoo, Keenan Carpenter and Avery Keenainak, Kiviuq Returns presents five of the hundreds of stories about the Inuit hero. Three actors share the role of Kiviuq (Ungalaq, Tootoo and Laisa), with role exchanges marked by the passing of Kiviuq’s qajaq (kayak) paddle and headband—representing the sharing of power and knowledge among Inuit communities. The four elders who shared these stories are present via video projection, to round out each of the five tales.

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Qaggiq Collective ensemble—Orphan bullying scene. Costume design by Looee Arreak. Projection design by Jamie Griffiths. Lighting design by Rebecca Picherack. Photo by Jamie Griffiths.

Comedy turns to tragedy in the story of the Orphan (Keenainak), turned into a seal for her protection from repeated abuse from bullies by her angakkuq (shaman) grandmother (Qamaniq), who is heartbroken over having to do this. Only Kiviuq (Ungalaq) is spared from retribution while he’s out hunting in his qajaq with the bullies, as he had tried to intervene and stop the bullying. Lost and adrift, his hero’s journey begins.

From the push/pull dynamic of Kiviuq’s (Tootoo) desire to wed a Fox Woman (Keenainak) who just longs to be free (song written by Avery Keenainak and Abraham Etak), to his hilariously bawdy encounter with a den of lusty animals (Carpenter, Laisa, Qamaniq and Ungalaq), to a brush with death when he’s (Laisa) captured by the fearful Bee Woman (Qamaniq), Kiviuq is present and connected to his environment, and the animals and spirit guides that come to assist him. Nicely bookending the five stories, Ungalaq returns to play Kiviuq once more at the end of his journey, where he must stay behind as his Goose Wife (Keenainak) and goslings (Carpenter, Laisa, Qamaniq and Tootoo) fly south and he transforms out of human form to become part of the landscape.

Woven into the Kiviuq stories are a Woman’s Dance; bringing to mind the serious mental health issues faced by our Indigenous population, the woman struggles with a deep internal conflict, eventually overcoming it. And the beautiful Sea Woman Poem (written in English by Taqralik Partridge and translated into Inuktitut by Looee Arreak), featuring Tootoo leading the ensemble. Expressing deep love and respect for the water, the poem despairs at the careless and dangerous environmental damage done by modern-day industry; the movements accompanying the words rippling through each performer. And there’s a song (sound design by Chris Coleman), repeated during each Kiviuq exchange; hypnotic and relaxing, like a lullaby wrapping you in the comfort and safety of home—it stays with you long after you’ve left the theatre.

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Fox elder story. Projection design by Jamie Griffiths. Photo by Jamie Griffiths.

The storytelling is playful, poignant and engaging—having you laughing one minute and breaking your heart the next. The adventure, the shifting landscapes (projection design by Jamie Griffiths), and cast of human, animal and spirit characters keep you on your toes as you let the Inuktitut language wash over you. It’s that ‘kid at story time’ kind of feeling. And the easy-going atmosphere of the relaxed performance format makes for an intimate, enjoyable experience at the theatre. A story for all ages, it’s a welcoming, open door feeling, acknowledging the young and the elders as crucial members of the community.

Kiviuq Returns: An Inuit Epic is in its final week in the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace, closing on January 27; get advance tickets online or contact the box office at 416-531-1827. Last night’s house was packed, so advance booking or extra early arrival at the theatre are strongly recommended.

*The production provides a play guide, available for viewing and download online, and in the printed programs. It is recommended that you review the guide before and after the show, as well as reference it during (lights are brought up during scene changes) to aid in a deeper understanding of the performance.

 

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.

Culture, identity & the meaning of the blues in Soulpepper’s powerful, entertaining Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Top: Alex Poch-Goldin. Bottom: Marcel Stewart, Diego Matamoros, Beau Dixon, Neville Edwards & Alana Bridgewater. Set & lighting design by Ken MacKenzie. Costume design by Alexandra Lord. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper takes us to 1920s Chicago, where the race, power and creative exploitation collide in a lively, tension-filled recording studio session in August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, directed by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu. This is the first time Ma Rainey has been performed in Canada since 1985, shortly after its 1984 premiere on Broadway.

A faint haze hangs over the dark, empty Chicago recording studio, conjuring visions of musicians and singers smoking between—or even during—takes (set and lighting design by Ken MacKenzie). Gradually, the space is peopled with the steady, quiet pace of familiar routine. Cranky, gravel-voiced studio owner Sturdyvant (Diego Matamoros) and Ma’s put-upon, ingratiating manager Irvin (Alex Poch-Goldin) get set up in the booth and on the floor. Then the boys in the band arrive: the bookish, philosophical piano man Toledo (Beau Dixon); the quiet, no-nonsense bassist Slow Drag (Neville Edwards); and fastidious, practical band leader/banjo player/trombonist Cutler (Lindsay Owen Pierre). Last to arrive is the energetic, stylish Levee (Lovell Adams-Gray), the new whiz kid on the trumpet, arriving late and showing off a new pair of shoes. The band hangs out in the rehearsal room downstairs (downstage), shooting the breeze and rehearsing a bit while they wait for Ma to arrive. The tension is already cooking, as Ma is running late, the play list is ever-changing, and the ambitious new kid—who has his sights set on starting his own band and recording his own music—doesn’t seem to think he needs to rehearse.

When the big energy, take-charge Mother of the Blues Ma (Alana Bridgewater) finally arrives an hour late, resplendent in a green dress (costumes by Alexandra Lord) with her young flapper girlfriend Dussie Mae (Virgilia Griffith) and sharp-dressed nephew Sylvester (Marcel Stewart) in tow, there’s more arguing and scrambling. An irritated policeman (Derek Boyes) has followed them into the studio, charging Sylvester with reckless driving and Ma with assault; Irvin quickly “handles” the situation, then finds himself under orders to arrange for repairs to Ma’s car. And then there’s the ongoing debate over which version of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” they’re going to record: the original or Levee’s version. And Ma wants Sylvester, who stutters, to do the spoken intro on the recording; a decision that’s greeted with thinly veiled annoyed cynicism. Irvin continues bouncing like a ping pong ball between Sturdyvant, Ma and the band, playing peacekeeper, and taking care of all the concerns and issues. Young Levee has eyes for Dussie Mae; Cutler is trying to keep the band on track, especially Levee; and Slow Drag just wants to get it over with and go home. Toledo has his books to keep him company, while Sylvester and Dussie Mae are thrilled to be there—and Dussie Mae has taken notice of Levee’s attention.

Conversations among the band range from the comic to the tragic, from day-to-day shenanigans, to stories of personal struggle and the lived experience of being Black in America. And though she comes off as a diva, Ma is a shrewd businesswoman; she knows what she does and does not have control over. Where she can have a say, you can bet she’ll have it! Commanding respect with her seemingly unreasonable demands, Ma navigates a world where artists—particularly artists of colour—are used up for their creative talents then cast aside; in the meantime, they’re paid a fraction of what they’re worth while white producers, managers and studio owners profit handsomely from their work. And, for Ma and the band, the blues are more than just a money-making music genre—it’s “life’s way of talking.”

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Virgilia Griffith & Lovell Adams-Gray. Set & lighting design by Ken MacKenzie. Costume design by Alexandra Lord. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Outstanding, compelling work from this tight, multi-talented ensemble. Bridgewater shines as the unstoppable, talented Ma—a force to be reckoned with. A large woman with a larger than life personality, Ma is an exacting professional; a fierce mamma bear when it comes to protecting loved ones; and a tender, generous lover. Like most women in her situation, a respected and highly popular artist like Ma has a reputation for being “difficult”—a charge that would never be levelled at a white male artist in her shoes.

Adams-Gray does an amazing job peeling back the layers of Levee. From a traumatized child to a volatile young man, Levee is confident in his talent and eager to make a name for himself as a composer and band leader—but, unlike his more seasoned bandmates, has yet to learn how the game is played. Stewart is a delight as the shy, child-like Sylvester; wide-eyed, and filled with wonder and joy to be in the studio. With Ma’s support and encouragement, and bolstered by his plan to send money home to his mother, we see Sylvester’s self-confidence blossom as he works hard through his speech impediment to do the best he can on the recording.

Though set in the 20s, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom speaks to the situation of artists today. While artists have gained more control over their work and working conditions, the industry still has work to do with regard to cultural and creative exploitation, and assigning labels of “difficult” on women and artists of colour. And we only have to look at Ma and Levee to see that artists must learn to play the game and be at peace over that which they cannot control—or be swept up in the undertow of their own frustrated ambition and expectations.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom continues in the Michael Young Theatre at the Young Centre—now extended by popular demand to June 9. Get advance tickets online or give the box office a shout at: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.