SummerWorks: Running away to home in the fierce, funny, inspiring, socially aware The Breath Between

Fio Yang. Photo by Saba Akhtar.

 

The AMY Project returns to SummerWorks, this year with a journey of belonging and identity as a group of BIPOC, 2LGBTQ women and non-binary youth living in a world ravaged by climate change venture out in search of a place where they can feel safe and welcome to be themselves. The fierce, funny, inspiring and socially aware The Breath Between, directed by kumari giles and Julia Hune-Brown, assisted by Jamie Milay, and created by the ensemble, opened last night in The Theatre Centre Incubator.

In a post-apocalyptic world where climate change has destroyed the planet and forced the population to live under protective domes, the queer community gathers to dance and celebrate at Dome Pride. Growing increasingly disillusioned and disappointed about the over-the-top corporate branding and ownership—not to mention the $17 bottled water—and mainstream packaging of the event meant to “normalize” queer culture, a group of young BIPOC and 2LGBTQ women and non-binary youth decide to blow this corporate logo-ridden popsicle stand and search for a better place. Hijacking a spaceship on display at the event, and joined by the chirpy host inspired by their cause, they venture out to explore worlds beyond to find a place where they can feel safe and welcome. The trip brings some twists, turns and revelations as they share and discover themselves.

The bright, energetic and engaging ensemble includes Jericho Allick (mentored by Neema Bickersteth), nevada jane arlow (mentored by Susanna Fournier), Alice Cheng Meiqing (mentored by Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster), Lyla Sherbin (mentored by Avery Jean Brennan), Fio Yang (mentored by Maddie Bautista), Whitney Nicole Peterkin and Megan Legesse; with additional writing by Taranjot Bamrah, A.C., Daniella Leacock and Claudia Liz. Incorporating music, poetry and monologues, the performers invite us into their individual worlds as they share memories and lived experiences—for better or worse. There is pain, longing and shame—but there is also resilience, ferocity and hope; all peppered with astute and darkly comic acknowledgments of the negative impacts of extreme climate change and the corporate branding of events that were once community-organized, grassroots movements.

While they may leave the Dome feeling like a spaceship full of misfit toys, the group ends up finding community and chosen family—and faces the choice of returning home or continuing their off-world exploration. Nicely book-ended by songs performed by Fio Yang, you may find yourself humming Out in the City as you leave the theatre.

Go where you are welcome—or take space where you like? In the end, home is where your family is, whether biological or chosen, and you can spark the change you want to see.

The Breath Between has three more performances in the Incubator space at The Theatre Centre, closing on August 16; check the show page for exact dates/times. Tickets available online or in person at the box office.

All’s Well That Ends Well adaptation a delightfully dark comedic romp with a twist

Christopher Mott, Chanakya Mukherjee & Liz Der. Photo by Stevie Baker.

 

Dauntless City Theatre is back at Berczy Park (aka the dog fountain park across from the St. Lawrence Centre) with a delightful immersive, site-specific adaptation of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well. Adapted and directed by Scott Emerson Moyle, assisted by Jordi O’Dael, this version of the play is queer, twisty, darkly funny—and calls out bad behaviour—in an intimate, energetic romp of sauce and wit that’s part cautionary tale, part dark comedy.

Helena (a feisty, resilient turn from Liz Der) has recently lost her father, a skilled and respected doctor, and is now the ward of the recently widowed Countess Rousillon (Andrea Lyons is a treat in this edgy, hilarious performance), whose son Bertram (played with sneering pride and entitlement by Chanakya Mukherjee) is now the new Count. Helena is hopelessly and secretly in love with Bertram, but dares not hope for a match, as she is not noble-born. She is, however, very skilled in the healing arts; and when news arrives that the King of France (played with imperiousness tempered by warmth by Christopher Mott) has been very ill with no cure in sight, she sees a way to prove her worth to Bertram, who has travelled to the French court with his BFF Parolles (a cheeky, lovable scoundrel, played with gusto by Annelise Hawrylak).

Despite his skepticism after many failed treatments administered by many learned men, the King agrees to Helena’s treatment—and rewards her success by offering her the choice of any man in court for her husband. Taking this opportunity, she chooses Bertram; and when he rudely refuses her proposal, the King forces him into marriage. With war brewing in Florence, Parolles sees a way out and suggests that she and Bertram leave France and join the army. They do so, with Bertram leaving word with Helena that he will be her husband only if she successfully completes the impossible task of getting a ring from him and getting pregnant with his child. Helena pursues Bertram to France and, with the help of the independent and savvy innkeeper Diana (Melanie Leon), who Bertram has been doggedly pursuing to bed, hatches a plan to make the impossible possible.

Rounding out the company are Eric Benson as the priggish, arrogant M. LaFeu, an elder courtier at the Countess’s home; Tallan Alexander as Lavatch, the Countess’s saucy valet; and Holly Wyder as the spritely, guitar playing Dumaine the Younger and Anthony Botelho as the cheeky, trumpeter Dumaine the Elder, sibling messengers and our guides around the park.

And just as Helena and Diana put one over on Bertram, Parolles’ fellow soldiers (Lyons, Mott, Alexander and Benson) pull some trickery on him, revealing his true character. Prideful and careless of others, both Bertram and Parolles fall hard, and must surrender to their respective fates in the end. And an unexpected match is made in the process.

Part cautionary tale, part dark comedy, the energetic and entertaining ensemble keeps us on our toes—literally and figuratively—with twisting plot turns, and hilarious battles of words and wits; with some characters thinking and acting with their hearts and others working from somewhere decidedly south of there. Sharp-witted skills at verbal thrust and parry is in great evidence between Hawrylak’s Parolles and Benson’s M. LaFeu, as well as Hawrylak and Der’s Helena, and Lyons’ Countess and Alexander’s Lavatch. And Der’s performance is a great combination of love-struck and determination in Helena’s one-sided attentions to Bertram, and keen debate and care with the King—all while trying to prove herself worthy of Bertram’s love, which he clearly doesn’t want or deserve.

The adaptation lives up to the title, connecting us with the story in an intimate and contemporary way in an immersive, site-specific production that incorporates gender-bending casting, queer twists and calling out bad behaviour. The underlying misogyny and classism get big time push-back with powerful, capable and intelligent female and queer characters who ain’t taking no guff. (And with a female Parolles, we’re also reminded that even women can be dicks.) Beware of the proud and scornful, and the braggart cowards—and the proud and scornful mustn’t underestimate the smart and resourceful, no matter what their station. And don’t waste your talent and affection on someone who doesn’t care for or deserve you.

All’s Well That Ends Well continues in Berczy Park until August 25, with Friday and Saturday evening performances at 7:30 pm (except for Fri, Aug 9); and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 1:00 p.m. Admission is pay what you can (PWYC), suggested $20 per person; look for the Dauntless City Theatre banner, east of the fountain.

 

Department of Corrections: The original post had matinee performances listed at 1:30 p.m.; they’re actually at 1:00 p.m. This has been corrected.

Toronto Fringe: Exorcising inner demons in the part self-help, part stand-up, all heart Personal Demon Hunter

Velvet Duke. Photo by Tyra Sweet.

 

The Velvet Duke faces off with our inner demons in Velvet Wells’ Personal Demon Hunter, running in the back room on the main floor at the Imperial Pub. Part self-help workshop, part stand-up and all heart, personal storytelling, improv and music combine to create a casual, open-minded space where audience members are gently invited to share their personal demons.

Motivational speaker Velvet Duke (Wells) welcomes us into the space, a workshop designed to address our inner demons–and also, as his puppet friends suggest, our angels. Diving into family history, lived experience and the ongoing inner voice we all possess, Duke shares his story, through anecdote and music—accompanied by Alan Val, Wells’ partner in the band OverDude, on electric guitar, doing some musical improving; and stage manager Alan Leightizer on laptop—and invites us to share ours.

Wells is a totally relatable and approachable presence, finding common ground as he shares personal stories that resonate; and ever so gently inviting consensual audience participation. His ultimate message: You are enough and you don’t need growth to be a person of value because you already are a person of value.

Father issues, self-doubt, unhealthy family dynamics, imposter syndrome, toxic workplaces—the space and its occupants are open-minded and open-hearted during the sharing. And saying it out loud, naming the demons, is a good step toward exorcising them. Angels and demons in our everyday lives—around us and within us—our outer and inner voices of positivity and negativity. Wells encourages us to push those negative influences and voices aside, and find and keep positive connections—whether it’s on stage behind a microphone or at our jobs, wherever.

Person Demon Hunter continues at the Imperial Pub for four more performances: July 11-13 at 8:00 and July 13 at 3:00; check the show page for advance tickets.

Wells and Leightizer are also cast members of The Dandies, who rock Star Trek-themed improv in Holodeck Follies.

A journey into the light & dark of self-discovery in the bittersweet, courageous Welcome to my Underworld

Clockwise, from top left: Grace Thompson, Nikoletta Erdelyi, Carolyn Hetherington, Samson Brown, Radha S. Menon, Maddie Bautista & Bilal Baig. Set design by Brett Haynes. Lighting design by Sharmylae Taffe-Fletcher. Photo by Sophia Thompson-Campbell.

 

RARE Theatre Company, in partnership with Soulpepper, presents the world premiere of Welcome to my Underworldwritten by Bilal Baig, Maddie Bautista, Samson Brown, Simone Dalton, Nikoletta Erdelyi, Carolyn Hetherington, Radha S. Menon, Ellen Ringler and Grace Thompson, on stage at the Young Centre. Dramaturged/directed by RARE’s AD Judith Thompson, choreographed by Monica Dottor, and featuring original composition/live accompaniment by Olivia Shortt, a 10-year-old girl’s search for her truest self weaves nine individual stories into one as we follow her into the world of the shadow self.

Anchored by 10-year-old Willow (Grace Thompson), who struggles with her own sense of self, Welcome to my Underworld is part fairy tale, part hero’s journey, part autobiography as each performer presents their own story; a place where light and dark meet, and where spirits are tested and tempered. Possessing of a sharp, curious mind and keenly interested in how others navigate the world, Willow and her imaginary friend Mara invite the other characters in to share their stories.

There are the infuriating stories of a pre-transitioned trans man being confronted in a woman’s washroom, and a Trinidadian lesbian’s connection with an HIV+ gay father figure-told with humour, tenderness and heartbreak by Brown. The harrowing experiences of the elderly surviving a terrifying adverse reaction, apparently common among seniors, to a post-op medication (a feisty, fighter Harrington); and the feelings of family betrayal and confusion as an Indian woman is driven alongside a truck full of cattle to her new home at an assisted living facility (a spirited, poignant performance from Menon). Navigating prejudice regarding competence and attractiveness based on Roma (“gypsy”) ethnicity and physical ability (the candid, suffers no fools Erdelyi, performing from a wheelchair). Childhood innocence and trust lost during a time of burgeoning sexuality (a delightful, heart-wrenching performance from Bautista, a bi, Saudi Arabia-born Filipina).

There are the social castaways dealing with addiction and mental illness (fierce and lyrical performances from Menon and Baig); observed by Willow while in the psych ward. And queer, genderqueer Baig’s sassy, poignant secret party girl persona, fleeing their home and fearing attack from both parents and strangers, shares a narrow escape that hearkens back to the recent tragedy of missing and murdered gay men in the Village. Humourous, heart-breaking and eye-opening, each shares a broad range of lived experience from their own unique perspective—calling upon us to examine who we’ve ignored, shoved aside or disrespected. Who will love or miss the disenfranchised, the social pariahs, those living on the fringes?

Shortt’s live onstage music and pre-show mix blends sound effect with soundtrack, tailored perfectly to each story; and Dottor’s choreography is playful, balletic and emotive as it visually weaves one tale into another. Haynes’s set deftly combines black/white, dark/light; the central image a tree of life, its branches reaching for the sky as its roots dig into the earth.

Playful, poetic and funny—at times harrowing, infuriating and heart-breaking, the storytelling is raw, candid and impossible to ignore. These are stories from those whose voices are seldom heard, let alone given space to speak their truth. While Welcome to my Underworld promises no happy endings, it does bring a sense of hope and resilience. We all need to be seen, be heard, be loved and respected. We all need to feel safe to be ourselves. And we need more theatre like this.

Welcome to my Underworld continues at the Young Centre in the Tankhouse Theatre until May 25; advance tickets available online, or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

ICYMI: Check out Phil Rickaby’s interview with dramaturg/director Judith Thompson on Stageworthy Podcast.

 

Toronto Fringe: Burlesque macabredy delights in the erotic queer vampire tale Carmilla

Heath V. Salazar & Stella Kulagowski. Photo by Sly Feiticeira.

 

Pointed Cap Playhouse takes Toronto Fringe audiences to a Victorian world of frightening yet titillating portents and strange, alluring creatures in Adam Steel’s burlesque adaptation of Carmilla; running at The Painted Lady. Co-created by Sly Feiticeira, Stella Kulagowski and Adam Steel, and directed by Kay Brattan, this version of the vampire was inspired by Joseph Sheridan La Fanu’s book, which pre-dated the Bram Stoker classic by 26 years. Here, the vampire is attractive, seductive and rife with eroticism—think Frank Langella’s or Gary Oldman’s Dracula, or the beautiful creatures from Interview with the Vampire.

Carmilla opens on the English country home of Dominic Sheridan (Shawn Lall), where he lives with his lovely, well-mannered flaxen-haired daughter Laura (Stella Kulagowski) and prim governess Mlle. De La Fontaine (Amanda McKnight). Laura’s hopes and excitement over the impending visit of new friend Bertha (McKnight) are dashed when they learn that Bertha has succumbed to a mysterious illness and died. A carriage accident near their home brings an equally mysterious woman (Sly Feiticeira) to their door, searching for a place to sequester her injured daughter as she continues on an important mission. Sheridan takes the daughter in, an unconscious figure wrapped in a cloak.

Bertha’s grief-stricken father General Spielsdorf (Sebastien Marziali) travels to Romania in search of answers for his daughter’s death, posting regular updates to Sheridan. Meanwhile, Laura becomes fast friends with their young guest, a strikingly beautiful, pale young woman with raven hair named Carmilla (Heath V. Salazar). When their friendship evolves into something more, and Laura starts dressing and behaving in an uncharacteristic way, Sheridan becomes concerned for his daughter’s health. And when the General returns with some troubling information about the nature of the deadly ailment, suspicions about Carmilla are confirmed.

Part burlesque, part melodrama, part macabredy—with a dash of erotic fairy tale—Carmilla is a sexy, fun romp of a queer vampire tale, presented with style, sass and seductiveness. Featuring evocative, fun and sensual choreography by Kulagowski, Salazar and Marziali, it’s a rousing burlesque delight. If you’re a burlesque virgin, no worries—Mlle. De La Fontaine will reveal all when it comes to burlesque audience etiquette.

Carmilla continues at The Painted Lady, with performances tonight (July 12) at 7pm, and Saturday and Sunday at 1pm. Last night’s show was sold out, and it’s an intimate venue, so advance booking is a very good plan.

Want to check if the show you want to see is sold out? The Toronto Fringe folks have set up a page for sold-out shows, updated daily.

 

 

Toronto Fringe: Resilience against all odds in the defiant, poignant, hopeful The Pansy Craze: A New Musical

In a time when “transgender” wasn’t a word and homosexuality was illegal, a trans woman refuses to be invisible and shines on the vaudeville stage in Next Stop Productions’ The Pansy Craze. With book, music and lyrics by Avery Jean Brennan, and directed by Dustin George, with music direction by Brennan, the new musical is running at the Randolph Theatre during the Toronto Fringe festival.

The Pansy Craze takes us to 1930s America, behind the scenes of underground vaudeville venues—speakeasies, where booze wasn’t the only prohibited item on the menu. In a bid to out-do the competition, these establishments boasted titillating shows, putting queer performers on the bill to entice customers. When star actress Helen (Stephanie Hood)—recently and conveniently married to Charlie (Shaquille Pottinger) so they can be a husband and wife act—sprains her ankle, closeted Emcee Duncan (Eric McDace, alternate for Teddy Moynihan) decides to put Jeanie (Devin Herbert), who is a transgender woman, into the act. The group has a huge opportunity at an upscale Manhattan place run by Gladys (Kira Renee) and unofficially overseen by Tom (Sansom Marchand), a cop who turns a blind eye to the illegal goings-on so he can have a place to drink. Gladys also has connections with famous vaudeville impresario Norbert (Peter Mundell).

Jeanie, a talented songwriter/performer, illuminates the stage with panache and heartbreaking torch songs. “Pansies”, as the queer performers are called, are okay with establishment managers, so long as they entertain and bring in customers—but Tom isn’t so happy about turning a blind eye to this particular bending of the law, particularly Jeanie, who doesn’t blend in onstage or off. Complicated relationships emerge within the company, with more drama occurring in the wings than onstage at times.

When prohibition is lifted, booze comes out of the closet, but queer performers are no longer welcome—now that these vaudeville houses are above ground, they can’t risk running afoul of the law and losing customers. Refusing to be closeted or forced into a “normal” life as a man, Jeanie sets her sights on continuing her career, and she and Charlie get audition spots for Norbert’s show. And when tragedy strikes this tight-knit group, Charlie finds himself with a life-altering decision to make.

There’s high-energy hoofing and singing from an entertaining cast. Herbert is a clear stand-out as Jeanie; lighting up the stage, they shine in a charismatic performance, full of style, sass and impressive vocal chops that can belt out a tune or break a heart. Lovely scenes and duet with Pottinger, who gives a nicely layered performance as Charlie, a talented and conflicted young man who’s forced to confront his own heart, inspired in part by Jeanie’s chutzpah. “So What if I’m a Pansy” becomes a defiant and touching anthem—for LGBTQ folks and anyone struggling to be themselves.

The Pansy Craze continues at the Randolph until July 15; check the show page for exact dates/times.

Words, music & dance collide @ Smash Words

Last night, I had the pleasure of attending Smash Words at the Press Club (http://www.thepressclub.ca/) for an evening of queer poetry and cabaret, with a great group of friends. The evening included poetry, spoken word, music and dance, featuring readings and performances by David Bateman, Philip Cairns (who was also our hostess with the mostess), Kirk DeMatas, Brock Hessel, Frank Hull, Kat Leonard, DM Moore and Lizzie Violet. An incredible evening of friends and art. Here are some impressions and photos from the evening, in alphabetical order.

David Bateman – travels and travails with mother, beautiful imagery, with extremely funny and moving moments.

Philip Cairns – a connoisseur of beautiful young men, we’re invited along on his flights of fancy and moments of joy, as well as the darker corners of life as a gay artist/performer.

Kirk DeMatas – poetry of a young man of colour’s struggle, anger and navigating a narrow-minded, racist society – with pride and voice emerging. 

Brock Hessel – funny and insightful stand-up bits, and spoken word – raw and real observations on life as a young gay man. Pride impressions duet read with DM Moore.

Frank Hull – beautifully choreographed dance performed by a man who just happens to be dancing in a wheel chair. Expressive, imaginative and moving.

Kat Leonard (aka Kat and the MP3) – hilarious and heartfelt tunes from her one-woman show A Depper Kind of Love, as well as her personal anthem (till somebody writes her a song) “Asshole” – ‘cuz nobody likes a cake waster.

DM Moore – dark vignettes of how assisting dear friend dying of AIDS helped her come to the realization that she was dying, slowly, from alcoholism. Fond, painful and hilarious memories, personal redemption and tribute to a friend’s spirit.

Lizzie Violet – poetry inspired by mom, friends, love of zombie lore, indefinable relationships and erotic moments. Naughty haiku included.

David Bateman
Philip Cairns
Kirk DeMatas
Brock Hessel
Frank Hull
Kat Leonard
DM Moore
Lizzie Violet