Landon & Matt’s most excellent interdimensional adventure in the playful, imaginative Life in a Box

Top to bottom: Matthew Finlan & Landon Doak. Photo by Fiona Sauder.

 

Bad Hats Theatre takes us on a most excellent interdimensional adventure with its live episodic TV musical Life in a Box; music and lyrics by Landon Doak, book by Matthew Finlan and directed by Fiona Sauder. When two fun-loving BFF/roommates survive a solar flare that turns the Earth into a burnt marshmallow, they travel back in time in an attempt to avert disaster in this hilarious, imaginative and playful trip of friendship, quantum physics and legal weed enjoyment. Better late than never for me as I joined this party with a friend at the Grand Canyon Theatre last night.

Played out as three episodes of a TV show called Life in a Box—the playing area and staging set within a cut-out, drawn-on TV screen window on a canvas screen—characters Landon (Landon Doak) and Matt (Matthew Finlan) are actors, best friends and roommates who share a basement apartment, good times and some good weed in Toronto. Their rambunctious fun is interrupted when Earth is hit by a solar flare, turning most of it into a burnt wasteland—prompting the boys to come up with a plan to save the world. Thanks to Matt’s book smarts, they’re able to construct a rudimentary time machine and travel back in time to warn their past selves and alert the authorities of the impending apocalypse.

They take a trip through time and land in 2013, but things don’t go as planned—especially on the trip back to the future—and both must rely on their wits and instinct to make it back to 2019. To keep hope alive, they must remember Matt’s motto: “There’s always a way.”

Featuring great tunes—inspired by music theatre stylings, rock and rap—delivered by some impressive vocals from Doak (who also plays acoustic guitar and ukulele) and Finlan (with sound design, arrangements and production by Lyon Smith, assisted by Victor Pokinko), Life in a Box is a big fun, musical comedy TV show adventure that incorporates physical theatre and even commercials shouting out production sponsors, delivered live (like in Prairie Home Companion).

Doak and Finlan give outstanding, high-octane performances as the two dudes on a mission; friendship, loyalty and a dedication to having fun make for an entertaining and endearing bromance adventure. Complementary opposites, Doak brings a child-like sense of wonder and playfulness to Landon; while not academically smart, Landon is resourceful and always has an emergency joint on hand. Finlan’s actor/dancer Matt carries off sharp wit and invention with slapdash ease; a positive, hopeful force for the pair, Matt’s extensive reading and ability to improvise the science take them on a journey neither could have imagined in their wildest dreams or most excellent highs.

With shouts to set designer Remington North and lighting designer Steve Vargo for their work on this awesome, trippy environment, featuring a behind the screen apparatus that allows for climbing and all kinds of play structure-enabled action. And to Rebecca Ballarin, who directed the original two-episode production at Toronto Fringe 2018.

Life in a Box is in its final week, closing on September 28 at the Grand Canyon Theatre (2 Osler St., Toronto); advance tickets available online. While you’re waiting for the show to start (or during intermission), get yourself a beverage and a snack box at the bar (snack boxes include a yummy selection of treats, plus a raffle ticket for an awesome prize!). Note: Due to mature themes, this is an adult musical.

 

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The impact of image on memory, identity & social change in the remarkable, moving, visually epic Reflector

Abraham Asto, Louisa Zhu, Michelle Polak & Michael Spence. Lighting & projection design by Laird MacDonald. Set design by Michael Spence & Laird MacDonald. Costume design by Melanie McNeill. Photo by Michael Cooper

 

Theatre Gargantua celebrates its 25th birthday with the world premiere of Reflector, conceived and directed by Jacquie PA Thomas, and written by Michael Spence—opening last night in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Mainspace.

Starring Abraham Asto, Michael Spence, Michelle Polak and Louisa Zhu, Reflector is a multimedia, multidisciplinary journey of sight, sound, memory and emotion as the storytelling explores the impact of image, tricks of the light and the perceptions of the mind’s eye. Combining physical theatre, poetry/spoken word, scenes and monologues with evocative soundscapes and a kaleidoscope of images, Reflector features projection and lighting design by Laird Macdonald, a set designed by Macdonald and Spence, sound design by Thomas Ryder Payne and costume design by Melanie McNeill.

We follow the interviews and experiences of three patients of psychologist/neuroscientist Dr. Haddad (Asto): photojournalist Declan (Spence), who took a Pulitzer prize-winning photo of a little girl who was killed among the charred ruins of her war-torn neighbourhood, and who now can’t identify everyday objects; Roula (Polak), a woman with hyperthymesia, who remembers every minute detail of everything she’s ever seen; and Kelly (Zhu), an Internet phenomenon who’s been living her life almost exclusively online, until one day she stopped doing so. All are poets; and this is reflected in the lyric language of monologues, rapid fire rap and spoken word, and the way these characters see the world, including themselves. Secret thoughts and inner conflicts emerge—even for Dr. Haddad, whose love of science is equalled only by his love of a childhood fascination with an art that at first betrayed him.

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Michelle Polak & Michael Spence (foreground); Louisa Zhu & Abraham Asto (background). Lighting & projection design by Laird MacDonald. Set design by Michael Spence & Laird MacDonald. Costume design by Melanie McNeill. Photo by Michael Cooper

The pacing and tone shifts back and forth, playing out opposites in a rich audio/visual tapestry of conflicting thoughts and emotions: calm and storm, light and shadow, break-neck speed and Sunday drive, fluid and erratic, soothing and jarring, cerebral and visceral. Movement matches sight and sound in evocative, innovative—and at times disturbing—ways.

Outstanding performances from the entire ensemble here, as the performers play out this story in a physical, vocal and emotional marathon. Asto brings a nice balance of warm, thoughtful professional and curious, child-like fascination to scientist Dr. Haddad— who gets an equally warm, child-like send-up from the other characters in a hilarious scene of self-reflection. Spence gives the tortured, frustrated Declan a fierce internal boil beneath the fragile, vulnerable surface. Polak’s Roula has a puck-like, wise-cracking frankness that belies inner turmoil and terrified grasping for identity. And Zhu’s got mad rapping skills, her mouth shooting words like a semi-automatic; then shows great debating chops as Kelly makes her argument for her virtual life—a life interrupted, but by what?

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Abraham Asto & Michael Spence. Lighting & projection design by Laird MacDonald. Set design by Michael Spence & Laird MacDonald. Costume design by Melanie McNeill. Photo by Michael Cooper

The impact of image on memory, identity and social change in the remarkable, moving, visually epic Reflector.

Reflector continues at TPM until November 18; get your advance tickets online .

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.

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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.

Random thoughts & sage advice in Felicia Guy-Lynch’s Scattered Thoughts: A Stream of Consciousness

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Felicia Guy-Lynch reading “you should know” at The Beautiful & the Damned.

Felicia Guy-Lynch’s first book, Scattered Thoughts: A Stream of Consciousness, is a poetry collection of random thoughts and shared wisdom on love, self-worth, trust and living in this world. Political, analytical, with word play, rhymes and rhythms – it sometimes feels like you’re reading a sheet of music with no notes on it, but you can hear the words, feel the beat.

I saw Guy-Lynch perform “you should know,” which appears near the end of Scattered Thoughts, at Glad Day Bookshop back in September at the monthly The Beautiful & the Damned poetry and music cabaret. Having now experienced this piece both live before an audience and read silently to myself in solitude, it’s still one of my favourites. Inspired by The Alchemist, the piece imparts sage advice that strikes home and sticks: “…those who gossip to you will eventually gossip about you. you should know wisdom is avoiding all thoughts that weaken you. those who anger you control you. you should know how your treat and make people feel? that’s all that matters…”

Often served up with a rap rhythm, some of the poems use rhyme, some don’t – and poems like “stylistic” weave a single rhyme throughout the piece. At times, the words flow across the page without punctuation, capital letters signaling the beginning of the next line. And just when you think you’ve got the rhythm down, anticipating the next beat, Guy-Lynch changes it up, playing the words in rhyming couplets in “crossroads,” then floating them in free association phrases in “cosmic sanctuary.”

You can catch Guy-Lynch at her upcoming book signing – including Scattered Thoughts: A Stream of Consciousness and her new book 365 on Saturday, May 11 at Knowledge Bookstore (177 Queen St. W., Brampton) from 12 – 4 p.m. In the meantime, you can pay her a visit at her Twitter and YouTube co-ordinates.