Love, sacrifice & the heartbeat of time in the delightful, poignant Sisters

Laura Condlln & Nicole Power. Set design by Michelle Tracey. Costume design by Erika Connor. Lighting design by Kimberley Purtell. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper opened its striking world premiere of Rosamund Small’s delightful, poignant Sisters—a story of love, family, sacrifices and the march of time—to an enthusiastic full house last night. Inspired by Edith Wharton’s novella Bunner Sisters and directed by Peter Pasyk, Sisters is running in the Michael Young Theatre at the Young Centre.

It’s the turn of the century in New York City, and sisters Ann (Laura Condlln) and Evelina (Nicole Power) live quiet, regular lives, working and living in a small shop, selling notions and jams, and providing sewing services. Both are single at an age that would label them as spinsters; and their small, humdrum workaday lives get a spark of excitement when Ann buys a clock for Evelina’s birthday—and both become enamoured with the quiet, charming clockmaker Ramy (Kevin Bundy). Adding to the fun is their observant friend and neighbour, Mrs. Mellins (Karen Robinson), a widowed dressmaker who lives upstairs.

Torn between her feelings for Ramy and love for her sister, Ann steps aside to make room for a match between Ramy and Evelina—a decision made all the more heart-wrenching when Ramy takes a job in St. Louis, taking his new wife with him and leaving Ann to run the shop alone. Dependant on return customers and referrals from more privileged ladies—like the affable Lady with the Puffy Sleeves (Ellora Patnaik) and the wealthy, entitled Customer (Raquel Duffy)—Ann and Mrs. Mellins are also facing a new wave of industrialization; one in which much of the textile industry will be mechanized, with factories churning out large amounts of pre-made, less expensive off-the-rack goods. Dealing with the separation as best as she can, when Evelina’s letters stop coming and her letters come back return-to-sender, Ann sets on a search for Evelina’s whereabouts; and with the help of Mrs. Mellins, gathers some troubling information about Ramy in the process.

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Karen Robinson, Laura Condlln & Nicole Power. Set design by Michelle Tracey. Costume design by Erika Connor. Lighting design by Kimberley Purtell. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Lovely work from the cast in this tale of everyday heroism and perseverance in the face of longing, heartbreak and loyalty. Condlln is heartbreaking and inspiring as the older sister Ann; practical and better with the accounts than she is with the creative side of the business, Ann puts her own desire for romance aside to make her sister happy. Power (who Kim’s Convenience fans will recognize as Jung’s quirky boss Shannon) is a day-dreamy spitfire as younger sister Evelina; bored and skeptical that things will get better, Evelina is more pessimistic than her sister—but is able to see colours in music and match the perfect accessories to a dress. Robinson (who Schitt’s Creek fans will recognize as Ronnie Lee) is a treat as Mrs. Mellins, performing with gusto and impeccable comic timing; while she has a morbid fascination in the seedier side of the city, Mrs. Mellins’ penny dreadful notions of life outside the shop make way for sage advice and motherly watchfulness over the sisters. And Bundy seduces as the reserved, gallant German clockmaker; shy, sickly and precise, Ramy is a mystery man of changeable temperament—which perhaps makes him all the more attractive.

The perspectival, display case-like set with a raked floor (Michelle Tracey), atmospheric lighting (Kimberly Purtell), stunning period costumes (Erika Connor) and haunting music box music (Richard Feren) make for an aesthetically pleasing, finely honed view of this world.

Sisters reminds us of the precarity of life for working women; reliant on men and those who are better off in general to make something of their lives. And of the saving grace of love, hope, faith and determination—with a little help from family and friends.

Sisters continues at the Young Centre until September 16. Get advance tickets online or call the box office: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

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Revolution, reversal, revulsion: Soulpepper’s disturbingly hilarious, brutally satirical, timely Animal Farm

Rick Roberts, Sarah Wilson & Miriam Fernandes. Set and costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by André du Toit. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper brings George Orwell’s chilling and bizarre cautionary tale of revolution, politics and corporate greed to life with its world premiere of Anthony MacMahon’s stage adaptation of Animal Farm, directed by Ravi Jain, assisted by Darwin Lyons, currently running at the Young Centre in the Distillery District.

Originally written as an allegorical representation of the rise of Stalin in Russia, Animal Farm gets a decidedly contemporary take in this stage production—it’s all too familiar and hits the mark with discomfiting accuracy.

The animals on Farmer Jones’s farm have had it with their lives and working conditions. Inspired by elder pig Old Major’s (Jennifer Villaverde) “All animals are equal” speech, they plan a revolt, resulting in casualties, including their beloved comrade Bessie the cow (Leah Cherniak). When it comes time to organize in the aftermath and make a plan to take over the farm going forward, the pigs take charge, and eventually comprise the only candidates for the leadership election. Moderated by his right-hand pig Squealer (Miriam Fernandez), the right wing, conservative Napoleon (Rick Roberts) faces off against the more progressive, liberal-minded Snowball (Sarah Wilson) in a debate—and things get ugly. Accusing Snowball of colluding with the humans, with her book learning and desire for committees and studies, Napoleon effectively bullies his way to the win, with his Doberman allies (Paolo Santalucia and Sugith Varughese)—who later become his security/muscle—chasing Snowball off.

Animal Farm, Soulpepper
Oliver Dennis and Guillermo Verdecchia. Set and costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by André du Toit. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Projecting an image of strength, resolve and deep caring for everyone, Napoleon is a master of providing easy answers to complex questions—and what the populace wants to hear. His promises of a better life and golden years of relaxation in a field of clover win over the exhausted and simple-minded alike, including the lovable old horse Boxer (Oliver Dennis). But the farm’s donkey Benjamin (Guillermo Verdecchia) and chicken Mercy (Raquel Duffy) aren’t so convinced. Napoleon, who prefers building fences to bridges, is highly suspicious of the neighbouring farm animals (in an insightful parody of foreign trade/relations); yet is constantly shifting position on the nature of those relationships (aptly illustrated when he blind-sides Mercy on an AFNN interview). Even worse, domestic policy makes labour conditions even worse and puts social services on life support, forcing the old and injured to continue working without proper medical care (Michaela Washburn’s Doctor is also an animal—you’ll have to go see for yourself to see what kind), medical insurance or employer support to recuperate.

Under Napoleon’s rule, the rich live a tax-cut life of comfort and leisure, while the workers put in longer hours for the same pay, and struggle with basic cost of living and services. Old Major’s original proclamation “All animals are equal” earns the addendum “but some animals are more equal than others.” Who is Napoleon really working for? Once discovered, or even hinted at, the backlash is inevitable.

Kudos to the largely multitasking cast for their solid, compelling performances in this playful but disturbing story of a society gone wrong. Roberts does a fantastic job as Napoleon, giving us an uncomfortably familiar politician; a charismatic leader who can spout whatever he needs to say to save face and maintain support, Napoleon is a dangerously bellicose man, bullying his way to status and power for the sake of the position. Wilson’s Snowball is the perfect opposite; a level-headed and intelligent, but shy opponent, Snowball just can’t muster the level of popularity she needs. The animals are tired, and feeling put-upon and cheated—and the quick, easy answers coming from Napoleon are much more attractive than the long-term, more challenging proposals she suggests. Sound familiar?

Dennis’s sweet but dim horse Boxer and Verdecchia’s sharp-witted, cynical donkey Benjamin make for a hilarious and poignant odd couple of pals. Not one to suffer fools, Benjamin is at his most patient when attempting to teach Boxer to read. And Dennis is heartbreaking as the old work horse Boxer suffers both disillusionment and injury; the policies of their leader—a leader he believed in—dashing his dreams of retiring to clover-filled fields. And the chickens are off the charts with the LOLs! Duffy is both adorable and impressively determined as feisty Mercy, the chicken’s appointed leader; and Villaverde is a laugh riot as the radical, compost-crazed Poophead.

Animal Farm, Soulpepper
Jennifer Villaverde, Raquel Duffy, Michaela Washburn & Leah Cherniak. Set and costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by André du Toit. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Big shouts to the design team for their incredible, imaginative work on this production: Ken MacKenzie (assisted by Christine Urquhart on set and costumes), André du Toit (lighting), Richard Feren (sound and music composition) and mask consultant Nicole Ratjen.

Animal Farm continues in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre. Get advance tickets online or call the box office: 416-866-8666 / 1-888-898-1188. Last night’s performance was packed, so advance booking recommended.

Heart vibrations as the dead weave tales reminding us to live in the inspirational, uplifting Spoon River

Spoon River ensemble—photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

 

Is your soul alive?

As we make our way into the theatre, we find ourselves entering the funeral of Bertie Hume; filing past old family portraits and rows of headstones as we make our way out of the funeral parlor and into the cemetery. We are greeted by funeral home attendants and, possibly, friends and family of the deceased.

This is our introduction to Soulpepper’s immersively staged Spoon River, based on Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology poetry collection, and adapted by Mike Ross and Albert Schultz for the stage, with music composed by Ross. A remount of this beloved, award-winning show is currently running in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre, located in Toronto’s Distillery District.

As Bertie Hume is left to her eternal rest, former citizens of the town—now “asleep” in the cemetery on the hill—emerge to share their stories with us, the passersby. Set in small-town America, the lives, loves, joys and pain of its people are revealed with memories, regrets, confession; at times harrowing (“Fire”), hilarious (“Couples” and “Drinking”) and heartbreaking (“Mothers and Sons”). The quirks, the humanity, the secrets and betrayals—all interwoven with poetry, spoken word, music and song, as we get snapshots of the people they once were.

The remarkable, multitalented ensemble plays and sings, with rousing, foot-stomping sounds and gorgeous, resonant harmonies in a collection of blue grass and gospel-inspired songs. Stand-out soloists include Alana Bridgewater, Hailey Gillis (as Bertie Hume), Miranda Mulholland, Jackie Richardson (“Widow McFarlane”) and Daniel Williston (“Fire”). Soulpepper veterans Oliver Dennis and Diego Matamoros bring stellar character work, as do Raquel Duffy, Stuart Hughes, John Jarvis and Michelle Monteith. Ultimately, Spoon River is a celebration of life (“Soul Alive”)—and a reminder that life, warts and all, is a cherished gift. I dare you to not stomp along.

With big shouts to the design team for their work on this magical, evocative production: Ken MacKenzie (set and lighting), Erika Connor (costumes) and Jason Browning (sound).

Heart vibrations as the dead weave tales reminding us to live in the inspirational, uplifting Spoon River.

Spoon River continues in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre until April 21; booking in advance is strongly recommended to avoid disappointment—the place was packed last night and this show is getting lots of standing ovations. Get your advance tix online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.

Up next: Soulpepper will be taking Spoon River to New York City’s 42nd Street in July as part of its first NYC season at The Pershing Square Signature Center.

The Spoon River soundtrack is available on CD in the lobby of the Young Centre; you can also find it on iTunes. In the meantime, check out the trailer:

 

 

Shades of red & blue in the tapestry of interwoven lives in the beautiful, theatrical Of Human Bondage

Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann: Gregory Prest & Michelle Monteith in Of Human Bondage

 

It’s all in how a man carries himself.

Soulpepper opened its remount of Vern Thiessen’s stage adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage at the Young Centre on Thursday. Directed by Soulpepper A.D. Albert Schultz, this is Soulpepper’s third journey with this production—and I finally got out to see it last night, with a packed house that gave it a standing ovation.

Orphaned as a child and painfully self-conscious about his club foot, Philip Carey (Gregory Prest) is a somewhat reluctant medical student; once a painter, and with fond memories of his time in Paris, he got tired of being broke and chose to pursue a more lucrative career path. And that path takes a serious detour when he accompanies friend and classmate, the nervous virgin Dunsford (Paolo Santalucia), to a local tea shop. Dunsford hopes to woo pretty waitress Mildred (Michelle Monteith), who catches the eye of Philip and she goes with him instead.

While it’s clear to us that Mildred is game for any man of good prospect, it is sadly not to Philip, who goes from smitten to obsessed with a woman who does not share his feelings. Obsession turns to possession, turns to rage when Philip learns that she’s become engaged to Miller (Brendan Wall), another tea shop regular. Meanwhile, he’s been flunking his classes and in serious danger of washing out of med school, much to the dismay of his crusty but supportive professor Dr. Tyrell (Oliver Dennis).

With the help of artist pals, painter Lawson (Dennis) and poet Cronshaw (Stuart Hughes), Philip meets the lovely writer Norah (Sarah Wilson), who falls for him—but he not with her. He’s doing better at school, though, and befriends a patient, Thorpe Athelney (John Jarvis), who opens his home to Philip. Philip’s direction changes again upon the return of Mildred, pregnant and jilted. Leaving Norah behind to look after Mildred and her baby, he finds himself at risk of losing his place at med school due to outstanding tuition owing. Desperate to make some extra cash, he invests in the stock market, only to lose it all; then loses Mildred, again, to another classmate, the randy Griffiths (Jeff Lillico).

Hitting rock bottom, evicted from his apartment and kicked out of med school, Philip reconnects with Athelney and his family, including his sweet daughter Sally (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster). And throughout the love and loss, shifting careers—including fashion designer for New York darling of the stage Alice (Raquel Duffy)—and friends and lovers whose lives are connected with his own, he gradually comes to know himself. And finds his life.

Masterfully staged on a red square playing area, set pieces are wheeled in and out, props inventively choreographed, and sharp dramatic lighting highlights the environmental and emotional tone (Lorenzo Savoini, set and lighting design). The whole ensemble (also including Richard Lam) gets involved, portraying figures in paintings, and creating the haunting soundtrack, rollicking music hall ditties and evocative sounds of daily life (Mike Ross, composer and sound design)—all live, onstage in the wings, which are visible to the audience. And, like the Persian rug Cronshaw gives Philip, scenes and characters’ lives weave in and out of each other with beautiful, artistic precision.

Lovely, nuanced performances from the cast. Prest is both heartbreaking and heroic as the quiet, introspective Philip; childish at first in love—loving where he is not loved, and loved where he does not love back—he only comes to find real love and true meaning in life when he finds love for himself. Monteith is captivating and wily as Mildred; forced into opportunism by circumstance, as Philip is a slave to his passions, Mildred is a slave to survival. You may want to dislike Mildred for her cruel, calculated use of Philip, but then you realize that all choices are not created equal in a world divided by class and gender privilege.

Dennis and Hughes make a great pair as the cheeky Lawson and bacchanalian Cronshaw, Philip’s jovial artist friends. Dennis gives Lawson a sweet, concerned nurturing quality; and Hughes brings a gentle melancholy to Cronshaw’s party animal.

Wilson shines as the sharp-witted modern woman Norah; a lovely, supportive girlfriend to Philip, you really feel for her when you see her affections aren’t returned in kind. Lancaster is both tender and irreverent as the quiet socialist Sally; you find yourself hoping—maybe she’s the one.

Shades of red and blue in the tapestry of interwoven lives in the beautiful, theatrical Of Human Bondage.

Of Human Bondage continues in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre in Toronto’s Distillery District; book in advance online. Get yourself out to see it before the production heads to NYC, to The Pershing Square Signature Center in July for Soulpepper’s first New York season, along with Kim’s Convenience and Spoon River.

Check out the trailer for Of Human Bondage:

 

 

A little holiday magic with some big Foley fun in delightful It’s A Wonderful Life

Soulpepper added an extra bit of cheer to its holiday programming this year with its production of Philip Grecian’s adaptation of Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, directed by Soulpepper Artistic Director Albert Schultz, assisted by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, and opening to a packed house at the Bluma Appel Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre last night.

Set as a 1940s radio play performed on stage—with the actors playing actors playing characters in the story—this version of It’s A Wonderful Life gives us all the favourite moments of the film version, including the dialogue, with the added fun of a behind-the-scenes look at some fabulous Foley (sound effects) work, designed by John Gzowski. And last night, we had the added treat of a charming performance of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” from the Dixon Hall Music School children’s choir.

George Bailey (Gregory Prest) has spent his entire life helping others in his small town. As a kid (Richie Lawrence) he saved his kid brother Harry (Christef Desir) and after school employer, pharmacist Mr. Gower (Diego Matamoros). And as an adult, he sacrificed college and travel to save the family building and loan business from falling into the hands of the corrupt and wealthy Mr. Potter (Matamoros). All so the hard-working, struggling folks of Bedford Falls could have a fair chance at a decent home.

Challenges aside, he’s got a pretty good life, with a lovely, supportive wife Mary (Raquel Duffy) and four sweet kids (Daniel Mousseau, Thea Lapham, Michelle Monteith and Richie Lawrence). Until one Christmas Eve Day, a banking mistake made by his absent-minded uncle Billy (William Webster) threatens to cost him everything. And in his most desperate hour, his guardian angel Clarence (Oliver Dennis) appears and sets out to show him what the world would have been like if he’d never been born.

It's a Wonderful Life, Soulpepper
Oliver Dennis & Derek Boyes – all photos by Cylla von Tiedemann

This production truly captures the spirit of this beloved holiday classic, and then some. In true radio broadcast style, the show features live commercial spots shouting out Soulpepper’s corporate sponsors and other holiday program offering, with live piano accompaniment (James Smith of Chasse-Galerie). But the biggest fun of all has to be the Foley artistry, featuring Christef Desir, Daniel Mousseau and Marcel Stewart as the soundmen (operating a neat assortment of sound-making props and gadgets, and playing multiple characters as well); with the entire ensemble creating various sound effects vocally. And at the end of Act I, aptly staged during George and Mary’s honeymoon scene, the stage goes to black as the scene continues, with lights on the vintage radio down stage left—giving us a taste of the radio drama experience.

It's a Wonderful Life, Soulpepper
Christef Desir & Michelle Fisk, with Marcel Stewart & Ellie Moon in the background

Exceptional work from this cast. Stand-outs include Prest, who brings a good-natured authenticity to George Bailey, an everyman performing everyday acts of heroism; there’s really nice chemistry with Duffy’s Mary, George’s warm but feisty perfect match. Matamoros delivers some delicious voice work, from the velvet smooth tones of the announcer, to the gravel-voiced Mr. Gower, to the malevolent, grasping villain Mr. Potter. And Dennis is adorably quaint as the underdog Angel Second Class Clarence, determined to earn his wings.

Monteith brings some great vocal chops and range, going from the slinky town party girl Violet, to the too cute for words Zuzu (George’s youngest daughter, famous for Zuzu’s petals); and Mousseau is a delight as Martini, the owner of one of the town’s favourite restaurants. And shouts to kid actors Lapham (Young Mary and George’s daughter Janie) and Lawrence (Young George and George’s son Tommy).

A little holiday magic with some big Foley fun in Soulpepper’s delightful 1940s radio play production of It’s A Wonderful Life.

It’s A Wonderful Life continues the Bluma Appel Theatre—and, good news, it’s been extended to December 31. Get your advance tix online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.

Check out the behind-the-scenes video for a peek at the fun in store:

And while you’re at it, check out some of Soulpepper’s other holiday treats, including its annual production of A Christmas Carol and the Family Festival programming. Here’s hoping that It’s A Wonderful Life becomes an additional holiday tradition at Soulpepper.