Twilight Zone meets Lord of the Flies in playful, disturbing and disorienting Half a League

Banner image for Half a LeagueHalf a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred…
– “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Rarely Pure Theatre’s production of Half a League, by Scott Garland and directed by Alexander Offord, had its gala opening at Fraser Studios last night. And what a trip it was.

There’s an eerie atmosphere when you walk into the theatre. In the midst of the detritus of the junkyard set – featuring three distinct piles of waste and discarded household items – a dirty faded pale yellow stuffed dog dangles limply from a hangman’s noose. Over the speakers, you can hear a tinny, static-filled robotic voice reciting “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” playing on a loop.

When the house lights go down, a figure emerges from the house entrance, shuffling with great effort as he drags a full hockey bag to the stage. Arming himself with an electric bass, he then takes up his place behind the microphone stage right. It is here that we’re able to get a good look at him. In period costume that includes tails, he is in mime-style white face with circular rosy red cheeks. Eventually, we will learn that he is called Sir Rupert (Victor Pokinko).

Then, bam! Three boys emerge from their hiding places among the three piles of junk (their “posts,” as we soon here them described): Peter (Mamito Kukwikila), Jim (Stephanie Carpanini) and Sam (Katie Corbridge, also the producer/public outreach gal for Rarely Pure Theatre). The boys appear to be playing soldiers. The junkyard is their territory and they are maintaining and defending it. There is a lost boys sense about these kids – and even though their roles within the unit are well-defined, there is the sense that they’re not sure who they are. And when a stranger named Billy (Nicholas Porteous) appears unexpectedly in their midst, the “game” changes dramatically. All while Sir Rupert moves throughout the scene, silently witnessing the proceedings. Skulking unseen, but not always in the background, he only opens his mouth when Pete tells the story of meeting him – his words cryptic, delivered with a malevolent tone. And we learn that it is Sir Rupert’s words that have inspired this war game.

Pokinko does a marvelous job as the ever-present Sir Rupert, going from a seemingly doll-like and innocuous observer to stalker/puppet master – like the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with a death metal sensibility. Kukwikila has a commanding presence as Pete, the brains of the operation – the senior officer and strategist, the builder of the game as he was inspired to do by Sir Rupert’s words, drawn in and mesmerized – and fully committed to creating and maintaining this world. Carpanini’s Jim is the brawn; all ‘shoot now, ask questions later’ – and Pete and Sam are right to keep him away from firearms. Stout-hearted and loyal, Jim doesn’t question why – he just does. And Corbridge’s Sam, the youngest of the group, is the heart and soul; trying to be tough and pull his weight, but struggling with the uncertainty of his youth and more at home with a stuffed animal than a weapon. All three female actors do an outstanding job of capturing boy culture, the unbridled bravado only reined in by the rules and etiquette of the game, layered over that afraid, lost boy quality. And Porteous’s interloper Billy is a strange one, and his arrival is a particular curiosity (and I’m not going to spoil that here); he does an excellent job of switching on to the game, without losing his sense of mystery. Is he just playing along or really into it? Who are these guys?

Along with the question of who these boys are, the play brings up the issues of kids’ exposure to violence – real or imaginary – and how the glorification of war so easily seeps into a child’s consciousness. See what you think. I think that’s about all I’m going to say. You’ll just have to see this for yourselves. Okay, I will say: long after you leave the theatre, the chanting will haunt you: Half a league, half a league, half a league…

With shouts to the design team for their creative work on this strange, troubling world: Jake Merritt (set), Gaby Grice (costume), props (Lauren Dobbie and Margaret Evraire) and Pokinko (music).

Twilight Zone meets Lord of the Flies in the playful, disturbing and disorienting world of Half a League.

Get out to Fraser Studios to see this. In the meantime, get a sneak peek of the show via interviews with playwright Scott Garland, director Alexander Offord and producer/actor Katie Corbridge.

Half a League runs at Fraser Studios until May 31; you can purchase advance tix online here. You can also keep up with Rarely Pure Theatre on Twitter.

Fierce family tragicomedy – The Beauty Queen of Leenane @ Red Sandcastle Theatre

BeautyQueenTook a trip to east end Toronto ‘hood Leslieville last night to see the opening of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane at Red Sandcastle Theatre. Directed by Wes Berger, this Beauty Queen features an outstanding foursome of a cast: Rosemary Doyle, Lynne Griffin (who Lost Girl fans will recognize from season one ep. “Food For Thought” as Halima, the nice Aswang lady who becomes Lauren’s patient after cooking up a bad batch of foot soup), Paul Kelly and Sean Sullivan. Doyle is also the owner/A.D. of Red Sandcastle Theatre – if you missed my recent blog interview with her, you can read it here.

The first play of McDonagh’s The Leenane Trilogy (which continues with A Skull in Connemara and finishes with The Lonesome West; the latter had a fine production mounted by  the Toronto Irish Players a couple of years ago), The Beauty Queen of Leenane is a story of fierce, often brutally funny, family dysfunction – in this case, it’s a mother (Griffin as Mag Folan) and daughter (Doyle as Maureen Folan) at each others’ throats.

Mag and Maureen are begrudgingly settled into their lives of not-so-quiet desperation in their small rural family home – and their dynamic of mutual sniping and vengeful, petty tortures has a cellmate quality to it. Added to the mix are the Dooley brothers Ray (played by Kelly) and Pato (Sullivan), long-time neighbours and, in Ray’s case at least, family frenemies. And Pato’s recent return from work in England to visit for a family do offers an oasis of possibility for Maureen. Since this is a Martin McDonagh play, no one is as they seem, and plans have a way of twisting and turning. And the darkly funny family dysfunction at the Folan house may be far more complex and feral than it appears.

Griffin and Doyle have excellent chemistry as the feuding mother and daughter. Griffin deftly works the layers of Mag’s girlish charm and passive aggressive, high-maintenance Irish mother – and it’s a pleasure to watch her sly, devilish delight as she plots interference. Doyle does a stellar job, giving us a Maureen who, beneath the bored, put-upon 40-year-old spinster, has a deep well of sexuality, ambition and potentially darker passions bubbling near the surface. Kelly is a treat as Ray, the rough and tough-talking simple younger brother who adores Australian soaps, and provides some much needed comic relief. Sullivan is lovely as Pato, a sweet and gentlemanly bachelor of a certain age – full of longing and youthful enthusiasm, like Maureen – but frustrated and underachieving in a job that’s beneath his ambition.

I’ve really come to enjoy McDonagh’s writing. It’s raw, fierce and discomfiting – and pulls no punches (I also had the pleasure of seeing an excellent production of McDonagh’s The Pillowman, mounted by Rarely Pure Theatre last year). McDonagh’s work is not for the faint of heart. Don’t come out expecting the quaint, cozy Irish of Barry Fitzgerald and “Tura Lura Lural” – there’s nothing wrong with that, but you won’t be getting any of it here.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane continues its run at Red Sandcastle Theatre until February 1,with performances on Jan 24, 25, 28, 29, 30 and Feb 1 at 8 p.m., and a 2 p.m. matinee on Jan 27. Given the popularity of this play, the short run and the intimacy of the space, I highly recommend booking a reservation in advance. You can do so by calling the box office (416-845-9411) or via Rosemary Doyle’s Twitter page.

Production photos by Paul Kelly and Sean Sullivan:

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Ribald, rustic taste of the wrath of love in Rarely Pure Theatre’s As You Like It

From the lobby of Storefront Theatre, you can hear the haunting, lyrical and hypnotic sounds of layered FX guitar music. Inside the theatre space, the minimalist set is woodsy, sparse, cold. Branches hang from the ceiling and short sticks of trees sprout from the floor, cradled in snow drifts at the base. Tree stumps, hay bales and driftwood add to the rustic atmosphere. This is the world of Rarely Pure Theatre’s production of William Shakespeare’s As You Like It, directed by Rosanna Saracino.

The extremely talented and raucous young cast digs into this charming, but chilly, pastoral comedy with gusto – the passion, love and hate have equal bite in this tale of betrayal, loss, love and redemption. Stand-outs include Christina Bryson as Rosalind (also assistant producer), who gives a lovely turn as the young woman who must disguise herself as a boy even as she grapples with the conflicting emotions of mourning for a father banished and revelling in the pangs of new love. Katie Ribout’s Cecilia is adorably sweet and loyal as Rosalind’s cousin/BFF, herself struggling with harsh circumstance of a father who’s usurped her uncle and subsequently banished Rosalind, forcing her to choose her friend over her father. Spenser Robson (also Co-Artistic Director and Producer) does a nice job of balancing Orlando’s passion and strength of conviction over his own family situation and his tongue-tied, lovelorn response to Rosalind. Benjamin Blais is roaring good fun as the bawdy, wise Fool Touchstone, and Michael Hogan is deliciously maudlin and philosophical as the anomie-filled, aimless courtier Jacques.

This is love, hard and chilly, but also tender and hot – much like Ganymed’s portrayal of Rosalind. All in all, a ribald and rustic taste of the wrath of love.

Take a look at the As You Like It trailer, featuring Christina Bryson, Katie Ribout and Ben Blais.

As You Like It continues its run at Storefront Theatre until January 26.

Do you know The Pillowman?

When I enter the intimate space of the Propeller Gallery, it is filled with a couple of rows of chairs facing a minimalist playing space (set designed by Tracy Lam, who also designed costumes and props). A table, a file cabinet, a couple of chairs. Three metal frame-encased light bulbs hang from the ceiling. Stage right, there is a projection screen, currently blank.  The works of six local artists,* created specifically for the production, hang on the white upstage wall. The images are beautiful, freakish, violent and nightmarish – each bordered and connected to some of the others with black tape. Like a homicide detective’s whiteboard. Or a bizarre family tree. Relationships. Causality. Connections.

This is opening night of Rarely Pure Theatre’s production of Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman, directed by Ryan Quinn. As with McDonagh’s other works (The Lonesome West and the film In Bruges), this play is not for the faint-hearted. And in this space, the action is even more up close and personal, drawing the audience in even as it repels.

Katurian (Chris George) is a writer of strange, wondrous and often grotesque stories –  many involving young children in macabre fairy tales that would make the Grimm boys blanch. He is also in police custody in a totalitarian dictatorship – blindfolded when we first see him – with no idea why he’s there. Detectives Tupolski (Davydd Cook) and Ariel (Spencer Robson, also one of the company’s ADs and producer for this show) interrogate Katurian, who soon learns that his intellectually challenged older brother Michal (David DiFrancesco) is also in custody. Two children have been found murdered and a third (Maria – Maya Kawale) is missing, presumed dead. If the brothers are found guilty, the police have the power to go straight to execution. No trial. No jail time.

Twists and turns abound in this  deeply disturbing, moving and brutally funny play. Quinn and his cast have done a marvelous job of mining these characters, presenting the multiple facets of each, ever aware of how high the stakes. No one is as he seems at first – and any notion of good cop/bad cop, hero/villain, innocent/guilty are turned upside down as the action progresses. As the protagonist Katurian, George is especially remarkable, displaying an extraordinary range of vulnerability, strength and emotion in a single performance. Each character holds strong convictions – and when they clash, it is both terrible and thought-provoking to behold. Intimidation, torture, wordplay and storytelling share the stage in this gripping and moving drama. The stage right screen I mentioned earlier is put to good use, with projected illustrations (by Lauren Dobbie) of Katurian’s stories appearing as he narrates them — like the stories, both lyrical and terrible. And Katurian’s fight to save his art rivals that of his fight to save himself or his brother.

*Shouts, too, to the contributing artists, whose work is available for sale (speak with the box office folks): Mike Ellis, Tiffany Huta, Jennifer Ilett, Emily Kouri, Suharu Ogawa and Tyler Tilley.

The Pillowman runs just till March 3 at the Propeller Gallery – and seating is limited – so I’d strongly suggest booking in advance at TicketBreak. Go see this.

Upcoming awesomeness: music, poetry & theatre

Happy New Year, all!

Here are a bunch of upcoming events/performances/productions to watch out for – and there’s a little somethin’ for everyone here:

Tin Star Orphans open for The Strumbellas at The Dakota Tavern on Tues, Jan 8.

The next edition of The Beautiful & the Damned poetry cabaret, hosted by Philip Cairns and featuring trivia on dead celeb of the month James Dean, is on Thurs, Jan 10 – 7 p.m. at Glad Day Bookshop.

Queen Milli of Galt, written by Gary Kirkham and directed by Victoria Shepherd, opens at The Village Playhouse on Fri, Jan 11 and runs until Sat, Feb 2.

Theatre Brouhaha’s Toronto Fringe 2012 hit production of Kat Sandler’s Help Yourself runs at Red Sandcastle Theatre Fri, Jan 11 – Sat, Jan 19 – if you missed it at Fringe, be sure to check out this remount. Check out the rest of Red Sandcastle’s January lineup on the website, which includes the final week of The Shoemaker and the Pant-O-Mimes! (closing Jan 6) and a remount of Act II Studio’s production of Mark Leith’s play Dinner with Goebbels (Jan 25-27).

Rarely Pure Theatre is staging a Comedy Night at The Winchester on Fri, Jan 11.

LMG Productions’ Super Wonderful New Year Kickoff (a Wonder Women fundraising event – for the first time, featuring Super Men) at The Central at 7:30 p.m. on Sat, Jan 12 – $10 cover.

Christian D and the Hangovers – with guests The Howling Bullets – at The Cadillac Lounge on Sat, Jan 12 at 9 p.m.

Theatre Passe Muraille’s next Songbook Series: Michael Jackson – on Fri, Jan 25.

A moving, lyrical & thoughtful remembrance – Until Our Paths Cross Again

The intimate performance space at Dancemakers has a shiny black stage floor – like glass, like dark water. Up centre is a large boulder, to its right an olive tree and down left is a medium-sized boulder, the blue glass stones at its base telling us that there is water there. This is the setting for Rarely Pure Theatre’s production Until Our Paths Cross Again – written, directed and produced by first-time playwright and company A.D. Monique Renaud, with the assistance of some University of Windsor Acting Program pals and some Ryerson Theatre School tech program students.

Rapid gunfire sounds out as the house lights go down and we see a soldier (Stephanie Carpanini) crawling for her life on her belly. She stops moving, hit. Injured and exhausted, she passes out. She is a Canadian soldier, alone and lost somewhere in Kandahar, separated from her men during the battle. A girl (Katie Ribout) climbs the olive tree, admiring the view and picking olives. She is alone too, separated from her family. When the soldier comes to and discovers the girl, she is wary – afraid even as the girl offers first aid and water. The girl is wary and afraid too. Eventually, they are able to communicate – and it turns out the girl speaks English – and each gradually gains the other’s trust.

The script makes use of a bible story (Noah’s ark and the olive branch), Shakespeare (a playful snippet of Romeo and Juliet, with the tree serving as the balcony) and Greek mythology (a couple is rewarded for helping a god with their wish to always be together by transforming into trees). And the letter the soldier writes to her husband, with the girl suggesting the romantic opening “my love,” reminded me of a letter my grandfather wrote to my grandmother while he was stationed in the UK/Europe during WWII. He was a Captain too. The olive branch is a particularly arresting image. Initially used by the soldier as a symbol of peace, it is later employed by the girl as a make-shift play gun. She wants to be a soldier too.

The journey these two women make together as they try to get home takes them to some surprising places, with lovely, nuanced performances from both actors. As a female in male-dominated career, Carpanini balances a soldier’s trained responses and checked emotions with the fragility and humanity of someone who is far from home and missing her loved ones. Props to another Stephanie – Steph Bitten – a former UK soldier, for acting as military advisor for the production. As the girl, Ribout does a nice job inhabiting a 14-year-old on the edge of womanhood, playful and child-like – and stubborn – but possessing of a certain gravitas beyond her years.

Until Our Paths Cross Again is a lyrical, moving and thoughtful remembrance, inspired by the true story of Captain Nichola Goddard, the first female Canadian soldier to die in combat. She was 26 years old. In the program notes, we learn that “she didn’t say ‘goodbye’, she said ‘see ya later’.”

Until Our Paths Cross Again has two more performances: tonight (Nov 10) and closing tomorrow on Remembrance Day (Nov 11) – 8 p.m. at Dancemakers (in the Distillery District at 9 Trinity St., Units 313 & 314, Toronto). Tickets are PWYC, with a suggested offering of $10. No worries about getting around the warehouse studio space, there is ample signage pointing you in the right direction, with snacks and bottled water awaiting at the box office table.

My grandfather got to come home. Not all soldiers are so lucky. Who will you remember tomorrow?

We remember – Rarely Pure Theatre’s upcoming Until Our Paths Cross Again

Hey all – wanted to give a shout out to Rarely Pure Theatre’s upcoming production Until Our Paths Cross Again, a play inspired by the true story of Captain Nichola Goddard, the first female Canadian combat soldier to be killed in combat, running November 8 – 11 at 8 p.m. at Dancemakers (in the Distillery District at 9 Trinity St., Units 313 & 314, Toronto). Tickets are PWYC.

Written and directed by the company’s A.D. Monique Renaud, Until Our Paths Cross Again stars Stephanie Carpanini and Katie Ribout, with the production technical team from Ryerson Theatre School.