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.

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Hamlet as you’ve never seen it in the haunting, beautiful ASL/English adaptation Prince Hamlet

Christine Horne as Hamlet in Prince Hamlet—photo by Bronwen Sharp

 

Why Not Theatre mounts Ravi Jain’s exciting bilingual (ASL and English) adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet with its production of Prince Hamlet, directed by Jain; and currently running at the Theatre Centre.

This production has already been garnering some well-deserved buzz. Not only does Prince Hamlet make the Shakespeare classic accessible for Deaf audiences, it addresses issues of diversity and inclusion in casting, particularly for the largely white, male, Eurocentric, and hearing, classics. Jain’s text adeptly shifts scenes (Horatio’s speech to Fortinbras, usually seen at the end of the play, is used as an introduction, with Horatio addressing the audience), and effectively interweaves scenes of action with those of corresponding exposition (Horatio and the guards encountering/reporting of the ghost, as well as moments/reports of Hamlet’s erratic behaviour) in an engaging and theatrical way. We also see scenes from different perspectives—and it’s all performed by an outstanding ensemble of actors, with female actors taking on a number of male roles and a male actor playing Ophelia.

The program provides a handy synopsis of the play, which I will not replay here; if you need a refresher or you’re new to Hamlet, you can also check out the Wikipedia page. What is remarkable about this production is that Horatio (played by Deaf actor Dawn Jani Birley) is featured prominently; our narrator, he is both witness to and interpreter of (signing much of the text) Hamlet’s (Christine Horne) story. ASL is incorporated into the dialogue in a seamless, inclusive way that reveals relationships, in that Horatio is understood by Hamlet when he signs, and Hamlet communicates with him in both English and ASL. In many respects, the story is told from Horatio’s point of view—culminating in that fateful final scene where the dead outnumber the living and, one of the few still standing, Horatio bids a tearful farewell to his friend.

Joining Birley and Horne for this journey of revenge, reflections on mortality and tragedy are Miriam Fernandes (Rosencrantz, Player King, Gravedigger), Jeff Ho (Ophelia), Hannah Miller (Guildenstern, Player Queen), Rick Roberts (Claudius), Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah (Laertes), Karen Robinson (Gertrude) and Maria Vacratsis (Polonius); all actors play their respective characters as originally written and all introduce themselves in ASL at the top of the show. These are actors playing characters, and regardless of gender casting, each brings a grounded, genuine and unique interpretation of the person they’re playing. And this cast looks like the people we see every day in our city.

Horne gives us a compelling and moving Hamlet, bringing a fragile edge to his melancholy, countered by a sharp, wry sense of humour. This adaptation has Horne also playing the ghost of Hamlet’s father, an interesting choice that evokes dark moments of possession. A bashful and cheeky romantic in love with Ophelia, playful and candid with his bosom friend Horatio, and poetic in his philosophical inner debates on revenge and mortality, this is a Hamlet for the 21st century.

PRINCE HAMLET-Dawn Jani Birley as Horatio-photo Bronwen Sharp
Dawn Jani Birley as Horatio—photo by Bronwen Sharp

Birley’s complex, conflicted Horatio is both a part of and witness to the tragedy that unfolds. Also acting as our host and guide, Horatio signs his dialogue and translates the text into ASL throughout, including some brilliant comic relief during one of Hamlet’s encounters with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. She gives a gripping interpretation of the fight scene between Hamlet and Laertes, and her “Goodnight, sweet Prince” is both beautiful and heart-breaking.

As Gertrude, Robinson brings a sharply drawn evolution to the relationship with Claudius, from giddy in love to devastated and horrified. Concerned for the welfare her son throughout, Gertrude finds herself faced with a choice between her new husband and her son. Roberts gives us a big, lusty Claudius; living the dream until he’s called out by Hamlet’s carefully crafted play presentation. In a moving and tortured prayer scene, dejected and unable to repent, Claudius realizes he’s unwilling to give up the spoils of his crime, resorting to further treachery and cover-ups.

PRINCE HAMLET-(standing) Karen Robinson as Gertrude, Rick Roberts as Claudius, (kneeling) Jeff Ho as Ophelia, Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah as Laertes-photo Bronwen Sharp
Foreground: Jeff Ho as Ophelia & Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah as Laertes; Background: Karen Robinson as Gertrude & Rick Roberts as Claudius—photo by Bronwen Sharp

Ho is lovely as the playful, but delicate Ophelia, whose descent into madness is both heartbreaking and disturbing. Vacratsis is hilariously wordy and sharply academic as Polonius; decidedly not a man of few words, he nevertheless has wisdom to impart, as evidenced in his famous advice to Laertes. And Roberts-Abdullah gives Laertes a fierce edge under that affable, good son exterior; belly full of fire, he’s hell-bent on revenge for his father and sister, but never loses his sense of fairness.

Fernandes and Miller do a great job juggling multiple roles; Fernandes is great fun as the impudent, philosophical Gravedigger and Miller brings a sense of sass to Hamlet’s pal Guildenstern.

With big shouts to the design team for their rich, evocative work on this production: Lorenzo Savoini (set and costumes), André du Toit (lighting) and Thomas Ryder Payne (sound).

Hamlet as you’ve never seen it in the haunting, beautiful ASL/English adaptation Prince Hamlet.

Prince Hamlet continues at the Theatre Centre until April 29; get advance tickets online.

Check out this conversation (in ASL and English, with subtitles and interpreter voice-over) between director Ravi Jain and actor Dawn Jani Birley for Intermission Magazine.

Partnership & mentorship flourish in the second year of the RISER Project

Ravi Jain headshot (small)
Ravi Jain, Artistic Director of Why Not Theatre

“There are a great deal of opportunities within the Toronto theatre community for mentorship and the development of artists but The RISER Project is unique in that it creates a rare opportunity for companies and artists to be mentored through production … this model empowers artists to find their voice and not rely on curation or abstract training.” – Ravi Jain, Artistic Director at Why Not Theatre

In 2014, Why Not Theatre created an exciting new theatre production model, aimed at providing support to small companies, and provide greater access and opportunity for artists. In partnership with senior theatre companies, and the support of the Toronto Arts Council and Canadian Heritage, the RISER Project provides mentorship, space and technical tools – this year, culminating in the performances of four Canadian productions at the Theatre Centre in April and May. I had the opportunity to ask Why Not Theatre A.D. Ravi Jain about the RISER Project and the 2015 program:

LWMC: Hi, Ravi. Thanks for taking some time from what I’m sure is a very busy and exciting schedule to talk about the RISER Project. During the two years leading up to the creation of the RISER Project, Why Not Theatre had been exploring and searching for a model to support and mentor independent theatre productions. What can you tell us about the genesis of this particular (RISER Project) model?

RJ: The genesis of the model came out of my time as the Artistic Director in Residence at the Theatre Centre. It was a position that Franco Boni created at the theatre to allow me the experience of running an arts institution in Toronto. There we had many discussions about the Theatre Centre’s residency program, which offers 2-3 years of support for artists to develop a new show from the first moments of the idea all the way through to production. My feeling was that there were many opportunities for long-term development, but not many opportunities to put on work. As an artist, it is difficult to have people see your work, as opportunities are limited, so the question was: How can someone see my work, in order to get the reputation to be offered a long term residency? I am also a resident artist at Soulpepper, and one of the brilliant things that they do is run shows in rep. The rep system saves a great deal of money by using space very efficiently. So in our first year, we created a model where three companies shared a space for six weeks and ran their shows in rep… and then the Riser was born.

LWMC: And how did the 2015 partnerships with Necessary Angel, Nightwood Theatre, fu-GEN Theatre and The Theatre Centre emerge as the RISER Project came together?

RJ: In our first year, we partnered with Theatre Smith Gilmour, who played an important role in the development of the model. We brought them on board for two key reasons: mentorship and investment. Being a senior company, they have over 40 years of experience in creating and devising work – their expertise was ideal for the shows we were presenting at the time. Also, because of funding structures, senior companies receive the most amounts of operating funds at all the council levels. A main focus of the model is encouraging these senior companies with the funds to invest the money to companies with no structure or funds, thus creating an interdependent community (moving away from independent). So, for this year, we wanted to try and expand the partnerships and encourage other companies to get on board. The added bonus for the artists involved, and our hope is, that these senior companies may pick up the shows in order to give them future life in an upcoming season.

LWMC: The 2015 RISER Project production series includes four theatre companies, including three world premieres: Quote Unquote Collective’s Mouthpiece, The Little Death Collective’s Little Death, Pandemic Theatre’s Mahmoud and Bad New Days Performing Arts’ Paolozzapedia – An auto-fictional-biography. How did these companies/productions come to be a part of the RISER Project?

RJ: These companies were selected because of their needs and their ability to be flexible within the model we are creating. We are in our second year, so there are still kinks we are trying to sort out – so these are people who are able to help us figure out how this all works and more importantly, roll with the punches. In the future, next year, we will be putting out an open call in order to open up this opportunity to more artists.

LWMC: What do you hope the participating partners and theatre companies will take away from the 2015 RISER Project?

RJ: I want people to understand that we can be even bolder as a community and work in a more collaborative way. Resources are scarce and there are A LOT of inefficiencies in spending, so we have to be diligent and more critical of ourselves as to how we are spending that money. This model really is designed in such a way that everyone wins, and the winning happens because of strategic, smart investments. It’s a model that is seen in many other sectors and one with a proven track record. It’s about building a supportive community.

LWMC: And what about the audience?

RJ: They will see great shows. They will see great shows at an accessible price.

LWMC: Where does the RISER Project go from here? Do you envision an annual production event, several throughout the year …?

RJ: We will be doing another next year, fingers crossed, with six or seven companies/artists’ projects… stay tuned for our open call.

All RISER Project performances will take place at The Theatre Centre (1115 Queen St W) and will feature two performances in succession every night. The 2015 program includes four Canadian plays, with three premieres:

Mouthpiece - photo by Brooke Wedlock
Mouthpiece – photo by Brooke Wedlock

Mouthpiece (April 17 – May 3)
Company: Quote Unquote Collective
Created and performed by: Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava
Music composed by: Amy Nostbakken
A world premiere, Mouthpiece takes us on a one-day journey of a woman trying to find her voice – using a combination of “a cappella harmony, dissonance, text and a range of physicality including dance and physical storytelling.”

Little Death - actor Christopher Stanton, photo credit Emily Lockhart
Christopher Stanton in Little Death – photo by Emily Lockhart

Little Death (April 17 – May 3)
Company: The Little Death Collective
Written by: Daniel Karasik
Directed by: Zachary Florence
Performed by: Shauna Black, Sarah Dodd, Kate Hennig, Christopher Stanton, Nicole Underhay and Elizabeth Tanner
In another world premiere, a man who might be dying goes in search of sex and connection in hotel bars – this with the permission of his conflicted wife. Little Death “asks fundamental questions about marriage, fidelity, and the intimate needs of men and women.”

Mahmoud_Poster_FINAL
Mahmoud – photo by Nir Bareket

Mahmoud (May 14 – 24 with preview May 13)
Company: Pandemic Theatre
Co-written and performed by: Tara Grammy
Co-written and directed by: Tom Arthur Davis and Tara Grammy
The lives of an Iranian engineer turned taxi driver, a gay Spanish perfume salesman and an Iranian Canadian pre-teen converge in this one-woman show. “…Their experiences with racism, sexism, homophobia, political structures and everything in between become intertwined in unexpected ways, taking an exacting look at the ways diasporic populations deal with instability in their country of origin and the personhood they have in their new homes.”

Paolozzapedia Adam & Mask_horizontal photo credit  Lacey Creighton
Adam Paolozza in Paolozzapedia – photo by Lacey Creighton

Paolozzapedia – An auto-fictional-biography (May 14 – 24 with preview May 13)
Company: Bad New Days Performing Arts
Written and directed by: Adam Paolozza and Daniele Bartolini  Featuring: Adam Paolozza
A world premiere of a one-man autobiography experiment finds Paolozza mining his Italian family history to present his journey with storytelling, imagery, music and memories. “How is it that one feels homesick for a place that was never one’s home?”

Be sure to check out the RISER Project and it’s exciting 2015 program. You can get advance tix online here.

And check out the trailer for Mouthpiece:

Cinematic, diabolically fun trip to the dark side – Cine Monstro @ PROGRESS fest

CineMTop-620x372A kid who’s fascination with his weird next door neighbours turns to morbid fixation following a horrific event in their home.

A boyfriend and girlfriend constantly fight as she longs for marriage and a baby, and he gropes for an unknown something that’s just out of reach.

A recovering addict drawn to screenwriting envisions an edgy, quirky love story featuring an eerily familiar flashback scene.

Appalled by his own script, a filmmaker brings his film shoot to an abrupt halt in an effort to disengage from – and disown – the darkness portrayed.

All hosted by the devilishly charming narrator Adam, his Puck-like mischievousness tinged with malevolence.

White flats stretch across expanse of the playing space upstage, serving as a screen for the projected atmospheric and scenic images. A clear plastic chair with an accompanying glass table, bearing mostly glasses of water and one glass of red wine, sits centre stage. It is here that performer/producer/co-translator/co-director Enrique Diaz spends most of the play – but only after hanging out with the audience a while, and then offering an introduction and instructions as to how the play will begin.

Which all happens when he rides a red tricycle around the stage and the lights go to black out. We have begun.

This is Cine Monstro, a Portuguese translation (by way of Brazil) of Daniel MacIvor’s Monster, translated Barbara Duvivier with Diaz, directed by Marcio Abreu and presented/curated by Why Not Theatre for SummerWorks’ inaugural PROGRESS international festival of performance and ideas at the Theatre Centre.

It was my first time seeing this play – in any language – and my initial concern about splitting my attention between the English surtitles and the action onstage was quickly dispelled. Cine Monstro is a dynamic, sight and sound-filled trip. And I’ll never hear “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” (which folks may remember from the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid film soundtrack) again.

Diaz is an engaging and compelling storyteller, skillfully weaving in and out of the various characters and scenarios with truth and a sense of the present, balancing light and dark with the warmth of his voice and the sharpness in his eyes.

Following last night’s performance, Why Not Theatre A.D. Ravi Jain moderated a talkback with Diaz and MacIvor, who took questions from Jain and the audience, as well as a brief interview (in English and Portuguese) with Omni TV. And it was Jain who was the connecting thread between the two artists.

MacIvor described the process of creating Monster, taking inspiration from the film world, reading The Fifth Child, the impending birth of a friend’s baby, among other things. Diaz first saw MacIvor perform in two-hander In on It in New York, and was fascinated by the layers, structure and humour of the piece – and the work the audience must do in the process of watching.

Last night was the first time MacIvor saw Cine Monstro, and while he seems to be less comfortable with interpretations of his one-person shows in general (which are more his babies, as he both wrote and performed them), he is pleased with this production and marvelled at Diaz’s multitasking. Diaz described his experience as an exercise in relaxing into the piece, focusing on the text and getting any sense of ego out of the way.
Jain remarked how present the text is when one is watching a show with surtitles: “we engage with the ideas in a different way – engaging with the text itself.” Diaz was nervous about whether the audience would follow the show, with their attention divided between the watching the action and reading the text (translated back from Portuguese to English, while maintaining the original English script) – but we were fine.

The question of language rhythm came up: was it an issue with the translation? This didn’t seem to factor into the show as much as what the actor brings to the performance. MacIvor spoke of approaching it differently – with tension and rapid pacing, barely moving from the chair throughout his performance. He also remarked how he found Diaz’s interpretation warmer in tone, with a stronger placement in the film world – especially evidenced by the “Cine” in the title of the translation, which reveals Diaz’s intention to immerse the audience in the story. Diaz worked with the translation as an actor, and seems to have taken an organic approach, as opposed to focusing on the rhythm of the language per se.

An audience member asked about the reception in Brazil, as the origins of the piece are very Canadian. Diaz found that cultural differences were not an issue, as the audience engaged with the characters’ experiences and the themes of the storytelling. Nor were there any issues of regional differences as Diaz performed the piece around Brazil. This is storytelling at its best – so these findings are not so surprising. Good storytelling is good storytelling.

Another audience member wondered if having an original work interpreted by others around the world represented a shift in MacIvor’s work – a “revisiting of the Canadian cannon,” as it were. Whether this is an overly optimistic outlook or not, with Cine Monstro, Diaz has made the piece his own and has introduced MacIvor’s theatrical storytelling to a whole new audience.

With shouts to the design team: Simone Mina (set), Batman Zavareze and Nathalie Melot (video), Maneco Quindere (lights) and Lucas Marcier (music).

Cine Monstro is a diabolically funny trip into the flickering dark and light of the destructive side of the human spirit.

You have one last chance to see Cine Monstro: tonight (Sat, Feb 14) at 8p.m. – the place was packed last night, so I strongly suggest that you book ahead. In the meantime, check out the Cine Monstro trailer on the Why Not Theatre website.