Happy feet & hopeful hearts in Alumnae Theatre’s delightful, poignant Stepping Out

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Front: Jessica Westermann Back (l to r): Felicia Simone, Mish Tam, Kay Randewich, Alyssa Quart Cartlidge, Rebecca Grenier, Scott Turner & Lisa Kovack in Stepping Out – photo by Bruce Peters

Alumnae Theatre Company’s got its dancing shoes on as it mounts its retrospective production for the 2015-16 season: Richard Harris’s Stepping Out (originally produced by Alumnae in 1989), which opened on the main stage to a packed house last night. Directed by Executive Producer Brenda Darling, assisted by Liz Best, and choreographed by Alyssa Martin and Jessica Westermann (Act I), with support from dance coach Sandra Burley.

Set in 1980s London in a local church hall, Stepping Out takes us on the year and a half-long journey of one of Mavis’s (Jessica Westermann) tap dance classes, accompanied by pianist Mrs. Fraser (Jeanette Dagger). The class includes seven women and one man: Lynne (Mish Tam), a cheerful and sensitive nurse; Dorothy (Kay Randewich), the sweet, mousy, bicycle-riding mensch of a social services worker; Maxine (Lisa Kovack), a vivacious saleswoman; Andy (Rebecca Grenier), introverted and painfully awkward, but committed to learn; Rose (Linette Doherty), the wry-witted Trini wife and mother run ragged looking after everyone but herself; Sylvia (Felicia Simone), the outspoken, genuine and irreverent youngster; Geoffrey (Scott Turner), the quiet, gentle widower; and newcomer Vera (Alyssa Quart Cartlidge), the wealthy, prim Stepford wife meets Martha Stewart housewife who lacks an internal editor.

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Jessica Westermann, Jeanette Dagger & Alyssa Quart Cartlidge – photo by Bruce Peters

The cast does a lovely job telling the stories of this class and these characters. Stand-outs include Westermann (also the cast dance captain), who brings a warm, saint-like patience and nurturing quality to Mavis, a woman struggling to make ends meet and supporting an unemployed boyfriend; she’s an extremely talented hoofer with broken dreams of her own. Dagger is deliciously abrasive as Mrs. Fraser, the dance class’s stern and fastidious accompanist; a mother figure to Mavis who helps with the administration of the classes, there’s more to her piano talents than just tinkling the ivories for dance students. Kovack’s Maxine is an extroverted gal-on-the-go and former child performer with a can-do attitude; struggling at home with an unruly stepson and absent husband, she too is clearly dancing as fast as she can to beat the blues. As for Grenier’s Andy, still waters run deep; the shy, submissive and plain exterior belies a deep inner strength, fierceness and beauty. And beneath the tough-talking cockiness and everyday vanity, Simone’s Sylvia is a tired young wife who wants a break – and to feel beautiful again.

Ultimately, for everyone involved in the class, it’s not just about dancing – it’s about filling an empty place inside, and finding family and a sense of belonging.

With shouts to the design team: Doug Payne (set designer/lead carpenter), Bill Scott (lighting), Bec Brownstone (costumes), Razie Brownstone (props) and Rick Jones (sound assembly).

Happy feet and hopeful hearts in Alumnae Theatre’s delightful, poignant production of Stepping Out.

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Jessica Westermann stepping out solo – photo by Bruce Peters

Stepping Out continues on the Alumnae main stage until Feb 6. You can get advance tickets online or by calling the box office: 416-364-4170; or you can purchase in person (cash only) at the box office one hour before show time. Special events include a pre-show panel discussion on Sun, Jan 24 from 12:30-1:30pm: “Stepping Out Through the Arts” Can the Arts heal? And on Sat, Jan 30 at 8pm: 80s Dress-Up Night – Should blue eye shadow be banned?

Check out this experiential piece by Toronto Star writer Melanie Chambers on auditioning for Stepping Out. And take a look at the Stepping Out trailer (by Nicholas Porteus):

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Powerful, moving & beautifully raw storytelling in I Am Marguerite

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Daniela Pagliarello & Christopher Oszwald in I Am Marguerite – photo by Bruce Peters

In 1542, banished from a French ship by a heartless, domineering brother, Marguerite de Roberval is set afloat on a skiff towards a remote island off the north coast of Newfoundland. With her are her faithful nurse and her lover Eugene. Left with scant provisions and in fear of never seeing home or loved ones again, they land on the Isle of Demons with the prospect of perishing in the face of cold, harsh winters and predatory wildlife.

This is the story, a little-known piece of Canadian history, brought to life on stage in an hour-long, emotionally and psychologically packed play by Shirley Barrie. This is I Am Marguerite, directed by Molly Thom – and it opened to a packed house at Alumnae Theatre last night.

The storytelling is taut and compelling, shifting in and out of memory and hallucination, and honed over the past decade and after having taken on various forms – from play to opera libretto back to play again – and executed by an excellent cast. As Marguerite, Daniela Pagliarello does a remarkable job of driving the story, not to mention a lovely job of capturing the youthful passion, lust for life, curiosity and rebellious streak of the young French noblewoman. Teetering on the edge of madness, struggling with physical, emotional and mental hardship, she vacillates between a ferocious fight for survival and a desperate surrender to the memories and faces that haunt her in her loneliness. And, like Marguerite, we often find ourselves wondering if the faces are real or imagined ghosts from her past.

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Top: Chris Coculuzzi, Heli Kivilaht & Sara Price. Bottom: Daniela Pagliarello & Christopher Oszwald – photo by Bruce Peters

Joining Pagliarello is an outstanding supporting cast. As Marguerite’s ambitious, older brother Jean-François, Chris Coculuzzi gives us a strong performance of a man as driven and strong-willed as his younger sister, but with a dark, cruel edge. Proud, controlling and manipulative, he is not above using those closest to him as a means to his own ends. Heli Kivilaht is a delight as Marguerite’s former nurse and present companion Damienne, a loving, nurturing and supportive soul with an irreverent, no-nonsense sensibility. Sara Price brings layers of warmth and genuine goodness to the otherwise imperious and proper Queen of Navarre. As Marguerite’s lover Eugene, Christopher Oszwald gives us a man of quiet strength, a romantic, and a lover of music and beauty who is willing to risk it all for the woman he loves. And the love and loyalty of Eugene and Damienne’s choice to be banished with Marguerite make subsequent events all the more heartbreaking.

With big shouts to a most excellent design team. Marysia Bucholc has created a magnificent, abstract set design – the layers and multi-dimensional, almost sculptural, landscape sharp and rippling outward, with eerie, weeping trees; and props by Razie Brownstone – the rocks, bones and rustic supply trunk – dress an otherwise barren space. The characters are honed and brought to brilliant living colour with stunning period costumes by Peter DeFreitas and Toni Hanson. Angus Barlow’s evocative sound design features haunting atmospheric composition by James Langevin-Frieson (who composed theme music for Marguerite, played at the beginning and the end of the play), as well as period dance and lute music, going from dulcet to frenetic as the music mirrors the fragility of Marguerite’s mind.

I Am Marguerite is a powerful, moving and beautifully raw piece of storytelling.

I Am Marguerite runs on the Alumnae Theatre mainstage until April 25, featuring a talkback after the matinée on April 19. Advance tickets available online or at the box office an hour before curtain time (cash only).

Here’s a little teaser by way of the show trailer. Go see this.

Department of Corrections: An earlier version of this post neglected to mention that the original music included in Angus Barlow’s sound design was composed by James Langevin-Frieson. This has since been corrected.

A darkly funny & eerie look into the mind of Lizzie Borden in Blood Relations

Blood RelationsSo, first, a confession: I’d never read or seen Sharon Pollack’s Blood Relations. Not until last night, that is, at Alumnae Theatre Company’s opening night, directed by Barbara Larose, assisted by Ellen Green.

We are in the Borden home in Fall River, Massachusetts, 10 years after Lizzie Borden’s acquittal of the brutal double murder of her stepmother and father. Ragtime music fills the theatre and, in the dim pre-show lighting onstage, you can make out the main floor of the home: dining room and parlour, separated by a dark wood finish staircase. Down stage right is a pigeon coop; down left is a garden with a stone bench.

The ever present question: “Did you, Lizzie? Lizzie, did you?” sets the scene for a memory game of storytelling, played by Lizzie (Marisa King) and her friend/lover The Actress (Andrea Brown), taking the audience back in time to the circumstances leading up to the murder and trial. Adding to the ghoulish fun and intrigue, The Actress plays Lizzie in the flashback scenes, with Lizzie taking on the role of Bridget, the family’s maid.

We see Lizzie Borden as an unconventional woman out of place in a conventional household and society, her feelings of entrapment aptly illustrated – with shades of the macabre to come – by the empty red wire bird cage in the corner of the parlour. That trapped feeling comes to a boiling point for Lizzie when her stepmother’s brother Harry (Rob Candy) arrives to bargain with her father (Thomas Gough) over the family farm, a move that would see the farm willed to stepmother Abigail (Sheila Russell). And Lizzie’s older sister Emma (Kathleen Jackson Allamby) is more interested in absenting herself from the family strife than in saving their inheritance.

Larose has an excellent cast for this exploration of the famously accused and acquitted suspected murderess. King brings a quiet, slow burning intensity to Lizzie, and a sassy, firey mischief to the Irish maid Bridget. Brown is seductive and playfully dramatic as the beautiful extrovert Actress; and gives a sharp-witted, modern-thinking edge to her portrayal of the caged and frustrated Lizzie. Gough’s Andrew Borden is a disturbing, paradoxical combination of serious patriarch and doting father, capable of both extreme kindness and cruelty. Russell’s Abigail is a sturdy, practical and self-righteous housewife, but perhaps not above using her own family connections to gain power within her new family; and Candy brings a lovely ick factor to her snake-like brother Harry, a cunning man driven by avarice and giving no thought to his nieces’ futures beyond marrying them off. Jackson Allamby gives us an Emma who struggles to keep the family peace, but is terribly worn down by constantly being caught in the middle – put upon and wanting out as much as Lizzie, but lacking the rage to rouse herself to action. And Steven Burley does a nice job with his dual roles as the Defense and Dr. Patrick, the latter a particular delight as Lizzie’s charming and flirtatious friend and playmate, a married Irishman grappling with their complex relationship.

With shouts to the design and creative team: Margaret “The Costumator” Spence’s gorgeous period costume design, featuring Lizzie in hunter green and the Actress in deep purple; Ed Rosing’s magnificent set design, with its deep wood and sea foam green tones, and highlights of red throughout – realized by master carpenter Sandy Thorburn, with painting crew led by scenic artist Mark Cope – and lighting by Gabriel Cropley, especially effective in the carousel fantasy scene. With Razie Brownstone’s props selection, everyday household items like a silver tea service becoming projectile weapons – the civilized trappings of society covering darker emotions that lie just beneath the surface. And, of course, the ax. Speaking of, who doesn’t like a little Ragtime with their ax murder (thanks to Rick Jones’ sound design)? And to SM Margot “Mom” Devlin, who ran the lighting board and kept things moving along smoothly.

Did she? Alumnae Theatre’s Blood Relations is a sharply drawn, darkly funny and eerie look into the mind of Lizzie Borden – and the assumptions others have about her.

Blood Relations continues its run on the Alumnae mainstage until February 7. Alumnae usually does a talkback with the director, cast and creative team following the second matinée performance, so keep an eye out for that on Sunday, January 31. For ticket info and reservations, click here. Go see this.

Climbing out with humour & rage – Alumnae Theatre’s Rabbit Hole

Rabbit-Hole-website-bannerAlumnae Theatre Company closes its 2013-14 season with David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole, directed by Paul Hardy.
Set in the Larchmont, New York home of Becca and Howie, who recently lost their four-year-old son Danny in an accident, Rabbit Hole takes the audience down into a place of deep loss as we watch this couple live through it – with humour, intense struggle and bewildered rage.
Hardy has an excellent cast to tell this story. Paula Schultz gives a lovely layered performance as Becca, tightly wound and wounded, a sharp edge to her housewife cheer as she barely stifles her rage. Cameron Johnston does great work with Howie, who struggles to stay positive, proactively gain closure and have their lives return to some sense of normalcy as he walks on eggshells in his own home, missing the family dog who’s been banished to Becca’s mother’s house. Joanne Sarazen, as Becca’s younger sister Izzy, is hilariously goofy and irreverent, edgy and no-bullshit, tempered with empathy and protective impulses; peas in a pod with Sheila Russell’s Nat, Becca and Izzy’s mom – quirky, warm and raucous, and dealing with the less recent loss of an adult son. And really nice work from Christopher Manousos as Jason, the sensitive teenager with a creative soul and a kind nature, who comes into Becca and Howie’s lives in an unexpected and tragic way – torn between his own feelings and taking care with theirs.
And I have to shout out the design team here. Jacqueline Costa’s two-level set puts us perfectly in this prim and tidy upper middle class home, with its sunken living room – complete with reclaimed wood coffee table – and fully loaded kitchen, the top level set up as Danny’s still intact bedroom. Angus Barlow’s sound design, featuring original compositions, transports us to 2002, with its beats and electronic keys, as does Sara Brzozowski’s costume design, tailored bang-on to both time and character. Kudos, too, to the props team of Razie Brownstone and Tess Hendaoui, who – on top of the standard household props – had a food-heavy script, as well as a lot of child’s clothes and stuffed animals to come up with.
Alumnae Theatre’s Rabbit Hole is funny, moving and profoundly human.
Rabbit Hole continues its run on the mainstage until April 26, with performances tonight and tomorrow afternoon. Go see this.

A world on a stage – scenic work on The Lady’s Not For Burning @ Alumnae Theatre

Hey all –

As promised, here’s the slideshow extravaganza of the work for my recent scenic artist gig on Alumnae Theatre’s production of The Lady’s Not For Burning (designed by Ed Rosing).

Shouts to:

Building crew: Master carpenter Mike Peck, with additional construction by Cody Boyd, Paul Cotton, Gord Peck, Ed Rosing and Mike Vitorovitch.

Painting crew: Scenic artist (me), with Cody Boyd, Razie Brownstone, Joan Burrows, Margot Devlin, Ed Rosing and Dorothy Wilson.

The Lady’s Not For Burning is in its final week on the Alumnae mainstage, running tonight (Wed, Feb 5) through Saturday, February 8 at 8:00 p.m.

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Wit, wonder & wisdom in The Lady’s Not For Burning @ Alumnae Theatre

Lady's Not For Burning - image only“Life, forbye, is the way

We fatten for the Michaelmas of our own particular

Gallows. What a wonderful thing is metaphor!”

– Thomas Mendip in The Lady’s Not For Burning (from director’s program notes)

Alumnae Theatre Company’s production of The Lady’s Not For Burning, directed by Jane Carnwath, brings the wit, wonder and wisdom of Christopher Fry’s play to life through sight, sound and poetic wordplay – an excellent cast and a beautiful show.

The marvelous ensemble includes some remarkable stand-outs. Chris Coculuzzi gives us a Thomas Mendip that combines the melancholy philosophy of a Jacques with the good-humoured wit of a Fool, and Andrea Brown is luminous as Jennet Jourdemayne, quirky, sharp-witted and compassionate. Together, their performances show us opposite perspectives of the all too fleeting realization of the nature of the human condition: we live, suffer out our short time in these bodies – yes – and we can choose to bemoan that fact or savour the brief moments we are given. Two sides of the same coin. Chris Whidden, as the put-upon but boyishly optimistic Mayor’s clerk, takes young Richard from boy to man as he stands up for what is right as well as for himself, with particularly sweet bashfulness in the presence of love. Paul Cotton brings to Humphrey Devize a lovely combination of wry wit and desperate longing born of boredom and ennui. Peter Higginson is adorable as the kind-hearted, thoughtful Chaplin who longs to be a musician, and Ian Orr is hilariously convincing as the drunken and disoriented Matthew Skipps.

With big shouts to the most excellent design team: Margaret Spence (costumes), Ed Rosing (set/lighting), Mike Peck (master carpenter), Angus Barlow (sound) and Razie Brownstone (props) for bringing the sights, sounds and textures of this world to life. My personal thanks to the painting crew, who assisted Ed and me with the set: Cody Boyd (who was also Ed’s design assistant), Razie Brownstone, Joan Burrows, Margot Devlin and Dorothy Wilson. And to the intrepid producer team of Barbara Larose and Ellen Green, and stage manager Margot “Mom” Devlin and ASM Tara Gostling for holding this massive production together.

A world-weary soldier longing for the noose. A bright young woman accused of witchcraft. Both eccentric in their own way, standing out from ordinary folk who don’t look beyond their own front doors. The silly superstitious collective mind of the mob. Kind spirits and good hearts. What’s not to love?

Alumnae’s production of The Lady’s Not For Burning continues on the mainstage until February 8, with a talkback with the director, cast and design team after the matinée on Sunday, February 2.

Coming soon to the cowbell blog: The Lady’s Not For Burning set comes to life. A slide show of the scenic painting process.

Magic & mayhem in a small town – Alumnae Theatre’s The Killdeer

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A rural kitchen with lavender walls, wallpapered below the chair railing on one side and paneled with different cuts of wood on the other. An open doorway reveals a pantry, shelves full of mason jars of colourful preserves. Up centre, a tree sprouts, covered in all manner of porcelain knick-knacks – a tea pot, glass animals – instead of leaves. Through the window, a portion of it cut away, vines enter from the outside world, and we get the stage right view of white birches, giant bull rushes and the beginning of a glittering green swamp.

Marysia Bucholc’s set is the audience’s introduction to the world of the Alumnae Theatre Company’s production of James Reaney’s The Killdeer, directed by Barbara Larose, with assistant director Ellen Green, part of Alumnae’s “Countdown to 100” retrospective programming as it approaches its 100th anniversary (it’s 95 now). Reaney’s play, which came about due to the encouragement of late director and Alumnae member Pamela Terry, had its premiere at Alumnae in 1960 (back when it was located on Bedford Road) and was directed by Terry – and it launched Reaney’s career as a playwright.

In this seemingly quaint country town – part rural gothic, part fairy tale place – with a mysterious and violent history, this kitchen in the Gardner home is a whimsical oasis of innocence. Through prose that is at times vernacular, at others poetic, storytelling and gossip, The Killdeer takes us on an intense, dramatic – and at times magical – journey into the lives and secrets of its characters.

Like me, you may be asking, what the heck is a “killdeer”? The press release for the production provides a helpful definition: a killdeer is “a small bird, known for feigning a broken wing to draw predators away from its nest, which is built on open ground, and for calling out its own name.” Sound designer Rick Jones incorporates the call of the killdeer into the production, along with musical touches of whimsy, mystery and drama, inspired by the original production’s sound design by John Beckwith.

The Killdeer features a very strong cast. Tricia Brioux’s Madam Fay is a deliciously arch, darkly comic and dangerously crazy lady with issues, while Tricia’s real-life nephew Matt Brioux (playing Madam Fay’s son) rounds out Eli’s seemingly simple-minded, childlike behaviour with good sense and a good heart. Rob Candy does evil up good as Clifford, a notorious piece of work whose menacing character rivals even that of Madam Fay. As Mrs. Gardner, Anne Shepherd combines a sense of rural tradition and individual quirkiness as Harry’s bric-a-brack collecting, overprotective mother, while Marie Carrière Gleason is great fun as Mrs. Gardner’s gossipy neighbour Mrs. Budge. Paul Hardy offers a nice transition as Harry goes from wide-eyed innocent teenager to a good man searching to find his way and save the true love of his life; and Blythe Haynes is lovely as Rebecca, a lost innocent like Harry, protective of those she loves even to her own detriment. Naomi Vondell adds some nice layers of mystery to the put upon Jailer’s wife Mrs. Soper, left to manage the cells while her husband is away. In their multiple roles, Michael Vitorovich is delightfully evil as the Hangman and comically officious as the Judge; Joanne Sarazen is especially entertaining as the mercurial Crown attorney and Tina McCulloch – doing quadruple duty playing two characters, as well as marketing/publicity and co-producer – gives a nice comic turn as courthouse cleaning lady Mrs. Delta. Peter Higginson’s enigmatic physician turned hermit Dr. Ballad is both gently wise and sharply funny.

Razie Brownstone’s costumes, and prop team’s Tess Hendaoui and Deborah Roed detailed touches, make for a lovely combination of realism and once upon a time. And Ed Rosing’s lighting design ranges from the clever (the box-like light on the floor for the witness stand in the courtroom) and magical (the lighting on the swamp and the twinkley lights on the walls of the set that burst out into the back of the house). All held together by intrepid SM/lighting op Margot “Mom” Devlin and her ASM team. Shouts also to co-producer Lynne Patterson and opening night catering mistress Sandy Schneider – and to Suzanne Courtney at Ticking Time Bomb Productions for the graphic design work on the poster (and for the entire season).

This was one crazy trip. And The Killdeer leaves the audience talking.

The Killdeer runs on the Alumnae Theatre main stage until April 27, with a talkback following the April 21 matinée. In the meantime, check out this Hye’s Musings blog interview with director Barbara Larose.