Doctor/patient relationship gets real as they exorcise demons in Criminal Girlfriends’ razor sharp, intense, darkly funny Fierce

 

Emmelia Gordon (top) and Marisa Crockett (bottom). Photo by John Gundy.

 

Criminal Girlfriends opened its intimate production of George F. Walker’s Fierce to a sold out house at Red Sandcastle Theatre last night. Directed by Wes Berger, assisted by Martha Moldaver, the new play bears all the classic Walker trademarks of tight, mercurial dialogue; quirky, complex characters; edgy, dark comedy; and surprising revelations.

Set in a psychiatrist’s office, Fierce puts us into a court-mandated session between patient Jayne (Emmelia Gordon) and doctor Maggie (Marisa Crockett). In order to avoid jail time for repeated disorderly and dangerous behaviour while on multiple drug-induced benders, Jayne must put in some couch time and get signed off by the doc. Jayne begrudgingly—and full of skepticism, insisting that she’s not an addict—attends the appointment, immediately throwing up walls of resistance as Maggie tries to get to the bottom of why the benders and the subsequent wandering into traffic.

Over the course of the next 75 minutes, the power dynamic shifts back and forth, and revelations emerge from both sides. Pushing for some personal give and take, and armed with some deep-dive research on Maggie, Jayne coaxes Maggie to tell her own story—which, while initially appearing to be a pain-in-the-ass move, becomes more about building trust. As each woman tells her story, they realize they have a lot in common: Both are survivors, with troubled pasts and criminal records. And both were drawn to occupations aimed at helping people (Jayne worked as a high school guidance counsellor). And while Maggie withholds details that come out later in the conversation, Jayne plays around with her story to the point that it’s hard to tell what’s true. And the session takes an even more unorthodox turn and, in a bizarre way, cements the bond that took root during their initial verbal sparring.

Brilliant, complementary performances from Gordon and Crockett, playing characters that are perfect foils for each other. Crockett brings a tightly controlled, almost prim, edge to Maggie; but, as we soon discover, there’s something more bubbling just below the surface there. Whip-smart and suffering no bullshit, Maggie is a straight-talking professional who gives as good as she gets; she’s tougher than she looks and genuinely wants to help. Gordon’s Jayne is part professional smart-ass, part unpredictable wounded animal; tough-talking and cagey, and deflecting with sarcasm, Jayne’s hard edges don’t entirely cover the deep-seated pain and denial. And when that mask starts to come down, we see a woman haunted by personal tragedy and in despair over not being able to do more.

It’s a complex, intense, at times disturbing, dance of revelation, confession and being real—as poignant as it is funny, and so very true to the mark. Walker is famous for writing about characters on the fringe of society, and while Jayne and Maggie are both what could be considered as white collar professionals, their shared histories of substance abuse, run-ins with the law and struggles with mental illness are a stark reminder that there’s more to people than meets the eye.

Bonus points for including Blue Oyster Cult’s Don’t Fear the Reaper in the rockin’ pre-show soundtrack.

Shifting power dynamic and a doctor/patient relationship gets real as they exorcise the demons in Criminal Girlfriends’ razor sharp, intense, darkly funny Fierce.

Fierce continues at Red Sandcastle Theatre until March 3. Check here for dates, times and advance tickets. It’s an intimate space and getting good buzz, so advance booking strongly recommended.

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Valentines through the ages & the private face of grief in Shotgun Juliet’s intimate, tender Jewel

Pip Dwyer in Jewel. Photo by Jackie Smulan.

 

Shotgun Juliet opened its production of Joan MacLeod’s Jewel, directed by Matthew Eger, to a packed house at Red Sandcastle Theatre last night.

Jewel was inspired by the sinking of the Ocean Ranger oil rig off the coast of Newfoundland during a Valentine’s Day storm on the Atlantic on February 15, 1982, a national tragedy that saw 84 lives lost. The two-year Canadian Royal Commission that followed found numerous design and safety flaws, as well as ineffective inspection and regulation, and subsequently made a number of recommendations to the oil and gas industry, as well as the federal government. Lawsuits were settled out of court in a $20-million package, duly noted in the program notes as “peanuts for oil companies.”

Jewel puts a deeply personal face on this tragedy. Set in the Peace River Valley on Valentine’s Day 1985, three years after the accident, we’re in Marjorie’s (Pip Dwyer) mobile home. Dressed in a flannel nighty, long johns, boots and a heavy knit jacket, and holding a bucket of milk, we find her standing in her kitchen, starring a million miles away. Remembering.

She recounts Valentine’s Days over the years, a personal history of romance that is both touching and hilariously funny. Especially endearing is the unfolding romance with Harry, who proposed to her – a city girl from Calgary – in a tent in Northern Alberta. And then Valentine’s Day 1982, when Harry was one of the men working on the Ocean Ranger and the RCMP arrived on her doorstep. Listening to country music and local messages on the radio, and occasionally hollering at the dog to stay outside, she shares homemade beer and speaks to Harry throughout – and the love comes through. The heartache. The loss. The disbelief. The anger. The trying to move on.

Dwyer gives a luminous, compelling performance in this emotional, haunting solo show. Radiating that classic, independent Prairie girl can-do attitude, her Marjorie is cheeky, funny and straight-talking – and also deeply vulnerable. Fiercely and romantically committed to her marriage, Marjorie’s still wearing her wedding ring and speaking with the ghost of her love three years after he’s gone. The reason for this loss is infuriating – and we share her disbelief and anger, the intimate staging putting us in that mobile home kitchen with her. And that private expression of love, loss and grief is both beautiful and heartbreaking to watch.

With shouts to John Dwyer, who supplied his voice-over talents as the affable local Radio Host. And to the design team, including Jackie Smulan, Blair Purdy and the company for the homey, detailed kitchen set, and the equally warming music and evocative atmospheric sound.

Valentines through the ages and the private face of grief in Shotgun Juliet’s intimate, tender Jewel.

Jewel continues at Red Sandcastle Theatre till February 14, with evening performances at 8pm and a matinee on February 11 at 2pm; advance tickets available online. It’s an intimate space and a short run, so advance booking is strongly recommended.

 

The meaning of life, death & the role of a lifetime in the moving, tender & funny Or Not To Be

Andrew Robinson, Shawn DeSouza-Coelho & Karen Scobie in Or Not To Be—photo by Vic Finucci

 

I was back at Red Sandcastle Theatre last night, this time for Glass Hammer Productions’ presentation of Andrew Batten’s Or Not To Be, directed by Julia Haist. I saw the premiere at Alumnae Theatre’s New Ideas Festival last year and was excited to see the evolution of the piece.

Actor Ben (Shawn DeSouza-Coelho) and director Sebastian (Andrew Robinson), also best friends, are working on putting together a production of Hamlet, with Ben playing the tragic hero. It’s the production of a lifetime—and the role of a lifetime for Ben—in more ways than one. Ben is living with a rare cancer, and his life now revolves around post-op treatments, medical appointments and an uncertain future. Rounding out his support team are his family and partner Sarah (Karen Scobie)—all touched in his or her own way by Ben’s illness.

Beneath the brave face Ben puts on for the world is a deep-seated internal conflict about the project and his treatment. As he struggles with side effects, low energy, frustration, and the fear of forgetting his lines and sucking at the role, he begins to wonder who he’s doing all of this for—and he’s faced with some hard choices, the impact of which will ripple out to those he loves.

Really lovely work and great chemistry from this three-hander cast in this intimate and candid production. DeSouza-Coelho’s Ben is a compelling picture of stoicism and determination, his thousand-mile stare and stillness belying the troubled soul beneath the surface; and he gives us nicely drawn Hamlet in a selection of classic soliloquies. Robinson brings the perfect balance of cockiness and warmth to Sebastian; Ben’s best friend since grade school, his theatrical ambitions are put into perspective by his support and care of Ben. Scobie gives Sarah a poignant sense of vulnerability and conflict as Ben’s lovingly supportive and uncomplaining partner; torn between wanting what’s best for Ben and not wanting to let him go, Sarah must confront her own feelings and motives. These relationship dynamics have all the truth, humour and feeling of people who know each other well—and in Ben and Sebastian’s case, a long time. And while the truth may be hard to take, it’s served up with love and honesty.

In the end, it makes you think. How would you react in Ben’s situation? What would your life be? And, as your life is right now, what’s your Hamlet? We are reminded that time is a precious, non-renewable resource—and despite the best intentions of those we love, it is we who must ultimately decide what path our lives will take.

With shouts to Liz Currie, the intrepid stage manager, lighting designer and tech in the booth; and to Wellspring, an organization—noted in the program—that provides programs and services for people living with cancer and their caregivers.

The meaning of life, death and the role of a lifetime in the moving, tender and funny Or Not To Be.

Or Not To Be continues at Red Sandcastle until January 28, Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm, with 2 pm matinees on Jan 20, 21, 27 and 28. Tickets available by calling the box office at 416 845-9411, or online at this link for first seven shows and this link for the final seven shows.

Pun & games for kids of all ages, with hilarious panto good times, in RaPUNzel

 

Amelia Welcher as RaPUNzel (top) and Kristen Foote as Bunny (bottom)—photo by Burke Campbell

 

Red Sandcastle Theatre’s Panto Players are back at it again with more pantomime shenanigans in RaPUNzel, written by Jane A. Shields and Rosemary Doyle, and directed by Jackie English. RaPUNzel marks the company’s 7th annual holiday panto.

This time, the Panto Players take us to Italy in this delightful mashup of beloved fairy tales, pop music and musical theatre tunes as they deliver familiar stories and characters with some goofy—at times surprising—twists. A very pregnant Twankey’s (Chris Gibbs) cravings coax her husband (Farid Yazdani) to pilfer neighbouring ogre Monsanto’s (Taran Beaty) garden for lettuce. His mission becomes compromised and he’s caught in the act, forcing the expecting couple to make a terrible choice. Their thievery comes at a price: they must hand their baby over to the ogre!

Sixteen years later, and having held out on her end of the deal and lost her husband, the Widow Twankey gives in and the ogre gets her daughter RaPUNzel (Amelia Welcher), and locks her in an impenetrable, magically protected tower. Luckily, RaPUNzel’s nimble-footed bff hare friend Bunny (Kristen Foote) is able to get in and out of the tower, and provide our heroine with some company as they try to figure out how to get her out of there. Meanwhile, RaPUNzel’s hair is getting super long—and we wonder if the ogre is as naughty as he wants everyone to believe; after all, his faithful sidekick is a Chicken (Sebastian Marziali). And is Twankey as nice as she appears?

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Chris Gibbs as Widow Twankey, with Co-writer/AD Rosemary Doyle in the background—photo by Burke Campbell

Enter the handsome, though somewhat dim, Prince (Yazdani). Will he be able to free RaPUNzel from her tower prison? To add to the fun, director English returns as our favourite sassy pink cat, who first arrives on sabbatical, but comes on board to assist as only this cat can. And co-writer Doyle appears as the set-changing, noise-shushing Nonna,* a sweet old granny who suffers no fools.

It’s all very wacky and pun-filled—and we’re all invited to join in the fun. Gibbs gives a diabolically silly turn as the vain and manipulative Twankey; and Yazdani does an awesome Don Corleone impression as her husband, as well as a comedic, scene-stealing turn as the dim-witted yet determined Prince. Beaty is hilariously conflicted as the ogre Monsanto; holding RaPUNzel captive for “reasons,” the ogre’s love and care of his garden makes you wonder how bad to the bone he really is—and he brings some kick-ass guitar and vocals to that George Thorogood classic in the process.

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Taran Beaty as the ogre Monsanto, with Sebastian Marziali as Chicken (left), Chris Gibbs as Twankey (background) & Amelia Welcher as RaPUNzel (right)—photo by Burke Campbell

 

Welcher is adorably precocious as the feisty punster RaPUNzel; and impresses with great vocal chops on a Pink power ballad. Foote and Marziali give hilarious turns in multiple roles, starting with a pair of mobsters and a couple of dancing lettuce. Foote is hysterical and educational as RaPUNzel’s bff hare pal Bunny, schooling us on the differences between the hare and the rabbit. And Marziali brings cute and wacky fun as Monsanto’s right-hand man Chicken, providing comic observations and cheeky advice.

We’re invited—and encouraged—to cheer the heroes and boo the villain, and sing and groove along with the pop tunes, rap and musical theatre songs. And a few lucky young audience members will have a chance to get in on the action.

With big shouts to stage manager Deborah Ann Frankel, who’s been with this wild and wacky ride from the beginning; running all the lighting and sound cues, and shepherding the cast.

Pun and games for kids of all ages, with hilarious panto good times, in RaPUNzel.

RaPUNzel continues at Red Sandcastle until January 7, with evening performances at 7pm on December 29 and 30, and January 2-6; and matinees at 3pm on December 28 and 30, and January 3, 6 and 7. Get your advance tickets online (see the date-specific ticket links on the show page) or by calling 416-845-9411.

*As of December 28, Nonna will be played by Panto Players veteran Brenda Somers.

Update

New cowbells courtesy of my aunt Doreen Moore.

 

It’s Thanksgiving Monday here in Canada and I’ve been thinking about what I’m grateful for this year: friends, family, my colleagues at Nightwood Theatre—and you, dear reader.

I came out of hiatus in early September to cover INpulse Theatre Co’s production of Mockingbird Close at Red Sandcastle Theatre. Officially back, the cowbell blog will be operating in a reduced capacity for the next little while. Fall is a busy time for theatre companies—and, as I’m now working at a theatre company… You get the picture.

Although I’ll be covering fewer shows, I’ll still be shouting out the work on Twitter and Facebook, so please give me a follow if you haven’t already done so.

While you’re at it, drop by Nightwood Theatre’s Facebook page and Twitter feed, as well the Nightwood website, where I’ve been gradually resurrecting the blog there.

What are you grateful for this year?

 

The secret thoughts of grownups & the stories they tell in the gripping, darkly funny Mockingbird Close

Tiana Leonty & David MacInnis—photo by Jackie Brown Photography

 

When truth collides with fiction, who can you trust?

INpulse Theatre Co. presents the Toronto premiere of Trevor Schmidt’s Mockingbird Close, directed by Ryan F. Hughes and running at Red Sandcastle Theatre.

Iris (Tiana Leonty) and Hank (David MacInnis) live in a nice, clean split-level home on a nice, quiet cul-de-sac in a nice, safe, crime-free neighbourhoood. Their picture-perfect 1950s suburban life is turned upside down when their young son goes missing. Only, when they try to recall the day he disappeared, they can’t seem to get the story right.

As they conduct a door-to-door search on their street—the titular Mockingbird Close—we encounter their neighbours (all played by Leonty and MacInnis); and it’s dark comic portraits all around as we meet them. The vain, judgmental, hyper-religious, cooking baking Louis Vent. Sidney Blackwell, the strangely charming older man with his prized train set in the basement and a bed-ridden wife upstairs. The attention-starved, “Mrs. Robinson” Mona Hobbs. The odd, soft-spoken Jarvis Jermaine. No one has any information on the missing boy—and all are concealing something. And then there’s the malevolent, mysterious older lady; the one the neighbourhood kids call “the witch.” There’s a dangerous, unsettling undercurrent on this street; and each of its inhabitants has a dark, hidden edge.

Incorporating storytelling with satirical fetishization of normalcy and wholesomeness, Mockingbird Close is part fairy tale, part psychological thriller—one might even say David Lynchian. What really happened? And did it even happen?

Leonty and MacInnis are a two-person master class in their performances, playing on the edge of send-up and nuance as they flesh out these secretive, discomfiting characters. Leonty’s Iris is a neat, prim and somewhat high-strung wife and mother; the perfectly coiffed wife in an emerald green cocktail dress who greets her returning husband at the door with slippers, the paper and a martini. And Leonty runs the gamut, from narcissistic and controlling Louis to desperately lonely seductress Mona. MacInnis is the picture of the flawlessly pressed professional and husband; precise and socially astute, he too is tightly wound—more of the ticking time bomb variety. He is eerily engaging as Sidney and creepily attentive as Jarvis. MacInnis and Leonty seamlessly tag team a single character as they take turns portraying the mysterious and manipulative dark lady behind the final door at the end of Iris and Hank’s search.

The secret thoughts of grownups and the stories they tell in the gripping, tension-filled, darkly funny Mockingbird Close.

Mockingbird Close continues at Red Sandcastle until September 16; get your advance tickets online or at the door an hour before show time. Advance booking recommended; it’s an intimate space and last night’s opening was a packed house.

Keep up with INpulse Theatre Co. on Facebook. You can also find them on Instagram: @inpulsetheatre and Twitter: @inpulse_theatre

Grit, determination & a love affair with the speed bag in the funny, moving, inspiring Newsgirl

Savoy Howe in Newsgirl—photo by Dahlia Katz

 

Tracey Erin Smith and Soulo Theatre celebrated the 5th anniversary of the Soulo Theatre Festival, opening this year’s fest with an Opening Night Gala presentation of Savoy Howe’s Newsgirl. With direction and dramatury by Soulo Theatre A.D. Smith, Newsgirl ran for one night only at the Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club in front of an enthusiastic, sold out house—and a standing ovation—last night. The fest continues at Red Sandcastle Theatre tonight and throughout the weekend.

When Savoy Howe moved away from her home in New Brunswick in the late 80s to study theatre in Hamilton and later move to Toronto, she had no way of foreseeing what was in store—and the journey that would bring her the sense of strength, determination and empowerment that she would go on to share with women and trans people.

This is the story of Newsgirl, Howe’s autobiographical solo show that takes her from a tomboy growing up on a Canadian Air Force base, to her coming out, to training as a boxer and later passing on her knowledge as a boxing coach, starting the first women’s and trans-friendly boxing gym in Canada: the Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club. And, while it was a photo of a woman wearing boxing gloves that inspired Howe to take up the sport, it was a speed bag that made her fall in love with boxing.

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Savoy Howe in Newsgirl—photo by Dahlia Katz

Combining the physicality, strategy and philosophy of boxing with considerable stand-up and storytelling chops, Howe is an engaging, energetic and endearing performer. With Howe primarily telling her story from inside the boxing ring, the show is dynamically staged, moving her around the gym as she highlights discovery and work on the heavy bag and speed bag; and her rookie first entry into the ring is hilarious!

Newsgirls is a story of struggle, grit and a ‘don’t give up’ attitude that takes some rough, and sometimes violent, turns. Perseverance, a big heart and a curious, open mind—not to mention a hard-working, helping hand way of looking at life—make the wins and losses equal in value. Always learning, never backing down from a challenge, and enduring the deep-seated sexism and male aggression of this world, Howe is an inspiration. Newsgirl is a classic underdog makes good story. And it definitely packs a punch.

Grit, determination and a love affair with the speed bag in the funny, moving, inspiring Newsgirl.

Check out this great interview in VICE Sports with Savoy Howe on how she got into boxing, opened Newsgirls, and how she and the gym are empowering women and trans people. You can also follow the Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club on Facebook.

Howe is in the process of launching a crowdfunding campaign to keep the gym alive and serving the community; stay tuned for details on how you can help.

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Soulo Theatre A.D. Tracey Erin Smith in the ring at Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club—photo by Dahlia Katz

Newsgirl was a one-night only performance, but no worries—there are lots more life-changing, life-affirming true stories to come tonight and this weekend at the fest, which includes solo shows and panel discussions. The Soulo Theatre Festival continues at Red Sandcastle Theatre till May 28; check out the full schedule and purchase advance tickets and get your festival pass.

Department of corrections: The original post for the show mentioned that Howe studied theatre in Toronto; it was actually Hamilton. The error has been corrected.