Great holiday panto fun in Camelot with EXCALI-PURR: The Once & Future Cat

Red Sandcastle Theatre’s (RST) Panto Players take us on a wacky fun medieval adventure of knights, wizards, destiny—and, of course, an unusual, feisty pink cat—with their multimedia production EXCALI-PURR: The Once & Future Cat. Co-written by Jane A. Shields and Rosemary Doyle, and directed/choreographed by Jackie English, this is RST’s eighth holiday pantomime.

Young Wart (a plucky, precocious turn from Rosie Callaghan) leaves his home with adopted father Sir ‘Ector (a delightfully silly Taran Beaty) and jealous, whiny brother Kay (Farid Yazdani, with a comical sly, pernicious edge—and who does a darn good Elvis) to seek his destiny with the help of a guitar playing wizard who ages backwards (Beaty, who finally gets to play a good guy this time, as the cheeky, enigmatic Merlin) and the effervescent Twanky of the Lake (played with sassy gusto by Andrew McGillivray, who also acts as our host with the 411 on traditional panto audience responses).

Meanwhile, the evil sorceress Morgan Le Fey (played with delightful, exacting and nasty glee—plus mad trash talking skills—by Linette Doherty) plots to rule the world with a new pink, four-legged associate. Can it be that our favourite pink cat (Jackie English, with lovable sauce and guile) has gone over to the dark side? With the contest for the sword in the stone (aka Excalibur) coming, Le Fey invites Kay into her nefarious plan to secure Excalibur and the throne of England. Throw in the Pokémon-seeking knight Sir Pelinore (a treat of a goofy performance from Matthew Donovan), who challenges Kay in the joust, and we have some riotous panto adventure for kids of all ages. Will Wart find his destiny? Will good prevail?

Of course! With twists and turns, and plenty of goofy good times, laughs and music along the way (including live music performed by the multi-talented cast), EXCALI-PURR combines projected images; revamped pop tunes (from iconic rock, to hip hop and R&B, to show tunes); nods to magic/adventure movies (Harry Potter, Monty Python’s Holy Grail, Back to the Future and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button); and audience participation to great effect. All played out on a set that wraps the audience in the story—and held together by multi-tasking stage manager Deborah Ann Frankel (also the General Manager at RST since owner/AD Rosemary Doyle started a new gig as AD/Producer at Theatre Kingston back in August).

EXCALI-PURR: The Once & Future Cat continues at Red Sandcastle Theatre (922 Queen St. East, at Queen/Logan) until January 6, with evening performances at 7pm on Dec 28-30 and Jan 2-5, and matinées at 3pm on Dec 29-31 and Jan 5-6. Tickets ($25 adult, $15 child and family fun pack $60) are available online, by calling the box office at 416-845-9411 or at the door (cash only).

And that, my friends, is officially my final review of 2018. I’ll be back in January for more amazing Toronto theatre. Happy holidays and all good things for 2019!

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Outrageously fun, horrific good times in Space Opera Zero!

Clockwise, from top left: Eric Woolfe, Lisa Norton & Mairi Babb. Set & costume design by Melanie McNeill, assisted by Emily Butters. Lighting design by Michael Brunet. Photo by producer Adrianna Prosser.

 

Eldritch Theatre returns with more outrageously fun, horrific good times with Space Opera Zero, written by Eric Woolfe and directed by Dylan Trowbridge. Based on Thomas Middleton’s Jacobean tragedy The Changeling, Space Opera Zero! is a space horror erotic macabredy that combines poetic language, a B-movie/pulp fiction sensibility, feats of prestidigitation, 30s slang, mask and puppetry, operatic tragedy and a lesbian/alien love triangle. Space Opera Zero! opened on Friday at Red Sandcastle Theatre; I caught it last night, in an enthusiastic, sold out house.

Our story begins in 1930s America, where intrepid lesbian pilot Emily Trueheart (Lisa Norton) and mad scientist Hjalmar Pomeranki (Eric Woolfe) set off—in a space ship Pomeranki designed—on a mission where no man has gone before. Forced off course, they land on a strange faraway planet, where Emily rescues Princess Jenora (Mairi Babb) from certain death in the jaws of a vicious alien creature—and the two fall instantly in love.

Things are peachy keen until the Princess’s father, the Emperor (puppet, Woolfe), orders her to marry a fearsome tentacled alien (Norton) for the sake and safety of their planet. And while the Princess makes an unsavoury deal with the Emperor’s servant Doggo the Mutant (Woolfe) to get out of the marriage so she can be with Emily, Pomeranki is hatching an apocalyptic plan of his own back at the space ship. Caught in a web of lies and deceit, things go from bad to worse for the Princess; desperate to have things go her way, she enlists the aid of her maid/sex robot Ro-Berta (puppet, Woolfe) to distract Emily.

Will true love find a way in this faraway universe—and will there be any universe left to make sweet nookie in?

Big-time LOLs, twists and turns, and surprises from this engaging, energetic, uber-talented cast. Norton’s Emily Trueheart is the definition of moxie, combined with old-fashioned romantic; taking names and no guff (especially from men), Emily is a pioneer and explorer with the guts of a warrior and the heart of a poet. Woolfe does a stand-out job, juggling multiple hilarious and poignant characters, utilizing mask and puppetry. Notably the verbose mad scientist Hjalmar Pomeranki, who seems a nice enough fellow but has a dark purpose in mind; the reviled, put-upon servant Doggo the Mutant; and the loyal, sex-curious robot Ro-Berta. Babb gives the lovely Princess Jenora a slinky, femme fatale edge; driven to extreme measures to achieve her heart’s—and loins’—desire, the Princess risks painting herself into a corner.

With shouts to the outstanding interstellar design team: Melanie McNeill, assisted by Emily Butters (set and costumes), Michael Brunet (lighting) and Christopher Stanton (sound). And to stage manager Sandi Becker, for keeping it all running smoothly and showing us how to navigate our way through the set to access the washroom.

Space Opera Zero! continues at Red Sandcastle Theatre until December 2; advance tickets available online. It’s an intimate space with limited seating, and a super popular company getting great buzz, so advance booking strongly recommended.

Check out the cool trailer:

Secrets & dark suspicions in the eerie, Gothic family drama Gripless

GriplessCastBWStanding: David Huband & Amber Mackereth. Seated: Margaret Lamarre.

 

Green Garden Equity Artist Collective gives us a disturbing tale of family secrets and dark suspicions in Deborah Ann Frankel’s eerie family drama Gripless; directed by Frankel and on now for a short run at Red Sandcastle Theatre.

On a stormy night in a small town, brother Ben (David Huband) and sister April (Amber Mackereth) bring their mother Elaine (Margaret Lamarre) home from a birthday celebration dinner in honour of their deceased father Daniel. Uncomfortable and anxious to leave, intimidating younger sister April appears to be the alpha to her more easy going older brother. But try as they might to leave their family home, something Elaine says keeps drawing them away from the door and back into the living room.

As the action unfolds, we learn that Elaine remarried about a year after Daniel’s death; an abusive brute of a man named Tim, who recently had a stroke. We get the sense that there are some uncomfortable unsaid truths in the closet of this family’s history; and memories shift from nostalgic reverie and childhood shenanigans to disturbing discoveries and suspicions—hinting at a troubling and violent dynamic.

Compelling work from the cast in this unsettling, spooky story of family dysfunction and conflicting perspectives. Lamarre’s Elaine is damaged, adrift and also manipulative; poignant yet unsettling, Elaine’s selective memory targets only the happy moments and she seems oddly disconnected from what’s happening right in front of her. As April, Mackereth’s tough-talking, bully exterior masks a deeply hurt, vulnerable child; unforgiving with her mother, April has tender feelings for her big brother, the only one who’s ever been on her side. Huband’s Ben is the perfect foil for Mackereth’s April; wry-witted, quiet and introspective, Ben is clearly the peacemaker in the family—but even his easy-going demeanour gives way to moments of haunted reflection.

Writer/director Frankel, who folks will recognize as Red Sandcastle’s intrepid SM, will be taking over as General Manager when AD Rosemary Doyle heads to Kingston in August as the new AD of Theatre Kingston; multitasking in this production, she’s also juggling box office and SM duty in booth—and created one heck of a dark, atmospheric set and soundtrack.

Gripless has two more performances at Red Sandcastle Theatre: tonight (July 22) and tomorrow (July 23) at 8 p.m.; book tickets in advance at deborahannfrankel@gmail.com or pay cash at the door.

Lost music dreams & turbulent family reunion in Rare Day Projects’ bittersweet, poignant, funny A Very Different Place

Clockwise, from top left: Jeanette Dagger, Rosemary Doyle & Alexzander McLarry. Photo by Deborah Ann Frankel.

 

You can’t go home again, but maybe you can meet where you are. Rare Day Projects presents Carol Libman’s drama about lost dreams and family reunion, A Very Different Place, directed by Robin Haggerty and opening last night at Red Sandcastle Theatre. This world premiere began as a short play in Alumnae Theatre’s New Ideas Festival, later emerging at Big Ideas and Next Stage readings before reaching its current form at Red Sandcastle.

Teri (Rosemary Doyle) left home almost 20 years ago to pursue a career as a jazz singer with a talented man she loved—and that’s not all she left behind. Her mother Marge (Jeanette Dagger) was left to raise her son Mike (Alexzander McLarry). After a chance meeting in a Calgary hospital, where Teri now works as a nurse, Mike hatches a plan for a family reunion between his mother and grandmother at their home in Toronto—a plan that gets fast-tracked when Marge falls and breaks her hip. He needs to get back to work on an oil rig out west in a few days, and Marge—despite protestations to the contrary—needs assistance at home while she recovers and gets physiotherapy. Enter Teri, and the mother/daughter battle begins!

Old wounds, misunderstandings, resentments and suspicions emerge as Teri and Marge struggle through past and current conflicts—and try to make peace for Mike’s sake. Mike finds himself in the middle of the fray, playing peacemaker when all he wanted was to get his family back together. And Teri’s desperately trying to stay sober through the stress of this homecoming; attending AA meetings, where she addresses us as fellow Friends of Bill.

Nicely staged, with a turbulent musical prologue and snippets of classical piano favourites featured throughout (expertly played by Dagger) and a touching mother/daughter duet on “Summertime” (with Doyle shining on the vocals), A Very Different Place is bookended with music and moments of Teri’s AA sharing.

Lovely work from the cast in this touching, often sharply funny, three-hander—featuring some especially moving two-hander scenes between mother and daughter, and mother and son. Dagger’s Marge is a tough but amiable old gal with a decided stubborn, independent streak and an unbreakable determination to do what’s best, even if it costs her. Doyle’s Teri is a troubled adult child struggling to reconcile past and future choices, wobbling on the edge of petulant teen in the face of family conflict. Equally firm in her pursuit of independence—she comes by it honestly—like Marge, who once dreamed of being a concert pianist, Teri feels the sting of lost music career dreams and the necessity of setting herself on a new path in order to survive. McLarry does a great job as the glue trying to hold this family together as Mike navigates his own internal conflicts; like Marge and Teri, his life took an unexpected turn when he was forced to go west to find work. Setting up this family reunion as much for himself as for his grandmother and mother, Mike finds himself playing adult/referee when, deep down, he wants to feel a kid’s experience of love and family.

With shouts to SM/Technical Director Deborah Ann Frankel for juggling multiple tasks in the booth.

A Very Different Place continues at Red Sandcastle until May 13, with evening performances at 8 pm May 8 to 12; and matinees at 2 pm on May 10, 12 and 13. Tickets available at the door, by calling the Box Office at 416-845-9411 or going online.

 

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.

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.