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?

 

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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.

Memory, loss & insight—true stories of living with mental illness in the funny, poignant Stories Like Crazy double bill

After launching Stories Like Crazy with their inaugural podcast at the beginning of Mental Health Week, Adrianna Prosser and Lori Lane Murphy finished off the week with two real-life solo shows that “stomp on stigma and set fire to adult colouring books”: Lane Murphy’s Upside Down Dad and Prosser’s Everything but the Cat. The double bill ran for two nights this past weekend at Red Sandcastle Theatre, with a portion of the ticket sales going to CMHA’s #GetLoud campaign.

Singer songwriter, and member of the Cheap Wine Collective (and Adrianna’s brother), Luke Prosser opened the two evenings with an acoustic set of fiercely passionate, introspective indie originals and a few covers, including an awesome version of “Folsom Prison Blues.” Wrap your ears around his evocative, raspy blues-infused sound on Soundcloud.

Upside Down Dad (directed by Christopher Lane). Part memoir, part homage, Lane Murphy reminisces about growing up in the 70s with Warner Brothers cartoons, navigating teenage milestones and living with a clinically depressed dad who was by all appearances a happy, fun guy. Childhood memories of being goofy and putting on cartoon voices in an attempt to bring her father out of bouts of profound sadness turn into more urgent and impactful moments in adulthood, where she continued to act as caregiver, driving him to treatment appointments and then being by his bedside when he was dying from leukemia.

Running parallel to her experience of her father’s mental illness is the growing realization of her own—from following her dad’s early example of self-medicating with alcohol to her own personal turning point, supported by him to find a healthier way to deal. And her support of his journey adds new insight to her own.

A genuine and engaging storyteller, Lane Murphy takes us from moments of laughter to tears—and some wacky, bizarre moments—as she chronicles her kindred spirit relationship with her dad. And her story highlights how important conversation is to insight, acceptance and healing—denying or ignoring the problem won’t make it go away.

Everything but the Cat (directed by Stephanie Ouaknine). A personal exploration of loss and grief, Prosser tells the story of losing her younger brother Andrew to suicide and her already shaky relationship with her boyfriend on the same day. Profound grief is peppered with second guesses and guilt, and coupled with gut-wrenching abandonment as her Peter Pan boyfriend, who already has one foot out the door, decides he can’t deal with this, or any, level of commitment.

A multi-media solo show that incorporates projected images (original projections by Ouaknine, with additional projections by Jason Martorino), Everything but the Cat includes shadow acting and voice-over work by Maksym Barnett-Kemper Shkvorets, Brad Emes, Hannah Barnett-Kemper Shkvorets, Erik Buchanan, Andrew Hodwitz, Scott Emerson Moyle, Devin Upham, Eden Bachelder, Stephanie Ouaknine, Daniel Legault, Niles Anthony, Gaj Mariathasan, Tammy Everett, AJ LaFlamme, Jason Martorino, Val Adriaanse, Jordi Hepburn and Phil Rickaby. Bringing moments of the story to life in creative and innovative ways—from learning the news of her brother from her dad, to grief-stricken/-propelled experiences of throwing herself into the club and dating scene—the projected images and lit areas evoke time, place and, most importantly, emotional state.

Infusing her story with edgy comedy and sharply pointed observation, Prosser gives a brave, bold, deeply vulnerable and ultimately entertaining performance that not only takes us along, but inside, her journey.

Memory, loss and insight—true stories of living with mental illness in the funny, poignant Stories Like Crazy double bill.

Stories Like Crazy’s evening of solo shows closed last night, but you can hear more true stories about mental health and living with mental illness—opening conversation and busting stigma—on the Stories Like Crazy podcast, hosted by Prosser and Lane Murphy. You can also keep up with Stories Like Crazy on Twitter.

Coming soon: SOULO Theatre pop-up show The Return of Superlady!

Hey, kids! A new superhero is coming to town. It’s Superlady!

A pop-up show hosted by SOULO Theatre presents a new dark comedy (with hints of light): The Return of Superlady. Written by Katie Ford and directed by Anita La Selva, the show features Tracey Erin Smith, Christopher Sawchyn, Caitlin B. Driscoll and Savoy Howe.

I asked playwright Katie Ford how The Return of Superlady came about. Here’s what she had to say:

The Return of Superlady, I wrote about eight years ago originally. A friend of mine, Andrea Bendewald, showed up to lunch wearing aviator sunglasses. She struck me as looking like a superhero. And, in that moment, I wrote the play—of the everywoman as superhero. Superhuman strength and human weakness… and a cool pair of aviators.

Andrea and I worked on it, but never developed it fully. Then … I was meditating about a month ago and it came to me to give it to Tracey [Erin Smith]. The goddess and superhero, and gal’s gal. Tracey is so electric onstage, and her work is full of humor and compassion—I thought she is the superhero for our times. A super lady in comfortable pants.

Here’s the synopsis from the production:

Superhuman strength and human weakness, it’s a screw over, says Cherie (Superlady). Born into a small town with no idea of her destiny, Superlady has been fighting foes, evil and her own neurotic family for years—and now she’s done. She longs for home but fights for humanity. One more quest before she can go back—if a major super villain or working on intimacy with her family doesn’t kill her first.

The Return of Superlady runs March 29 to April 2 (Wed – Sat @ 9pm and Sunday @ 4pm & 8pm) at Red Sandcastle Theatre; advance tix available online.

What are you waiting for? Get your cape and aviators on—and fly on over!

 

 

Preview: Brilliant, fragile minds at work in the tender, sharply funny Proof

Photo by Bruce Peters: Dan Willmott, Karen Slater & Chris Peterson

New kid on the block Theatre UnBlocked is off to a great start, mounting its inaugural production, David Auburn’s Proof, directed by Carl Jackson, to a packed preview house at Red Sandcastle Theatre last night.

The elegant beauty of math and the minds behind it comes to life in this intimate production. Catherine (Karen Slater), who has been living at the family home outside Chicago, sits on the back porch and chats with her father Robert (Dan Willmott). Thing is, Robert’s dead—and his funeral is tomorrow.

Robert was a brilliant mathematician and professor; he was also living with mental illness, a condition that irreparably damaged his ability to work and thrive. Despite the urging of her well-meaning older sister Claire (Andrea Brown), Catherine had eschewed institutionalization for their father, and left her own studies in math behind, leaving the work she loved for a dearly beloved father. Numb and exhausted, Catherine’s interest in connecting with people is renewed when Hal (Chris Peterson), a mathematician and former student of Robert’s comes to the house to sort through Robert’s papers and notebooks.

Drawn by Hal’s drive, and their shared love and appreciation for her father, Catherine gradually opens up and shares another notebook with Hal; one that’s been locked away in her father’s desk. It looks like Robert’s handwriting, but she says it’s hers. And what it contains is a 40-page proof that mathematicians have been trying to work out for a very long time. Concerned that Catherine inherited their father’s unstable mind, Claire has her doubts; she’s also been trying to coax Catherine to come live with her in Manhattan, as she intends to sell the house. Hal has doubts too; and offers to show the proof to some colleagues to check its veracity and authenticate its authorship. Is Catherine crazy? Or is she a genius? And does Hal genuinely care for her—or is he using her for a treasure hunt?

Simply staged in an intimate space, with the sounds of crickets and birds setting us firmly in the easy lull of a home outside the urban buzz of the city’s core, this production of Proof combines the poetry of nature with the beauty of science and mathematics.

The cast does a remarkable job with this story of math, family, mental illness and gifted minds. Slater gives a lovely, layered performance as the troubled and brilliant Catherine. An exceptional but neglected mind, Catherine puts up walls to separate herself from others, and humour and sarcasm are her weapons of choice; all in defense of the deeply hurt, tired and lost girl beneath. She knows what she knows—but fears that, like her father, she may be going crazy. Willmott brings a gentle, good-humoured cheekiness to Robert; a mathematician with the heart of a poet, and a brilliant but unstable mind—a driven man immersed in his work. The two-hander scenes between Catherine and Robert are both tender and sharply funny; revealing a genuine love, understanding and appreciation—a pairing of kindred spirits.

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Karen Slater & Andrea Irwin in Proof – photo by Bruce Peters

Irwin does a fabulous job mining the many facets of Claire, shifting between gentle caregiver and ‘big sister knows best,’ not to mention one hell of a funny hangover performance. Claire genuinely cares about Catherine’s welfare, but with a mind on the practical issues at hand, wants to sell the family home and keep Catherine close. Like Catherine, she’s concerned that her sister may be on the same path as their father; and while she also inherited some serious math skills and works as a currency analyst, there’s a tinge of painful sibling rivalry in that she didn’t have as close a relationship with Robert—or her sister’s brilliant mind. Peterson brings an adorkable charm and boyish drive to Hal, the mathematician who plays drums in a geek rock band. Like Catherine, Hal was close to Robert, who was a mentor and perhaps even a father figure to him. Reluctant to believe in Catherine’s abilities, he finds it hard to fathom that she authored this newly discovered proof—a reminder that, even 17 years after Proof was first produced, male-dominated STEM careers still present the challenge of gender-based assumptions. And you know what they say about ‘assume.’

Brilliant, fragile minds at work in the tender, sharply funny Proof.

Proof officially opens tonight and continues at Red Sandcastle Theatre until March 19. Advance tickets are available online—strongly recommended, given the intimate space and the size of last night’s preview audience. Go check out what the kids at Theatre UnBlocked are doing with this timely and thoughtful production.

You can also keep up with Theatre UnBlocked on Twitter.

Notorious, tough & clever—the lives of women gangsters in the compelling, edgy The Elephant Girls

Margo MacDonald as Maggie Hale in The Elephant Girls—photo by Andrew Alexander

Red Sandcastle Theatre launched its second Wilde Festival production, partnering with Parry Riposte Productions to mount Margo MacDonald’s The Elephant Girls, directed by Mary Ellis. The Elephant Girls opened at Red Sandcastle’s storefront space at Queen St. East and Logan, Toronto last night to a standing ovation.

Inspired by stories about notorious London girl gang the Forty Elephants, and drawing on research from Brian McDonald’s The Gangs of London (2010, Milo Books Ltd.) and Alice Diamond and the Forty Elephants (2015, Milo Books Ltd.), MacDonald has created a one-woman show featuring Maggie Hale, a character that combines several gang members, most notably Maggie Hill/Hughes.

We join Maggie in a London pub in 1937. Buy her a pint or two, or three, and she’ll regale you with tales of her life in the 1920s with the Forty Elephants (aka the Elephant Girls), sister gang to the Elephant and Castle Boys. We learn how Maggie went from a lone thief, paying out to a local gang, to catching the attention of Alice Diamond, the Queen of the Forty Elephants; and how Alice scooped her up and got her trained up to be the gang’s enforcer. And, perhaps even more importantly, set Maggie on a path of self-discovery by encouraging her to dress in men’s suits and cut her hair.

It’s all shits and giggles, and tall tales of gang shenanigans and politics—including some brutal, darkly funny interrogations—and a revolving door of incarceration, with sentences increasing along with her growing notoriety. Cool as a cucumber, it’s the life—and the life’s a game. But as Maggie gets well into her cups, the tone changes. It’s then that we see flashes of honesty and heartbreak: an abusive father; the psychological and physical hardships of prison; and pangs of desire and internalized homophobia as her professional knack for violence turns itself to personal matters.

Outstanding performance from MacDonald, who is a compelling and entertaining storyteller; going from suave, charming and cocky to progressively darker and more aggressive as Maggie’s rage and frustration emerge. With few options for working class women to make a living and survive, Maggie found herself having to choose between wife, factory worker, thief or whore. Mistrusting the path of love, she struggles with “unnatural” desires, and a huge crush on her boss and mentor Alice.

With shouts to costume designer Vanessa Imeson, for Maggie’s fabulous pinstripe ensemble.

Notorious, tough and clever—the lives of women gangsters in the compelling, edgy The Elephant Girls.

The Elephant Girls continues at Red Sandcastle until Feb 25; it’s a very short run with just four more performances, and in an intimate space, so best to reserve your spot in advance online or by calling 416-845-9411.

The Elephant Girls is prepping for a UK tour this Spring; please consider supporting the production by donating to its Fund What You Can campaign.

In the meantime, check out this excerpt from the show, from CBC News Ottawa.