Beliefs, perceptions & connections in the intimate, otherworldly John

Photo by Dahlia Katz: Nora McLellan, Loretta Yu, Phillip Riccio & Nancy Beatty in John

 

Everybody knows someone named John.

The Company Theatre tells a compelling story with its Canadian premiere of Annie Baker’s John, directed by Jonathan Goad in his directorial debut, running at Canadian Stage’s Berkeley Street Upstairs Theatre.

Entering the space, we find the set enclosed in a semi-circle with red curtains, and it’s not until Mertis (aka Kitty) (Nancy Beatty) enters to draw the curtains are we able to take it in. The revealed space is the common living room and dining area of Mertis’s B&B in Gettysburg—and we become immediately immersed in this world, almost out of time and space.

Knick knacks, dolls, stuffed animals and all manner of chachkas fill the space. Antique dolls, a miniature village, angel and animal statuettes, and the like line the shelves and tables, along with a number of lamps. Prints, and even cookie tins, adorn the walls. In the corner near the front door is a Christmas tree, covered in lights, but without decorations or a star. Twinkly lights glow throughout the two rooms; and an Eiffel Tower sits on one of the small café tables in the dining area.

Throughout the course of the action, Mertis advances the hands on the grandfather clock, as night turns into day and into night again as the days go by. Classical music plays on the miniature jukebox that sits on top of the upright piano, also operated by Mertis, who also closes and opens the curtains surrounding the space at the close and start of each act. We’re being let into this world, but on condition.

Young couple Elias (Philip Riccio) and Jenny (Loretta Yu) arrive at the B&B later than expected that night, receiving a warm welcome from Mertis, who gives them a tour. They’re surprised when the room they booked isn’t available, and their host seems edgy and vague about some leak issue, but they happily accept the upgrade to another room at no extra charge.

As the scenes unfold, we witness increasing tension between Elias and Jenny, and we learn that they’re not just on this trip to take in Gettysburg’s history and points of interest. They’re trying to fix their broken relationship. Jenny is receiving a lot of texts, which she says are from her sister, but Elias is skeptical to the point of obsessed suspicion about their true origin.

There is something strange and almost unreal about the B&B and its host. Mertis seems a quiet and introverted, but eccentric, soul; with a fondness for knick knackery, she has an ethereal, spiritual vibe about her. More than meets the eye, we find out that she has a husband, George, who we never see. Married for 13 years, it’s her second marriage.

Added to the mix is Mertis’s friend Genevieve (Nora McLellan); blind, with a gravelly voice and gruff manner. She too was married once, but left her husband in the mid-60s only to find he’d followed her and taken over her soul. Concerned she was losing her grip on reality, she checked herself into a mental institution.

Fears and sources of dread emerge as the characters share personal anecdotes. Elias has a phobia of birds. Jenny grew up thinking her dolls and stuffed animals were sentient beings—and one doll in particular haunts her memory. Even the B&B has an edge; the chachkas seeming to be watching from the dark at night, and the Christmas tree lights keep going off inexplicably. Mertis believes that the house, which served as a Union army hospital during the Civil War, has a personality of its own—and that certain rooms can be temperamental. And the second floor always seems to be cold, which makes you wonder.

Mental illness, reality and relationships are called into question—nothing is as it seems. Who or what is watching; and who is being watched? Baker leaves it to us to decide what’s real, what’s true and what’s going on.

Marvellous work from this four-hander cast. Beatty gives the soft-spoken Mertis a lovely, eerie edge. One gets the impression that the Christmas tree could be up all year round. What’s with that journal Mertis keeps? And what’s going on with George? At one point, you’re wondering if he actually exists. McLellan’s Genevieve is a delightful puzzle of kookiness, sharp observation and loving friend; at one point, she sounds like a paranoid schizophrenic—but then you think, if you think someone’s out to get you, it might actually be true. Like Mertis drawing the curtains and turning the clock, Genevieve draws us into this world—and is the only character that speaks to us directly.

Riccio’s Elias is a complex combination of uptight and neurotic, wounded and longing. At first, you think he’s being paranoid about Jenny’s communications; but as the play unfolds, you begin to wonder if he’s right to suspect. And Yu’s Jenny reveals a darker edge under that adorably spontaneous, child-like exterior. Struggling to understand where Elias is coming from, she feels abandoned and is possibly acting out as a result. Which are the lies and which are the truths? And is her anxiety about her dolls and toys the result of a guilty conscience?

Whether its origins lie in religion, family and relationship history, or a perceived connection with the universe, for each character, there’s a belief in an unseen presence watching, directing—in some cases, taking over, rewarding and punishing.

With big shouts to the design team: Shannon Lea Doyle (set/costumes), Kevin Lamotte (lighting) and Michael Laird (sound) for their outstanding work on creating this strange and spooky world.

Beliefs, perceptions and connections in the intimate, otherworldly John.

John continues at the Berkeley Street Upstairs Theatre until February 19; online tickets and info here. Go see this.

Facing death with dignity, humour & love in the thoughtful, sharply funny, moving A Better Place

a-better-place
Rachel Cairns, Catherine Gardner, Ian Ronningen & Kris Langille in A Better Place – photo by Bruce Peters

LilyRose Productions opened Ramona Baillie’s A Better Place, directed by Barbara Larose, with assistant director Ellen Green, in the Factory Theatre Studio last night. Based on a true story, A Better Place takes us on the 14-month journey of a woman faced with a devastating medical diagnosis.

Stella Russo (Kris Langille) is an active 55-year-old who loves singing in her Catholic church choir and bowling in the community league. Then she learns that she has ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease)—a rapid degenerative neurological disease that attacks the nerves that control voluntary muscles—and her life, and perspective on death, changes drastically. There is no cure and she doesn’t have long to live.

As Stella works to cope with the side effects of chemo treatments and a body that’s no longer working properly, never knowing what’s going to go next and terrified of finding herself unable to breathe, her BFF Dee (Catherine Gardner), boyfriend Bill (Edward Heeley) and doctor daughter Kate (Rachel Cairns) must also come to terms with her ultimately fatal condition. Meanwhile, Kate is struggling with personal issues of her own; her focus on her work at the hospital has come at the expense of her marriage, leaving her musician husband Zack (Ian Ronningen) feeling abandoned.

When Stella decides she wants to die on her own terms, she encounters resistance from her neurologist Dr. Green (Jillian Rees-Brown), who insists she join a support group; and dogma from parish priest Father Perez (Isai Rivera Blas), who will withhold last rites and warns that she’ll forfeit her place in heaven. Her close friends and family have mixed feelings, and her young streetwise choir friend Chris (Ngabo Nabea) is willing to offer assistance, but even he’s only willing to go so far.

Nice work from the cast on this thought-provoking and poignant piece that doesn’t get too down on itself, with a script that’s infused with cheeky, at times dark, humour. Beyond various cast members merely schlepping furniture and props about, the staging has the ensemble gathering to assist in Stella’s transformation from health to disability.

Langille gives a marathon performance as Stella. Navigating the physical and emotional challenges of this devastating disease, Stella is a fighter who makes that final choice in the spirit of living with purpose and dying on her own terms.

Other stand-outs include Gardner’s wise-cracking Dee; a dear, loyal friend when times are tough, even the super positive, supportive Dee must come to terms with a sense of loss as Stella’s condition deteriorates. Cairns gives Kate a great sense of inner conflict; a surgeon who relies on logic and reason, she finds herself forced to feel tumultuous emotion as she braces herself for the inevitable death of her mother and works her way back into her marriage.

Ronningen brings a sweet, open-heartedness to Zack; supportive of Kate’s career, he’s troubled to find himself alone in their marriage—and he can only take so much isolation. And Nabea does a great job in two very different roles; as Chris, in a lovely two-hander scene with Stella as he realizes what she’s intending; and as the cynical bartender Rick, advising Zack to look long and hard at how Kate’s treating him.

With shouts to Rick Jones’ sound design, which features snippets of popular love songs played during the scene changes, with the song selections getting progressively more introspective and melancholy as the play progresses. And to stage manager Margot “Mom” Devlin for keeping it all together and moving along from the booth.

Facing death with dignity, humour and love in the thoughtful, sharply funny and moving A Better Place.

A Better Place continues in the Factory Theatre Studio until Dec 11; get your advance tix online or by calling 416-504-9971.

The run includes three special post-performance presentations:

Thurs, Dec 1: A panel discussion with lawyer Shelley Birenbaum and Dr. Fred Besik, moderated by Mardi Tindal, on the legality and morality of compassionate deaths.

Sun, Dec 4: Don Valley West MP Rob Oliphant, who is also Co-Chair of the House of Commons and Senate Special Joint Committee on Physician-Assisted Dying, joins the director, playwright and cast for a talkback.

Wed, Dec 7: Q&A with the director, playwright and cast.

Sin of the father in the deeply moving, spiritual, revelatory acquiesce

acquiesce-3
Rosie Simon & David Yee in acquiesce – photos by Dahlia Katz

Factory Theatre joins forces with fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre Company to open Factory’s 2016-17 season of diverse voices speaking to the Canadian experience with David Yee’s acquiesce in the Factory Theatre Mainspace, directed by Factory Theatre A.D. Nina Lee Aquino.

Writer Sin Hwang (David Yee) struggles with moving beyond the success of his first novel and a troubled past with his estranged father Tien Wei (John Ng). Learning from his ex-girlfriend Nine (Rosie Simon) that his father has died, he finds himself being summoned to Hong Kong for the funeral by his cousin Kai (Richard Lee), who is acting as Tien Wei’s executor.

acquiesce-2
Richard Lee, David Yee & Rosie Simon in acquiesce

Half Chinese, and with little knowledge of Chinese cultural tradition, and not able to speak or understand Cantonese, Sin soon finds himself adrift in culture shock as he learns from Kai that he has duties to perform as the eldest son. From there, Sin embarks on a reluctant journey of family, roots and spirituality as he navigates the traditional burial rites, as well as moments of memory, hallucinatory visions and symbolism that feature conversations with a ribald Paddington Bear, a hilariously insightful monk and his ex.

Lovely performances from the cast, with Ng and Simon playing multiple characters. Yee does a wonderful job mining Sin’s flippancy and arrogance for the repressed pain that lies beneath; with scars that go far beyond skin deep, Sin tries not to care but finds that he must – not just for his own sake, but for his father. As Sin’s cousin Kai, Lee brings a great combination of terse fastidiousness and tender care aesthetic; a stickler for propriety and rules, and with a dry humour that takes some getting used to, he has his own familial bitterness to deal with.

We don’t see much of Sin’s father Tien Wei, but Ng gives us a solid glimpse into a man who has his own demons to battle; a harsh, gruff and dark-humoured man, his last Will and Testament is his way of reaching out to his son across years of pain and separation. And Ng is a comedic delight in his quirkier, fun roles as Sin’s airplane seatmate and the frank, pithy, jokester monk. Simon’s Nine is quick-witted and frank; a lovely, supportive girlfriend but no doormat to Sin, she tells it like it is and will only take so much of his self-absorption. Simon brings the comedy as the stern librarian and the overly cheerful funeral home attendant.

acquiesce-1
John Ng & David Yee in acquiesce

With shouts to Robin Fisher’s set and Michelle Ramsay’s lighting design; austere and monolithic, the set features some cool, practical sliding drawer furniture pieces, the lighting adding to the otherworldly atmosphere as it highlights the scenes. And to Michelle Bensimon’s beautifully haunting, evocative composition and sound design.

Sin of the father in the deeply moving, spiritual, revelatory acquiesce.

acquiesce continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until Nov 27; advance tix and ticket info available online.

You can keep up with Factory Theatre on Twitter and Facebook; and with fu-GEN on their Twitter and Facebook pages.

Sex, death & religion: Pondering life experiences & relationships in thoughtful, sassy, intense FAITH

faith
Lindsey Middleton & Ben Hayward in FAITH – photo by Mike Cameron

“It was the United Church so it was all like sing these songs, hold hands and get the fuck outta here.”

Theatre By Committee opened its production of Ben Hayward’s FAITH in the Chapel at St. Luke’s United Church (353 Sherbourne St., corner of Sherbourne/Carlton, Toronto – Carlton St. entrance). Directed by Brandon Gillespie, FAITH was the winner of the 2016 Hamilton Fringe Festival’s Best New Play Contest.

FAITH is told in the first person by a troubled teen named Faith (Lindsey Middleton), who regularly breaks the fourth wall to speak to the audience directly as the story unfolds with her scene partner, Grace United Church minister David (Ben Hayward). Part memory play, part coming of age story, we see Faith navigate complicated relationships with the men in her life: God, her father and David – her thoughts and experiences running the gamut from intellectual, emotional and sexual. One of the big questions she ponders: Are we just the sum of our experiences?

Really lovely work from Middleton and Hayward in this intimate two-hander. It would be easy to write Faith off as a cocky, shit-disturbing, attention-seeking brat – and she is that – but Middleton adeptly mines the layers of hurt, longing and confusion underneath this smart-ass, horny, potty-mouthed kid. Mercurial, sharp, and grasping for hope and meaning, Faith can be her own worst enemy. She’s taken her mother’s advice to kick life in the balls on a daily basis a bit too seriously, a choice that has serious consequences.

Hayward does a great job of finding the awkward, somewhat nerdy, older guy under David’s casual, approachable exterior; David is cool for a clergyman, though – and he genuinely wants to do good in his community. He’s a young husband and father to two young daughters – but, like Faith, there’s so much more to David than what we see in his present life. A kind and gentle soul, he too has a complex response to their relationship.

Throughout the play, multiple meanings of “faith” emerge: a young woman’s name, belief in God or some higher power, and trust in another human being.

With shouts to stage manager Hannah Jack and designer Kelly Anderson for making this production work in this small, non-theatre space.

Sex, death and religion. Pondering the meaning of life experiences and relationships in thoughtful, sassy, intense FAITH.

FAITH continues at St. Luke’s Chapel until Oct 30; seating is limited, so you might want to consider booking tix in advance online.

Melanie Peterson’s Anywhere From Here a heartfelt, beautiful mix of playful, introspective & melancholy

Melanie-8687-03
Melanie Peterson – photo by Bri-anne Swan

Saskatoon-born, Toronto-based singer/songwriter/actress Melanie Peterson celebrated the launch of her new CD Anywhere From Here at The Piston last night, with guest artist Bri-Anne Swan opening the festivities. And what a celebration it was!

DSCN2143
Bri-anne Swan

Swan opened with a short solo acoustic set of mostly original songs, opening with a gorgeous interpretation of Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind.” Featuring crystal clear vocals, with a subtle haunting, wistful quality, Swan’s lyrical storytelling includes hints of folk – her latest CD Letters Home also includes a Lightfoot cover of “Now and Then” – and country (opening track “Have You Seen My Ghost”). Her sounds conjure up images of windswept, lonesome plains, big skies and misty, strange forests. Give her a listen/look-see on her YouTube channel. Bri-anne Swan is also the cover designer/photographer for Anywhere From Here.

Then, the main event. I first met Melanie Peterson about two years ago, when she was performing in a line-up of amazing, talented women at ovarian cancer fundraiser She’s Listening II, and I interviewed her last year. Peterson has been described as Mary Poppins with a broken heart. The songwriting is genuine and self-aware, and there is a positive tone even in the heartbreak. In fact, the progression of the songs on Anywhere From Here – which Peterson and her band played from top to bottom – reads like the life of a romantic relationship. From the initial magic sparks in “Truth Talking” and “Fallback Plan,” to words of warning “Where There’s Smoke (Lust Ain’t Love),” to the devil may care of “Just the Right Amount of Wrong,” and into the stall in “Holding Pattern” and when it’s over in “I Miss You Already” – she’s got all the feels. There are also lovely expressions of gratitude here (“A Path Laid Out Like Gold,” featuring backing vocals by Kasandra Sharpe) and love that’s so good (“A Gift” – the CD’s title comes from these lyrics).

DSCN2168
Melanie Peterson

Peterson’s sounds feature folk, pop (including a kicky Beatles-inspired riff in “Fallback Plan”) and country, with some reggae flavour (“Truth Talking”) – delivered with lovely, lilting vocals and sweet harmonies. Joining Peterson (guitar, lead vocals) last night – and also playing on Anywhere From Here: Mitch Girio (guitar, backing vocals and producer – he also produced Swan’s Letters Home), Pete Lambert (drums, violin, backing vocals) and Peter Collins (bass, backing vocals). By the time they got up to play their set, the room was packed with enthusiastic friends, family and fans – so much so that the crowd coaxed three encore songs, including “Cinema Girl” (my request – thanks again, guys!) and “Unbreakable,” from Peterson’s Unbreakable CD.

Melanie Peterson’s Anywhere From Here is a heartfelt, beautiful mix of playful, introspective and melancholy. Wrap your ears around it soon.

You can keep up with Peterson on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Soundcloud, among other platforms – see her website for all the platforms.

Here’s the poppy, fun the video for “Fallback Plan”:

Department of corrections: The song “Just the Right Amount of Wrong” was originally written as “Just the Right Side of Wrong” – that has been corrected and the link to the video has also been added.

 

 

Toronto Fringe: A lovely, complex, layered exploration of relationships in Perceptions of Love in the Pursuit of Happiness

perceptions
Tim Cadeny, Andrea Brown, Joel Fishbane, Geneviève DeGraves, Shelly Antony & Katherine Fogler – photo by Tim Cadeny

A baby on the way. A marital infidelity. Marriage counsellor, heal thyself.

Three Five Productions’ Perceptions of Love in the Pursuit of Happiness, written and directed by Chantal Forde, examines three couples facing huge relationship challenges as they strive for life, love and happiness – running in the Factory Theatre mainspace for Toronto Fringe.

Jessica (Katherine Fogler) and Damon (Shelly Antony) are married high school sweethearts. He’s just been promoted at work, which comes as a great relief as they’re expecting their first baby. It’s a big change coming to their lives – and relationship – one that forces them to consider what they really want. Do they both want the same things?

Nika (Andrea Brown) and Marcus (Tim Cadeny) have been forced apart by an affair, and are trying to put the pieces of their marriage back together. Forgetting is impossible, but what about forgiveness – and, even more importantly, trust?

Marriage counsellor Stephen (Joel Fishbane) finds himself working on his own relationship issues with his younger girlfriend Lise (Genviève DeGraves). Is there more to this May/December relationship than good times and great sex? And can he bring himself to walk the talk?

Really nice work from this cast, who collectively brave the deep emotional places of these characters with respect and honesty; and bring a quiet, natural dynamic to these relationships – the ease and difficulty of couples who know each other well. Antony’s Damon is sweet, boyish and optimistic; excited and scared at the prospect of becoming a father. Fogler is edgy and smart-ass as Jessica, whose attitude goes into overdrive as she deals with her own terror and uncertainty at this huge life change. Brown gives Nika multiple layers of inner conflict as she push-pulls to and from Marcus with a combination of determination and fragility; longing to make it work, but struggling with her own trust issues. And Cadeny’s Marcus is irreverently funny, contrite and hopeful, but wary himself; finding forgiveness isn’t easy and he can’t make Nika trust him. Fishbane is good-natured and professional as Stephen, a middle-aged dude who’s good at what he does, but torn between the optics and what his heart is telling him when it comes to his feelings for his much younger girlfriend. As Lise, DeGraves is bubbly and vivacious, a fresh university grad who’s excited to take on the world and not afraid to work for it, and wise beyond her years.

You can’t help but place yourself in these couples’ situations – or at least form an opinion about them. The play also highlights the question: How much of our own ‘happy’ can we – or should we – come to expect from the one we love and how we feel when we’re with them?

Perceptions of Love in the Pursuit of Happiness is a lovely, complex, layered exploration of modern-day romantic relationships – gradually and organically unfolding, and performed with truth and heart by an excellent cast.

Perceptions of Love in the Pursuit of Happiness continues at the Factory Theatre mainspace until July 11 – check their Fringe show page for exact dates/times.

Delightfully vicious melodramedy with laughs that bite in Creditors

Creditors - Noah Reid & Liisa Repo-Martell - Coal Mine Theatre - Photo By Michael Cooper13
Liisa Repo-Martell & Noah Reid in Creditors – photo by Michael Cooper

First trip out to The Coal Mine Theatre last night to see the company’s production of August Strindberg’s Creditors, adapted by David Greig and directed by Rae Ellen Bodie.

An intimate space (at 798 Danforth Ave., below the Magic Oven), Coal Mine is a storefront-style space – in this case, the black box has been set up with thrust staging, the audience in a tight horseshoe around the playing area. All the better to be flies on the wall for this trio of love, jealousy and revenge, played out in a series of three two-handed scenes.

Creditors_CoalMine-0027
Noah Reid & Hardee T. Lineham in Creditors – photo by Michael Cooper

Watching Creditors is like seeing Shepard meets Chekhov – the characters are embedded deeply under each other’s skin, and love is obsessive, desperate and even child-like. You just know that it will all end in tears. Gustav (Hardee T. Lineham) meets Adolph (Noah Reid) at a bayside hotel, where Adolph is staying with his older wife Tekla (Liisa Repo-Martell). Under the guise of being friendly and helpful, Gustav proceeds to burrow inside Adolph’s head, sewing seeds of doubt in himself, his work as an artist and his marriage. The devil appearing with a smile and a caring tone, offering assistance even as he lays waste all in his path (see Lineham talk about Gustav and evil here).

Creditors is a period piece that roars today. Darkly funny and acutely intelligent, it’s a sharp look at relationships, and how those involved are molded and changed. How imperceptibly the thoughts, ideas and expressions of the one you love can seep into your consciousness. It is a powerful examination of the power dynamics of older and younger, experience and innocence, artist and muse; the give and take of relationships. And in that taking, one becomes indebted to one’s husband, wife, lover – particularly where there is an imbalance of power and especially when one has taken too much. One will always owe the other. And if you run out on your bill, someone may come after you.

Creditors_CoalMine-0412
Liisa Repo-Martell & Hardee T. Lineham in Creditors – photo by Michael Cooper

Bodie brings an excellent trio of actors to this power play of obsessive love and revenge. Reid’s Adolph is boyishly sweet, naïve and guileless, possessing of a pliable, open-mindedness that may appear weak at first, but is more about youthful optimism and energy. Manipulated by Gustav, the starry-eyed young lover turns green-eyed with jealousy, his crutches and poor health an outward sign of his inner frailty. Lineham’s Gustav is deliciously understated in his evil intent; calculating, bitter and vengeful – but seasoned enough to know that vengeance is best served cold. It is both fascinating and abhorrent to watch as he plays puppet master to Adolph and Tekla, making them dance to his tune and then cutting the strings. Repo-Martell is luminous as Tekla; older than Adolph and beginning to feel her age despite the nervous girlish giggle she maintains, while she loves passionately and fully, she is forever dissatisfied – her first husband too old and her second too young – a spider caught in her own web. And yet, we feel for her as a woman whose options are limited, living in a time in which a woman must live through a man.

With shouts to composer Ted Dykstra for the lovely, cascading classical piano arrangement; Andrea Mittler’s lush set, with its oriental rugs and golden frames; and Ming Wong’s rich period costuming.

Creditors is a delightfully vicious melodramedy with laughs that bite and a stellar cast.

Creditors continues its run at the Coal Mine Theatre until May 17. Advance tix are strongly recommended – you can purchase them online here.

In the meantime, check out these other video chats: Repo-Martell talks about relationships within the play and Reid talks about the cutting comedy. You can also keep up with Coal Mine Theatre on Twitter.