Toronto Fringe: Love, joy & taming dragons in the funny, frank, moving The Clergy Project

A rabbi, a minister and a priest walk into a theatre…

Happy Fringe, guys! I started my Toronto Fringe adventures with the opening of Soulo Theatre’s production of The Clergy Project, directed by Tracey Erin Smith, which played to a sold-out house and a standing ovation last night at First Narayever Congregation.

It’s no secret that I love this show; I’ve seen two previous incarnations, most recently in November 2016 at Revival. For Fringe, the show has a BYOV arrangement—and the show sold out its entire run before it even opened!

City Shul Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, First Unitarian Congregation minister Reverend Shawn Newton and Anglican priest Reverend Daniel Brereton took Tracey’s Soulo Theatre solo show workshop—in a class specifically designed to create a space for members of the clergy to tell their stories. Realizing they had much in common despite their different titles and faith backgrounds, the three clergy took a different path from the usual solo show class presentation at the end of the workshop; The Clergy Project is the fruit of their combined labours, weaving in and out of their three individual personal stories.

From the hilarious faith-specific lightbulb jokes, to recounting the call to ministry, to sharing the challenges they face—including situations not covered in their seminary days—to their reasons for doing what they do, all three share the real-life experiences of their jobs with candor and humour. The combination of personalities makes the show:  the shit-disturbing, kick-ass Elyse; Shawn with the wry wit and a twinkle in his eye; and the cheeky, playful Daniel. The frank, funny, heartbreaking—and ultimately inspiring—storytelling reveals their shared attributes of sass, determination and empathy. And the Fringe version has an additional hysterically funny tale from Daniel about his experience directing his first Christmas pageant!

Delivered with heart, soul, humour, and a genuine desire to connect and share personal stories, The Clergy Project is less about religion and more about the humanity of those who minister—aptly illustrating what Tracey Erin Smith and Soulo Theatre are all about. Like Smith says, “Everyone has a story.”

Love, joy and taming dragons in the funny, frank, moving The Clergy Project.

The Clergy Project continues at First Narayever Congregation until July 16, with performances on July 6, 12 and 13 at 8pm, and July 9 and 16 at 4pm. The run is sold out, but if you get there early, you can get yourself on the waiting list (some folks got in last night). The 90-minute showtime includes a brief post-show talkback.

 

Family legacy, identity & repressed anger released in the sharply funny, biting Bad Jews

Rebecca Applebaum, Kristopher Turner & Daniel Krantz in Bad Jews—photo by Dahlia Katz

 

We’re all invited to crash at Jonah and Liam’s as we pay our last respects to their grandfather in the Koffler Centre of the Arts’ production of Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews, directed by Michèle Lonsdale-Smith. Bad Jews opened last night in the Small World Music Centre at Artscape Youngplace.

Set in an shoe box-sized NYC studio apartment, which Jonah (Daniel Krantz) and Liam’s (Kristopher Turner) parents bought so they could have a place to stay in their building during the funeral, Bad Jews takes us on an emotional journey as we get a taste of the repressed anger, hidden resentments, judgements and expectations of this family. The apartment becomes a physical representation of the claustrophobic, everyone in everyone else’s business that is the family dynamic—especially potent among this group of 20-somethings, who are in the midst of establishing their own lives and identities while they navigate parental, cultural and religious expectations.

We first meet Jonah, lounging on a double air mattress in his dress shirt, boxers and yarmulke, playing video games. The brothers’ cousin Daphna (Rebecca Applebaum) has been staying with him on the pull-out couch. It’s just after the funeral and there is a quiet, exhausted atmosphere as Daphna hangs up their clothes and attempts conversation. She’s pissed that Liam missed the funeral; he was in Aspen with his girlfriend, lost his phone and didn’t get the message in time, and is due that night, girlfriend in tow. There’s something of their grandfather’s that Daphna desperately wants; a precious family heirloom, a piece of jewellery given to their grandfather by his father and kept safely hidden during the Holocaust. She wants Jonah’s blessing; he doesn’t want it, but he’s unwilling to take sides and wants nothing to do with the decision.

When Liam arrives with his non-Jewish girlfriend Melody (Julia Vally), Jonah learns that not only does Liam want the treasured family heirloom, he’s already got it. Both Daphna and Liam have very good reasons for wanting the necklace; and both have very different approaches and perceptions toward their family’s Jewish traditions and faith. Coupled with perceptions of entitlement, family loyalty and being a ‘good’ Jew, things get ugly between them pretty fast. It’s clear these two already don’t like each other and the battle over their grandfather’s jewelry is steeped in long-term, ongoing resentment. Melody tries to act as mediator, but ultimately can’t break through—no wonder, as she’s just been introduced to the family and has no idea about the history behind the verbal savagery she’s witnessing. In the end, we’re left with just Jonah and Daphna again—only now, the tone and atmosphere of their conversation is quite different. And further revelations emerge after the cathartic blow-out.

Lovely work from the cast in this claustrophobic and caustic dark comedy. As director Lonsdale-Smith pointed out during the post-show talkback, anger is motivated by fear; the fear of letting people go, death, identity, how we may take a different path from our parents—and these characters are angry. Krantz does a beautiful job with the soft-spoken, mild-mannered Jonah’s complexity and inner conflict. Jonah gives the impression of being checked out and disinterested, and perhaps even not as smart as his older brother and cousin, but he’s aware and listening—and he feels things more deeply than you might think as he struggles with his grief. Applebaum, who identifies as mixed race (half Asian, raised Jewish), used her lived experience to bring scope to her laser-focused performance as the sharply intellectual, self-righteous Daphna. A super observant Jew, and a Vassar student bound for Israel, rabbinical school and the army, Daphna is always looking for a debate, if not an outright fight. Constantly on the lookout for fault in others, Daphna’s devotion is of the holier than thou, selectively fundamentalist variety—but much of this is a shield for a deeply wounded, lonely soul.

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Rebecca Applebaum, Julia Vally & Kristopher Turner in Bad Jews—photo by Dahlia Katz

Turner brings a ferocity and intellectual vigour to Liam, who’s chosen a more secular path and even changed his name. The eldest son of a well-off family, there’s more than a whiff of entitlement about Liam, and his anger is vicious when it erupts; however, his wish to mirror a gift their grandfather made to their grandmother reveals the depth of his love and appreciation for family and for Melody. Vally gives a great sense of firmness and strength to the sweet-natured, genuinely good Melody. A former opera student who loves music, but in the end decided that career path wasn’t for her, Melody is an administrator at a non-profit organization—helping others is in her blood, but she can’t seem to help Liam’s family issue. How could she?

Ultimately, as Turner mentioned toward the end of the talkback, this is a play about family—the history, the love, and intellectual and emotional dynamic that twists and turns across generations and through time. And nothing brings out the good, bad and the ugly like family, especially during meaningful, emotionally fraught family gatherings.

Family legacy, identity and repressed anger released in the sharply funny, biting Bad Jews.

Bad Jews continues in the Small World Music Centre at Artscape Youngplace until June 4; get your advance tix online via the show page or through Eventbrite. Advance booking recommended; it’s an intimate venue, fitting with the cramped space of an NYC studio apartment.

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

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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.

The humanity & commonality under the vestments in funny, moving, eye-opening The Clergy Project

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Father Daniel in The Clergy Project

A priest, a minister and a rabbi walk into a theatre… again.

Tracey Erin Smith and SOULO Theatre remounted The Clergy Project at Revival Bar for a one performance only show to a delighted sold-out house last night.

I caught the premiere performance of The Clergy Project back in May – and loved it just as much the second time around in this revised version, played out in front of an audience of friends, family, colleagues and congregants.

Father Daniel, Reverend Shawn and Rabbi Elyse are back again, sharing their stories of how they were called and the challenges they face doing this deeply human, intimate work. And wait till you get a load of the light bulb jokes! Part storytelling, part confessional, part love letter to their respective congregations, these three clergy get up close and personal, speaking candidly and bravely – and with humour – about their lives in religious service. And while they treat their jobs seriously, they’re not too serious about themselves.

During the post-show talkback, Father Daniel, Reverend Shawn and Rabbit Elyse talked about the joyful moments of ministry; the common thread that emerged was being present in their congregants’ lives, often from cradle to grave, and witnessing their milestones and moments of growth. When it came to doing Smith’s soulo workshop, each expressed a desire to take a moment to break away from their daily duties and be themselves during this process of creating a show (they did a 10-week workshop with Smith, specifically set up for clergy). As Reverend Shawn remarked, it can be a lonely role and it was good to spend time with other clergy to talk about their day-to-day experiences. In doing so, they became siblings in ministry, finding much in common despite their different faiths – and the love, respect and camaraderie show on stage.

The hope is that the show will shine a positive light on clergy and religion; and show that religion doesn’t have to be fundamentalist, bigoted, sexist, homophobic or narrow-minded. That religion and clergy can be there to show the way to depth and meaning, and be a positive force in the world.

The humanity under the vestments and commonalities that transcend religion in the funny, moving and eye-opening The Clergy Project.

The Clergy Project was a one-performance only event, but keep an eye out for future productions, as well as Tracey Erin Smith and SOULO Theatre’s upcoming projects, including soulo class shows and Trans Canada.

You can keep up with SOULO Theatre on Twitter and Facebook.

 

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

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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.

Faith, hope & taming dragons in the funny, brave & moving Soulo Clergy Project

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Father Daniel D. Brereton, SoulOTheatre Artistic Director Tracey Erin Smith, Rabbi Elyse Goldstein & Reverend Shawn Newton in The Soulo Clergy Project – photo by Adam Large

A priest, a minister and a rabbi walk into a theatre…

Two years in the making, SoulOTheatre Artistic Director Tracey Erin Smith’s dream of gathering professional clergy from diverse faiths together to share their stories came true yesterday, when The Soulo Clergy Project gave its debut performance to a sold-out house of friends, family, congregants and supporters at Red Sandcastle Theatre.

With its genesis in a workshop that originally had six students signed up, Anglican priest Father Daniel D. Brereton, Unitarian Universalist minister Reverend Shawn Newton and Rabbi Elyse Goldstein are the three who showed up on the first day and stuck it out. And as the workshop progressed, they discovered they had lots in common, and the three individual stories became a dialogue of shared experiences – this gave Smith the idea that, instead of having three separate solo shows, to weave the three stories together into one show. The result is an entertaining, engaging and insightful piece of storytelling.

Entering the theatre, we are welcomed as part of the respective congregations, and the space buzzes with conversation, last-minute service planning – the excitement and anticipation of community, meeting once a week in a holy space. When the show begins, the three clergy storytellers enter in their respective vestments, highlighting the theatrical quality of religious ritual and tradition. And wait till you hear the three variations on the light bulb joke.

Then, something truly wonderful happens. They each remove their clerical garments, revealing black clothing underneath; personalized t-shirts have their first names on the front, and their respective roles and a simple, humourous description of their guiding principles on the back. Daniel: Priest – What would Jesus do? Elyse: Rabbi – What would Moses do? Shawn: Minister – What would Sartre do? Setting the tone for what’s about to come, it’s a reminder that these three members of the clergy are not only defined by their roles, they’re people.

Daniel, Elyse and Shawn share their stories of how they were called to ministry and why they decided to go into the clergy, the challenges faced within their congregations, and life-changing moments of service in the midst of deep sorrow and pain. Told with candor, humour and compassion, they are frank about their personal joys and struggles in faith, some unusual circumstances where they just had to wing it – and even bend the rules – and the navigation of societal prejudice and inflexibility (Daniel came out to his congregation a week after he got married, and Elyse became a rabbi when there were no female rabbis in Canada). Living lives of service and community, they don’t take themselves too seriously and are aware that even tradition has room for change.

While each comes to the storytelling process from different religious beliefs and traditions, they have much in common: faith, hope, charity and a drive to serve their community and build relationships. They are brave, engaging and warm storytellers, each with his/her own flavour: Daniel with his boyish charm and twinkle in his eye; Elyse’s dry humour and chutzpah (and she does a mean Jackie Mason impersonation); and Shawn’s philosophical and introspective vibe.

When asked during the post-show talkback about why they decided to do this workshop and performance, the common thread that emerged was a desire to take a break from the routine of ministry and get in touch with why they chose to heed the calling and do this work. The workshop (which included writing and assembling the show – with dramaturgical support from facilitator/director Smith) provided a safe and respectful place for them to not only explore their lives as clergy, but also as human beings. In the end, The Soulo Clergy Project isn’t just about their roles as priest, minister and rabbi – it’s about their humanity.

Faith, hope and taming dragons in the funny, brave and moving Soulo Clergy Project.

The Soulo Clergy Project was a one-performance only event, but Smith and the three clergy storytellers are hoping for a remount. Keep an eye out for this remarkable piece of theatrical storytelling.

In the meantime, there’s lots more to come. Please join SoulOTheatre for more fabulous upcoming shows this month:

Project Drag Queen: Sun, May 22 at 8 p.m. at Church on Church.

The fourth annual SOULO Theatre Festival: May 26-29 at Red Sandcastle Theatre, including solo show performances and workshops, see the full schedule here; and get your advance tickets/passes here.

You can also keep up with SoulOTheatre on Facebook and Twitter.