Melanie Peterson’s “Christmas Breaks My Heart” a gentle, melodic nod to holiday heartache

Melanie Peterson, live at Free Times Cafe for last night’s “Christmas Breaks My Heart” launch.

 

It was standing room only at Free Times Café last night, as Melanie Peterson celebrated the launch of her new holiday single “Christmas Breaks My Heart”, featuring the talents of fellow Toronto-based singer/songwriter guests Matt Gerber and Angela Saini.

The evening opened with the whimsically playful sounds of Matt Gerber, whose delightful tunes borrow from folk, barber shop and pop—from songs for kids for all ages, to sweet and nostalgic romantic musings. Gerber had us singing along with his acoustic set, accompanying himself on guitar and ukulele, punctuated by kazoo and some impressive harmonica chops. Give Gerber a listen, and check out upcoming dates, on his website.

Shining with positivity and poignant at times, Angela Saini both moved and entertained with genuine, heartfelt, and sometimes cheeky, observations of life, love and self-image in a pop-inspired acoustic set. And I dare you to not smile, sing along and tap your feet to her upbeat, energetic sounds. Keep up with Saini’s music, merch and gig dates on her website.

Main attraction Melanie Peterson more than lived up to her “Mary Poppins with a broken heart” reputation, treating us to a selection of folk-infused songs from her earliest recordings to her new release in an acoustic guitar set accompanied by Peter Collins on bass. The lyrics and vocals are melancholy, but hopeful, resilient and determined through heartbreak; and full of gratitude and joy in love. Combining cheer with heartache—sometimes with hilarious results (the tequila song)—Peterson’s sounds get real with the warmth and gentleness of a good long-time friend; all delivered with her signature sweet, lilting vocals.

“Christmas Breaks My Heart” offers a rarely heard take on the holiday season—not always a joyful time for some—acknowledging the loss, grief and wistful nostalgia of missing that someone special by your side. Check out the lyric video; and wrap your ears around Peterson’s catalogue and videos.

Next up for Peterson: Live at Sauce on the Danforth on Sat, Dec 28 from 4:00-7:00 pm.

Here are some snaps I took at the show last night.

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Desperation, desire & cruelty in the ferocious, electric, heart-breaking A Streetcar Named Desire

Amy Rutherford and Mac Fyfe. Set design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Rachel Forbes. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Soulpepper sets the stage on fire with a slow burn of desperation, desire and cruelty in its ferocious, electric, heart-breaking production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by AD Weyni Mengesha, assisted by Tanya Rintoul, and running at the Young Centre. The contemporary take on the Williams classic highlights the class, race and gender issues that make for simmering, then explosive tensions as a delicate, fragile woman finds herself adrift in the loud, bright, hard world of an urban working class neighbourhood.

When we first see Blanche DuBois (Amy Rutherford), she stands alone with her suitcase on a dimly lit, mostly bare stage. Action, sound and light erupt around her as the sights, music and ethnically diverse people of a big city take over the stage, setting up Stanley and Stella’s two-room apartment in New Orleans. It’s a dynamic, startling visual representation of culture shock for a woman who grew up on a plantation estate in rural Mississippi; and whose only contact with people of colour would have been household servants. Her gentle, crisp world of southern privilege now exchanged for the hard, steamy environment of a working class neighbourhood, she is alone and must rely on others to survive.

With the help of Stella’s upstairs neighbour and landlady Eunice (played with warmth and a suffering-no-fools edge by Akosua Amo-Adem), Blanche finds her way into Stella and Stanley’s apartment—and is mortified to learn that her sister is living in two rooms, separated by a sheer curtain. Stella (Leah Doz) is overjoyed and surprised to see her sister; Stanley (Mac Fyfe) is friendly, but on guard, and wonders how long she’ll be staying. Blanche, a high school English teacher, both withholds and reveals the reason for her stay, confiding to Stella that their childhood home and estate is lost, gambled away over the years by careless ancestors and lately needed to pay for the funerals of their last surviving family members. Stanley’s suspicions about Blanche’s motives for being there are piqued when he learns this, thinking Blanche may have swindled them out of their share of the estate.

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Foreground, clockwise from top: Lindsay Owen Pierre, Mac Fyfe, Gregory Prest & Sebastian Marziali. Background: Oliver Dennis, SATE & Kaleb Horn. Set design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Rachel Forbes. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Blanche looks upon this loud, hard new world with distaste and even contempt, trying in her own small way to brighten the place. Her description of Stanley and his poker pals reads like a field guide in the wild—and she fears her dear, sweet sister has “gone native”. Escaping into drink and reminiscences that are part memory, part fantasy, she is exhausted, desperate and grasping for a solution; she can’t go home and has nowhere else to go. She finds momentary distraction with the paper boy (Kaleb Horn), who possibly reminds her of her tragically lost girlhood love; and hope and a kindred spirit in Mitch (a boyish, bashful turn from Gregory Prest), Stanley’s long-time army buddy, over for a poker game with friends (Sebastian Marziali and Lindsay Owen Pierre). But, as Stanley unearths and reveals Blanche’s secrets, her world becomes even more unravelled—ultimately falling to pieces as he exerts power over her in the most brutal and cruel ways. Betrayed by those in whom she sought refuge, and her hopes for a new life destroyed, she must rely on the kindness of strangers (Oliver Dennis as the Doctor and SATE as the Nurse).

Mengesha’s direction takes the piece on a gradual crescendo toward its final explosive finale, with early moments of comic lightness fading into cruelty and darkness as Blanche’s past is exposed. And the multitasking ensemble is instrumental in creating atmosphere and flavour—including serving up some hot jazz, featuring SATE on sizzling vocals, and Marziali, Pierre, Dennis and Horn on various instruments (music direction by Mike Ross and sound design by Debashis Sinha). The sheet metal on the walls surrounding the playing area is a sharp contrast to the relative warmth of the apartment and its sparse, distressed furnishings (set design by Lorenzo Savoini and lighting design by Kimberly Purtell). And Rachel Forbes’ present-day costuming brings the story front and centre into the now of a city so modern, yet still so primal.

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Mac Fyfe & Leah Doz. Set design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Rachel Forbes. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Stunning, searing performances from Rutherford, Fyfe and Doz. Rutherford’s Blanche is a picture of wilting southern charm and privilege, the gentility and flirtation both a mask for the darkness and secrets beneath, and an armor against a world that feels hard, menacing and foreign to such a delicate, fragile soul. Feeling and fearing the relentless march of time and age, Blanche employs desire, magic and fantasy as a balm against death, trauma and desperation—like she says, desire is the opposite of death. Misunderstood, slut-shamed and betrayed, her final moments are deeply poignant and heart-wrenching to witness. Fyfe gives a finely crafted, nuanced performance as Stanley; an alpha male capable of explosive brute force, there’s sweetness and a lost boy quality to the man, especially evident in his relationship with Stella—where outbursts of rage turn to contrite, wailing pleas for reconciliation. Neither sophisticated nor educated, Stanley has good instincts and smarts; but his drive to dominate weaponizes his knowledge. Doz is both fierce and heartbreaking as Stella; caught in the middle between her beloved sister and a husband she’s crazy for, Stella is forced into the role of pacifier and peacemaker. More adaptable and resilient than her sister, Stella takes this new urban life in stride, rolling with the punches, and savouring the good times with the loved ones and music that surround her. But, in the end, taking Stanley’s side is devastating for both Blanche and herself, as well as for Mitch, who is also stuck in a Madonna/whore perspective of women.

The city is a hard place for a fragile soul. And while some may lose their troubles in music, liquor and sex—there still exists a clear divide on who is and is not allowed to dance away from death and toward desire.

A Streetcar Named Desire continues at the Young Centre until October 27; advance tickets available online, or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

ICYMI: Check out actor Amy Rutherford’s Artist Perspective piece in Intermission Magazine.

Foolish destruction & a chance for redemption with a contemporary twist in the haunting, playful The Winter’s Tale

Back to front: Richard Lee & Eponine Lee. Scenography by Claire Hill. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Back to Withrow Park last night for more outdoor Shakespeare excellence, as community-connected, entertaining and accessible Shakespeare in the Ruff opened their adaptation of The Winter’s Tale last night. Adapted by Sarah Kitz with Andrew Joseph Richardson, and directed and choreographed by Kitz with assistant director Keshia Palm, this haunting, playful production gets a contemporary twist. When a king’s jealous suspicions get the better of him, he destroys his family and a childhood friendship—and while those around him navigate the fallout, there may be room for redemption as Time passes and hearts change.

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Tiffany Martin & Jason Gray. Scenography by Claire Hill. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Jealousy and suspicion come to a boil in the mind of King Leontes of Sicilia (Richard Lee, in a passionate, compelling performance as a powerful, yet fearful man), and he convinces himself that his wife Hermione (a regal, heartbreaking Tiffany Martin) and visiting childhood best friend King Polixenes of Bohemia (an affable royal turn from Jason Gray) are lovers—and the child she carries isn’t his. He orders his servant Camillo (Kaitlyn Riordan, in a role that showcases her nuanced adeptness with comedy and drama) to poison Polixenes; troubled by her King’s directive and unable to carry out the deed, she and Polixenes flee Sicilia. Hermione is imprisoned and gives birth to a daughter, which loyal courtier and friend Paulina (played with fierce, grounded kindness by Jani Lauzon) presents to Leontes, in hopes of melting his heart. Unmoved, he banishes the infant to the wilderness. Hermione is put on trial by and found innocent by the Oracles; but in the meantime their son Mamillius (Eponine Lee, adorably precocious and haunting in this role) dies and, overcome with heartbreak, she too dies. Left alone with no heir, his family’s blood on his hands, and his best friend and ally forever severed from him, Leontes falls into despair.

The second half takes us forward in time, 16 years later, where Bohemian Prince Florizell (Giovanni Spina, bringing tender bashfulness and resolve to the romantic young suitor), son of King Polixenes, woos and marries the young shepherdess Perdita (played with independence and resilience by Andrea Carter). Polixenes and Camillo witness the wedding in disguise, and Polixenes reveals himself to soundly forbid the union of his son to a peasant; once again, the tender-hearted Camillo comes to the rescue and helps the young couple flee to Sicilia. As all gather in Sicilia, the two halves of this story converge— bringing revelations, and a chance for reunion and redemption.

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Andrea Carter & Giovanni Spina. Scenography by Claire Hill. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Lovely work from the ensemble in a production that is as playful and entertaining as it is powerful and poignant; incorporating a live soundscape of Time’s tick tock, bell toll rhythm; and a beautiful lullaby shared between mother and son that becomes an eerie refrain as the young boy continues to observe the proceedings even after his death (sound design, composition and lyrics by Maddie Bautista). Everyone does multiple roles here, with the comic antics of Lauzon (Old Shepherd) and Richard Lee (Clown), and Martin’s loveable scallywag servant Autolycus—not to mention Eponine Lee’s Bear—bringing the necessary comic relief to these otherwise intense and tragic events. And Martin delivers a heart-wrenching, inspirational account of a woman’s struggles, resistance and resilience as she travels far from home and back again—an everywoman’s voice throughout the ages that resonates—inspiring us to view this tale through a contemporary lens.

A cautionary tale of how suspicion and fear can turn an otherwise good leader into a tyrant; and how those who care about him can have the courage and wisdom to try to make things right.

The Winter’s Tale continues at Withrow Park, running Tuesdays through Sundays at 7:30 p.m. until September 2, including a special Labour Day performance on September 2. Advance tickets and lawn chair rental are available online; otherwise, tickets are pay what you can (PWYC) at the park on the night of the performance.

Click here for accessibility info. And you can get rain updates here on their Twitter account.

SummerWorks: Running away to home in the fierce, funny, inspiring, socially aware The Breath Between

Fio Yang. Photo by Saba Akhtar.

 

The AMY Project returns to SummerWorks, this year with a journey of belonging and identity as a group of BIPOC, 2LGBTQ women and non-binary youth living in a world ravaged by climate change venture out in search of a place where they can feel safe and welcome to be themselves. The fierce, funny, inspiring and socially aware The Breath Between, directed by kumari giles and Julia Hune-Brown, assisted by Jamie Milay, and created by the ensemble, opened last night in The Theatre Centre Incubator.

In a post-apocalyptic world where climate change has destroyed the planet and forced the population to live under protective domes, the queer community gathers to dance and celebrate at Dome Pride. Growing increasingly disillusioned and disappointed about the over-the-top corporate branding and ownership—not to mention the $17 bottled water—and mainstream packaging of the event meant to “normalize” queer culture, a group of young BIPOC and 2LGBTQ women and non-binary youth decide to blow this corporate logo-ridden popsicle stand and search for a better place. Hijacking a spaceship on display at the event, and joined by the chirpy host inspired by their cause, they venture out to explore worlds beyond to find a place where they can feel safe and welcome. The trip brings some twists, turns and revelations as they share and discover themselves.

The bright, energetic and engaging ensemble includes Jericho Allick (mentored by Neema Bickersteth), nevada jane arlow (mentored by Susanna Fournier), Alice Cheng Meiqing (mentored by Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster), Lyla Sherbin (mentored by Avery Jean Brennan), Fio Yang (mentored by Maddie Bautista), Whitney Nicole Peterkin and Megan Legesse; with additional writing by Taranjot Bamrah, A.C., Daniella Leacock and Claudia Liz. Incorporating music, poetry and monologues, the performers invite us into their individual worlds as they share memories and lived experiences—for better or worse. There is pain, longing and shame—but there is also resilience, ferocity and hope; all peppered with astute and darkly comic acknowledgments of the negative impacts of extreme climate change and the corporate branding of events that were once community-organized, grassroots movements.

While they may leave the Dome feeling like a spaceship full of misfit toys, the group ends up finding community and chosen family—and faces the choice of returning home or continuing their off-world exploration. Nicely book-ended by songs performed by Fio Yang, you may find yourself humming Out in the City as you leave the theatre.

Go where you are welcome—or take space where you like? In the end, home is where your family is, whether biological or chosen, and you can spark the change you want to see.

The Breath Between has three more performances in the Incubator space at The Theatre Centre, closing on August 16; check the show page for exact dates/times. Tickets available online or in person at the box office.

Toronto Fringe: Joy, sadness & an unexpected friendship in the playful, imaginative, touching Beneath the Bed

In bed: Erin Humphry. Clockwise, from bottom left: Lindsay Wu, Elizabeth Staples, John Wamsley & Keaton Kwok. Photo by Bryn Kennedy.

 

Theatre Born Between takes us to a world of childhood and the creatures that live under our beds in the playful, touching Beneath the Bed, a tale of loss and trauma—and an unexpected friendship. Written by Gabriel Golin and directed by Bryn Kennedy, with music composition by Lucas Penner, music, puppetry, dress-up and everyday objects imaginatively employed combine to tell a story of joy, sadness and back again. It’s story time for all ages, running at the Scadding Court Community Centre, Room 4.

When a Child (Erin Humphry) loses her Mom (Elizabeth Staples), her room becomes her refuge as she searches for her mother in the stars out her window, her mother’s haunting lullaby never forgotten. One night, a Monster (Graham Conway) appears from under her bed. Annoyed that the Child’s tears and sadness make her unfit to eat, he attempts to make her happy; and while his efforts may initially be for selfish reasons, a bond grows between them—and he becomes her protector from the real monster in the house.

Years later, the Monster appears in a new bedroom to find a new Child (Lindsay Wu); his friend has grown up and become a mother herself. This new Child has an outgoing personality and a vivid imagination, and loves playing games of make-believe—becoming a pirate on the high seas or an astronaut exploring the stars and battling space aliens. And although the Monster doesn’t understand her games, he plays along—even though his friend, now a mother, doesn’t want him speaking to her child. Feeling that her mom is keeping her too close, the Child runs away. Despite his fear of leaving the bedroom, and the great danger posed by daylight, the Monster ventures out to find her.

Lovely work from the cast in this beautiful, moving and delightful journey. Humphry’s Child has wisdom beyond her years; pensive and observant, she finds strength and resilience despite her grief and isolation. But the trauma of her childhood makes her a fearful adult, and nurturing turns to smothering as she desperately tries to protect her child from the world. Conway is a treat as the Monster; all gruff and growl at first, he’s a softie underneath—his initial malice melting as he turns from predator to protector. Wu is adorably fierce as the second Child; forced to live largely in her imagination, she struggles for independence and growth.

Rounding out the cast are the spritely Whispers—Keaton Kwok and John Wamsley (also Staples and Wu)—who create the sights, sounds and physical environment as the story unfolds. Everyday objects become monsters, sunsets, constellations, the headlights of a car; and, from the booth, stage manager Caitlin Brenneman creates sound effects with a toy xylophone and everyday things.

A good reminder—for children of all ages—that endings aren’t always entirely happy, but we can hope that things will be better tomorrow and feel gratitude for those moments of joy and the friends who help us get there.

Beneath the Bed continues in the Scadding Court Community Centre, Room 4 with one more performance today (July 14) at 2:00; tickets available at the door only today. Seating is limited, so you may want to arrive early.

Toronto Fringe: Conflict, family & connection in the compelling, moving Checkpoint 300

Back: Brittany Cope. Front: Ori Black & Lizette Mynhardt. Photo by Adrianna Prosser.

 

Tamaya Productions, this year’s winner of Fringe’s First Play Competition, presents Checkpoint 300, written and directed by Michelle Wise, assisted by Duncan Rowe, and running in the Factory Theatre Mainspace. A tragic incident at the Israel-Palestine border involving the first female soldier assigned to a checkpoint brings two women from opposite sides together as the soldier deals with the aftermath and a reporter looks for answers in this compelling, moving story.

Shiri (Lizette Mynhardt), a young Israeli soldier, has just completed punishing training and rigourous testing in order to be the first female soldier assigned to an Israel-Palestine border checkpoint. Her mother Tivka (Jorie Morrow) is concerned but supportive, and her father Benny (Geoff Mays) worries and wonders why she couldn’t have aimed for a safer office position. Shiri’s commanding officer Shay (Ori Black) is taken aback by the posting, but takes it in stride, acknowledging that she’s passed the same training and testing the male soldiers have, and makes a place for her on the team.

On the Palestinian side, reporter Amelie (Brittany Cope) leaves her family home for Paris, for a life away from the oppressive environment of constant policing, control and monitoring. Her gentle, easy-going father Bashir (Mays) and mother Nabila (Morrow) want her close to home, and on a more traditional path, including a husband and family. Her younger brother Walid (Amir Pour) works with their father as a mechanic when he’s not playing soccer.

Amelie and Shiri are brought together following a tragic incident at the checkpoint, where an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian man were killed—the latter a terrorist suspect. Shiri refuses to speak of the incident to anyone, and her mother arranges a meeting with Amelie in the hopes that Shiri will get to tell her side, and achieve some closure and relief. And as the story unfolds, Shiri and Amelie’s personal connections to the incident are revealed.

Lovely work from the cast in this often intense tale of conflict, family and connection; and where everyday life proceeds with humour and a sense of pragmatism, coloured by which side of the border one lives on. Mynhardt’s Shiri is a tightly coiled combination of determined ambition and nervous anticipation; Shiri wants to do something that makes a difference, but is all too aware of the many eyes on her with this historic posting. Cope’s performance as Amelie reveals a sense of resilience, drive and heart; like Shiri, Amelie is an ambitious, hard-working professional in a male-dominated field—and must now navigate personal feelings as she seeks to find the truth.

Black is a likeable, irreverent, and highly skilled leader as Shay; not too sure how this girl at the checkpoint thing is going to work, Shay takes a professional attitude and becomes a mentor to the rookie Shiri. Pour brings a sense of fun and mischief to the cocky youth Walid; clocking time at the shop with his father, he dreams of a life away from there—and glory on the soccer pitch. The casting of Morrow and Mays as both sets of parents is both fitting and poignant here, as it serves to highlight the commonalities on opposite sides of the border. Parents worry and try to usher their children toward what they think is best for them. And, no matter where they are, they want much the same thing: for their families to be safe and for their children to have a good future.

Even in an environment of conflict, opposing sides always have something in common—a way to connect. But easier said than done when fear and mistrust run so deep and for so long. Can hope and love have a chance?

Checkpoint 300 continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace for two more performances: July 13 at 10:15 and July 14 at 4:00; check the show page for advance tickets.

Toronto Fringe: Telling stories in the darkly funny, quirky, satirical News Play

Clockwise from bottom: Andrew Cromwell, Rouvan Silogix, Greg Solomon, Madeleine Brown & Charlin McIsaac. Photo by Graham Isador.

 

Theatre ARTaud and Lal Mirch Productions, in association with Prairie Fire, Please give us a dark satirical look at storytelling and journalism in Madeleine Brown’s sharply funny, quirky, edgy News Play, directed by Aaron Jan and running at the Annex Theatre.

Brother and sister children’s book team, illustrator Phoebus (Greg Solomon) and writer Joy (Charlin McIsaac), have hit a wall in their career; the fire woman superhero featured in their books is scaring kids and making them feel bad about themselves. When they return to their hometown Peterborough to visit their cousin Winny (Madeleine Brown), a troubled pyromaniac since the death of her parents in a fire when they were all kids—and the inspiration for their work—they find themselves suddenly becoming journalists. Winny’s recent fire escapade accidentally killed two Peterborough Examiner reporters, and Editor in Chief Art (Andrew Cromwell), former classmate and school bully, blackmails them into working for him in exchange for not suing Winny. The goal: sell 100 papers.

The siblings’ first assignment is producing an exciting piece about a local natural landmark—a big rock. They strike gold when Winny injures her hand while punching it, spinning the event into a story of significant bravery and resilience, while also making the town’s “crazy fire girl” look good in the media. This inspires local charity organizer Lyle (Rouvan Silogix) into inviting Winny to be the torch putter-outer at an upcoming event supporting those who’ve soldiered through personal injury.

Things go from crazy to bad to worse when Joy decides to take things to the next level. How far will she go for subject matter that people will want to read? Will her relationship with her brother, who’s against her increasingly extreme methods, be the same? And will their cousin Winny survive it all?

Great work from the cast is this sharp satirical trip. McIsaac and Solomon are great foils as the positive, cheerful Joy and the cynical, edgy Phoebus. Brown gives a lovely vulnerable performance as the shy, awkward Winny, who really does have reserves of strength that largely go unnoticed; still living in a town where everyone thinks she’s crazy, Winny perseveres because it’s her home. Cromwell plays the edge of menacing bully and charming manipulator as Art; you can tell immediately that Art was the school bully, and he’s desperate and amoral enough to go along with whatever scheme will sell newspapers. And Silogix gives lovely comic turns as the clueless, enthusiastic charity organizer Lyle and the gruff Greyhound bus driver.

Telling stories, making up stories and reporting stories—sometimes, they can overlap and get all mixed up. Are we fetishizing personal injury in our news media and charities? And is fake news, however small and local, ever harmless?

News Play continues at the Annex Theatre until July 13; check the show page for exact dates/times and advance tickets.

The power of love, music & colour in the visually rich, magical, ground-breaking The Black Drum

Corinna Den Dekker, Dawn Jani Birley, Yan Liu & Daniel Durant. Set & props design by Ken Mackenzie. Costume design by Ruth Albertyn. Makeup by Angela McQueen. Video & projection design by Laura Warren. Lighting design by Chris Malkowski. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Commissioned and produced by the Canadian Cultural Society of the Deaf, the Deaf Culture Centre presents the world premiere of Adam Pottle’s Deaf musical The Black Drum,* in partnership with Soulpepper at the Young Centre. Directed by Mira Zuckermann, assisted by Jack Volpe, with movement and choreography by Patricia Allison, The Black Drum combines signed music, dance, movement and projected imagery to tell the story of a woman’s journey through loss and grief to find the power of her inner music, as her tattoos come to life and launch her into a strange, dark world dominated by a sinister force. The result is a visually rich, magical and ground-breaking piece of storytelling.

As the story begins, we are introduced to the Minister (Bob Hiltermann), a sinister and controlling presence who dominates a world devoid of music, laughter, love and freedom. Meanwhile, performing artist Joan (Dawn Jani Birley) is reeling from the loss of her beloved wife Karen (Agata Wisny), inconsolable as her roommates Bree (Yan Liu) and Oscar (Daniel Durant) try to reach through her grief. Propelled into the world of the Minister, Joan’s tattoos Butterfly (Liu) and Bulldog (Durant)—beauty and strength—come to life.

In this dark, grim and desolate place, Joan encounters the Minister’s reluctant lieutenant Squib (Natasha C. Bacchus) and Ava (Corinna Den Dekker), who dances with a group of children (Jaelyn Russell-Lillie, Sita Weereatne and Abbey Jackson-Bell). Ava tells Joan that the Minister controls this world, a place between life and death, with magic—his black drum (drum accompaniment by Dimitri Kanaris), the embodiment of his empty black heart. And Joan also learns that Karen is the Minister’s prisoner. Charged with using her colour and music, Joan sets out with her friends to defeat the Minister and free her beloved from his clutches.

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Agata Wisny & Bob Hiltermann. Set & props design by Ken Mackenzie. Costume design by Ruth Albertyn. Makeup by Angela McQueen. Video & projection design by Laura Warren. Lighting design by Chris Malkowski. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Hiltermann brings a nightmarish, supernatural edge to the menacing, arrogant Minister; his sharp-featured white face mirrored by the spooky talking head projections that flank the stage—occasionally speaking they guide us through the story (voice acting by Raquel Duffy and Diego Matamoros). Birley’s performance as Joan beautifully weaves the devastation of grief with the perseverance of resistance as Joan strives to free Karen, despite the fact that she’ll never be able to get her back.

Lovely work from a supporting cast that hails from all over the globe; Liu’s Butterfly is both balletic and delicate, with a feisty will that doesn’t back down from a fight; and Durant brings comic relief as the tough, yet sweet and big-hearted, Bulldog. Den Dekker’s meek and timid Ava reveals inner strength as her longing for freedom for herself and her dancing children turns into action; and Bacchus’s Squib may be a hard-ass soldier serving the Minister, but is as much under his control as the others, and would choose otherwise.

Visually stunning, magical and moving, this Deaf-led, ground-breaking piece of storytelling resonates; both allowing Deaf audience to experience their culture on stage, and giving hearing audience a new perspective on how a story can be presented and communicated. Hearing audiences are used to using their ears to hear the music and dialogue; here, we see and feel the music, the vibrations physically resonating through our bodies and the rhythms dancing across our minds—all aimed at our hearts. And it’s a compelling reminder, for all of us, that love, colour and music are powerful weapons against the dark forces that haunt our everyday lives.

The Black Drum continues at the Young Centre until June 29; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

*Note: This production is presented with Written and Voice Synopsis & Audio Assist Devices and is accessible to non-ASL audiences.

Preview: Survival, resilience & resistance in the powerful, raw, timely Four Sisters

Bea Pizano & Company. Production design by Kaitlin Hickey in collaboration with Susanna Fournier. Wardrobe and props design by Patrick Peachey Higdon. Video design by Steph Raposo. Photo by Bernie Fournier.

 

Four Sisters is the final installment of Susanna Fournier’s Empire trilogy; produced by Paradigm Productions and commissioned by Luminato, and running this week at the Theatre Centre. Directed by Fournier and choreographed by Amanda Acorn, this powerful, raw and timely tale takes us to the Empire 259 years after the events of The Scavenger’s Daughter; into a world of plague and social cast-offs, where a 279-year old former madam raises the orphaned children of women who worked for her. A doctor arrives, promising to help as she works to come up with an inexpensive cure for marginalized, low-income populations; and she needs to experiment on the children.

We are in the Skirts, an outlying neighbourhood on the outskirts of the city where society’s marginalized and cast-off people dwell—the poor, mostly women and sex workers. And because this is the Empire, this is a world where only those with money, power and connections can afford to survive and thrive in the toxic, disease-ridden mess left behind after centuries of greed, violence, war and cut-throat capitalism. Former madam Sarah (Bea Pizano) has managed to cheat Death and now finds herself being mother to Abby (Chala Hunter, Krystina Bojanowski, Yolanda Bonnell), Beah (Aria Evans, Ximena Huizi, Jennifer Dahl), Cassie (Claudia Moore) and Dee (Virgilia Griffith)—children of women who worked for her, who all died of plague. When a Doctor (Krystina Bojanowski, Yolanda Bonnell), driven by the desire to find an inexpensive cure that can be used on the low-income population, arrives from the city with the promise of medical help, Sarah must decide if she’s willing to let her girls be Guinea pigs or die of plague.

The story plays out both within and without time and space—on a bare stage, sculpted with light and punctuated with video on a solitary TV screen (designed by Steph Raposo), the chilling atmosphere hauntingly complemented by Christopher Ross-Ewart’s sound design. Time folds and bends in on itself, with the multiple casting for Abby and Beah allowing for both younger and inner selves to speak to these characters, with shades of things to come for an older Beah. And the ongoing role swapping between the actors playing Abby and the Doctor (Bojanowski and Bonnell) shines a light on the choices health care practitioners have when it comes to their practice: to play a role in the male-dominated arenas of capitalism and Big Pharma, promising low-cost health benefits at unknown personal and societal cost, or working on the front lines of health care among those who society has discarded.

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Krystina Bojanowski & Company. Production design by Kaitlin Hickey in collaboration with Susanna Fournier. Wardrobe and props design by Patrick Peachey Higdon. Video design by Steph Raposo. Photo by Bernie Fournier.

Compelling work from this remarkable cast, as the staging incorporates movement, video and voice-over to tell a story that, like the earlier parts of this trilogy, is both visceral and cerebral, past and present, present and future. Pizano nicely balances Sarah’s wry-witted madam pragmatism with the tender-hearted, concern of a good mother. Bojanowski and Bonnell mine the Doctor’s clinical detachment and sense of social responsibility to great effect. Are the Doctor’s later efforts a move toward redemption—or too little, too late?

The four girls grow before our eyes, from children playing in Sarah’s kitchen into conflicted adults struggling to choose a path in a world where paths are being cut off and replaced with walls—literally and figuratively. Hunter, Bojanowski and Bonnell bring sharp focus and inner conflict to Abby, who becomes an apprentice to the Doctor even as she longs to be a mother—and in the painful light of her new-found medical knowledge and expertise. Evans, Huizi and Dahl are loveable and heartbreaking as the energetic, resilient Beah; the dancer sister who longs to study at the academy—her exhausted, battered feet continuing to create despite the unexpected turns her life takes. Griffith brings both profound vulnerability and power to the deeply wounded, angry Dee; self-medicating in an effort to deal with troubling visions, Dee becomes an addict and an outcast among her own marginalized family, setting her on the path toward a surprising evolution. And Moore’s Cassie is adorable and wise; ever a child, Cassie sees and responds to unfolding events with innocent honesty.

Operating both in and out of time and space, we witness what the Empire has come to following centuries of war and social disintegration—leaving us wondering what, if anything, will rise from the ashes. (During intermission, you can view artifacts in the National Museum of the Empire installation in the upper lobby, outside the theatre.) In the end, through pain, grief and loss, there is resilience and resistance. It is apocalypse with a glimmer of hope. And all with the recognition—both disturbing and reassuring—of our own time and place.

Four Sisters continues in the Franco Boni Theatre space at the Theatre Centre until June 16. Post-show talk backs with the artists are scheduled to follow the 8 pm performance on Fri, June 14 (hosted by Ted Witzel); and the 2 pm performance on Sat, June 15 (hosted by Maria Vamvalis). Advance tickets available online; it was a full house at last night’s final preview performance, so advance booking or early arrival is strongly recommended.

If you’re like me and missed the first two installments of the Empire trilogy, or want a refresh before seeing Four Sisters, you can catch up and listen to the podcasts of The Philosopher’s Wife and The Scavenger’s Daughter on The Empire website, co-produced with Expect Theatre’s PlayMe Podcast.

A journey into the light & dark of self-discovery in the bittersweet, courageous Welcome to my Underworld

Clockwise, from top left: Grace Thompson, Nikoletta Erdelyi, Carolyn Hetherington, Samson Brown, Radha S. Menon, Maddie Bautista & Bilal Baig. Set design by Brett Haynes. Lighting design by Sharmylae Taffe-Fletcher. Photo by Sophia Thompson-Campbell.

 

RARE Theatre Company, in partnership with Soulpepper, presents the world premiere of Welcome to my Underworldwritten by Bilal Baig, Maddie Bautista, Samson Brown, Simone Dalton, Nikoletta Erdelyi, Carolyn Hetherington, Radha S. Menon, Ellen Ringler and Grace Thompson, on stage at the Young Centre. Dramaturged/directed by RARE’s AD Judith Thompson, choreographed by Monica Dottor, and featuring original composition/live accompaniment by Olivia Shortt, a 10-year-old girl’s search for her truest self weaves nine individual stories into one as we follow her into the world of the shadow self.

Anchored by 10-year-old Willow (Grace Thompson), who struggles with her own sense of self, Welcome to my Underworld is part fairy tale, part hero’s journey, part autobiography as each performer presents their own story; a place where light and dark meet, and where spirits are tested and tempered. Possessing of a sharp, curious mind and keenly interested in how others navigate the world, Willow and her imaginary friend Mara invite the other characters in to share their stories.

There are the infuriating stories of a pre-transitioned trans man being confronted in a woman’s washroom, and a Trinidadian lesbian’s connection with an HIV+ gay father figure-told with humour, tenderness and heartbreak by Brown. The harrowing experiences of the elderly surviving a terrifying adverse reaction, apparently common among seniors, to a post-op medication (a feisty, fighter Harrington); and the feelings of family betrayal and confusion as an Indian woman is driven alongside a truck full of cattle to her new home at an assisted living facility (a spirited, poignant performance from Menon). Navigating prejudice regarding competence and attractiveness based on Roma (“gypsy”) ethnicity and physical ability (the candid, suffers no fools Erdelyi, performing from a wheelchair). Childhood innocence and trust lost during a time of burgeoning sexuality (a delightful, heart-wrenching performance from Bautista, a bi, Saudi Arabia-born Filipina).

There are the social castaways dealing with addiction and mental illness (fierce and lyrical performances from Menon and Baig); observed by Willow while in the psych ward. And queer, genderqueer Baig’s sassy, poignant secret party girl persona, fleeing their home and fearing attack from both parents and strangers, shares a narrow escape that hearkens back to the recent tragedy of missing and murdered gay men in the Village. Humourous, heart-breaking and eye-opening, each shares a broad range of lived experience from their own unique perspective—calling upon us to examine who we’ve ignored, shoved aside or disrespected. Who will love or miss the disenfranchised, the social pariahs, those living on the fringes?

Shortt’s live onstage music and pre-show mix blends sound effect with soundtrack, tailored perfectly to each story; and Dottor’s choreography is playful, balletic and emotive as it visually weaves one tale into another. Haynes’s set deftly combines black/white, dark/light; the central image a tree of life, its branches reaching for the sky as its roots dig into the earth.

Playful, poetic and funny—at times harrowing, infuriating and heart-breaking, the storytelling is raw, candid and impossible to ignore. These are stories from those whose voices are seldom heard, let alone given space to speak their truth. While Welcome to my Underworld promises no happy endings, it does bring a sense of hope and resilience. We all need to be seen, be heard, be loved and respected. We all need to feel safe to be ourselves. And we need more theatre like this.

Welcome to my Underworld continues at the Young Centre in the Tankhouse Theatre until May 25; advance tickets available online, or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

ICYMI: Check out Phil Rickaby’s interview with dramaturg/director Judith Thompson on Stageworthy Podcast.