A lesser known perspective of WWI in the compelling, eye-opening, thought-provoking Gods Like Us

Zazu Oke & Vince Deiulis. Set construction by Erica Causi. Lighting design by Wes Babcock. Photo by Kelsi Dewhurst.

 

Theatre Nidãna challenges what we think we know about WWI as it commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the Armistice of the First World War, giving us a little known perspective with the world premiere of Gods Like Us. An allegory that incorporates a traditional Nigerian lullaby and storytelling, and original music (composed by Nathan Radke and played by Mark Whale), Gods Like Us was devised by Zazu Oke and Vince Deiulis, who both perform in this compelling, eye-opening and thought-provoking two-hander; opening last night in the Factory Theatre Studio.

It’s November 1917, and a Canadian Recruiter (Vince Deiulis) approaches a Nigerian yam Farmer (Zazu Oke) in hopes of convincing him to join the Allied forces in their campaign to push back the Germans’ advance in East Africa. Taking a sales pitch angle on the ask, the Recruiter offers money, promising the Farmer increased status and respect within the village—and the ultimate advanced status of being “like us” (white men).

However, the British army—and by extension the Recruiter—have erred on gauging their audience. Assuming they’d be addressing uneducated, simple-minded African villagers who know nothing of the outside world, the Recruiter is faced with an intelligent, socially aware man who has personal, direct knowledge of the actual “opportunity” he’s being offered. Black men are not taken on as soldiers, but as carriers; and being denied a weapon, how are they to defend themselves? And the enhanced status pitch is inaccurate at best and at worst a lie.

The Farmer tells the Recruiter the story of the Tortoise and the Birds; the Birds are tricked by the Tortoise’s sweet words into helping him, only to find themselves cheated out of their promised reward. Instead of being helpless victims of a swindle, the Birds plot and get their revenge on the Tortoise—forever marking him as a crooked creature. While the Recruiter is charmed by the tale, he clearly doesn’t get the connection to their current circumstance.

As the Recruiter struggles to control his soldier’s heart (PTSD) episodes, the Farmer grapples with his anger at the sheer nerve and hypocrisy of his request. A British protectorate, the colonization of Nigeria has come at great, and tragic, personal and economic cost to its people. The Farmer has lost his family; and the farm is hanging by a thread as he tries to scrape by, selling his produce at lower prices to the British compared to what he could earn from his former German customers. Why should the Farmer fight for those who’ve done nothing but take from him and his people? And when the tone of the debate shifts from a battle of wits to playful wager to enraged face-off, the Farmer finds himself facing a moral choice: Does he use the power at his disposal to take revenge or does he let it go?

Riveting performances from Deiulis and Oke in this intimate tale of war, colonialism and race relations; the two-hander dynamic serving as a microcosm of the larger picture. Deiulis leaves us some room for empathizing with the Recruiter, who is under orders and navigating PTSD; but our sympathy for him only goes so far. Avoiding a sleazy, snake oil salesman approach, the Recruiter uses more friendly, insidious means to get the “natives” to sign on. Toeing the company line in his promise of white, god-like status, the Recruiter is entirely clueless to the fact that he’s adding serious insult to mortal injury. Oke is both impressive and heartbreaking as the Farmer. In deep mourning for the loss of his family and struggling to keep the farm—and himself—alive, the Farmer is patient and hospitable with the Recruiter; but his civility is tested when the Recruiter keeps pushing the Allies’ agenda, bringing the Farmer’s painful history of oppression and loss to the surface, and forcing him to push back.

Lesser known stories like this one need to be told. One has to wonder, had there been any attempt at reconciliation and reparation—and approached as a connection of equals and true partners—maybe prospective Nigerian recruits would have had a real reason to risk their lives in this war. But this observation is, of course, made through a 2018 lens. And while we honour those who served, we must also acknowledge and appreciate those who were unable to serve, or whose service was minimized, or coaxed or coerced with bait and switch methods, due to the colour of their skin.

Gods Like Us continues in the Factory Theatre Studio until November 17; advance tickets available online, or by calling 416-504-9971 or visiting the box office (125 Bathurst Street, Adelaide Street Entrance).

In the meantime, check out Oke and Deiulis’s Stageworthy Podcast interview with host Phil Rickaby.

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FireWorks Festival: Plotting cold, sweet revenge in the darkly funny, chilling The Pigeon

 

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Graphic design by Suzanne Courtney

Alumnae Theatre opened its annual FireWorks Festival of new works with a tale of unlikely partners and a plot for revenge against a common enemy in Chloë Whitehorn’s darkly funny, chilling The Pigeon—directed by Victoria Shepherd and assistant director Nicole Entin, and running in Alumnae’s Studio theatre.

 

Jegger (John Shubat), a tough-looking young man in black, and Malone (Liz Best), a prim, sharply dressed woman old enough to be his mother, have little in common—other than a common enemy and a decision to join forces to exact revenge, that is. Every day, they meet for lunch on a park bench to hatch their plan.

On the other side of Jegger’s life is his pregnant girlfriend Amy (Marina Gomes); and while Malone schools him on the fine art of vengeance, Amy has taken up educating him about babies. Excited and anxious about the prospect of being a father, Jegger starts to have second thoughts about the revenge plan. Malone has a back-up plan and he will be the messenger—and their relationship will never be the same.

Stellar, compelling performances from the cast in a series of two-hander scenes that play back and forth across the stage, from the park bench to Jegger and Amy’s apartment. Shubat and Best have a tight, razor-sharp rapport as Jegger and Malone; Shubat’s digital-age, sullen, socially aware Jegger and Best’s old-school, acerbic, “culturally insensitive” (i.e., racist) Malone are perfect foils and fine complements. These two characters met only recently and have relatively nothing in common other than a flair for detailed observation and mercurial wit—and an appetite for revenge, coincidentally for the same individual. Gomes’s bubbly, positive and protective Amy is the lighter side of Jegger’s relationships here, providing a sharp contrast to the tone of his relationship with Malone. Amy acts as Jegger’s conscience; and is instrumental in his decision to back out of the revenge plot as she seeks to intervene for the good of their future as a young family.

Over the course of 65 minutes, it’s a slow burn; the bubbles playfully popping to the surface until they reach a boiling point. It’s interesting to see the different aspects of Jegger’s personality that emerge with the two women. A stand-up guy in any case, he takes on a darker, more malevolent vibe with the bitter Malone, who brings out his rage; and a lighter and optimistic jam with the sweet Amy, who provides a safe place for him to unpack his hurt and vulnerability. It clearly troubles him when the dark seeps into the light—and while Jegger is happy to stay on board Malone’s scheme as a messenger, he has no idea what the message will be.

Last night’s post-show talkback featured sound designer/composer John Stuart Campbell, a long-time friend and colleague of Shepherd’s, who spoke about the process of incorporating music into a play. Campbell described music as “a howl at the moon” and an “emotional shorthand,” wherein the sound design/composition is informed by the text, and mindful in its respect for the actors and overall production design. Choosing from a tool box that includes picking an instrument for each character, everyday ambient sound recordings, writing themes for characters or incorporating popular music—with arrangements tailored to the production—Campbell creates a soundtrack that supports and highlights the action. In the case of The Pigeon, he decided to largely forego scene change music, given the flow of the play and split scene staging. He did, however, use an eerie version of On the Street Where You Live (vocals by Vivien Shepherd) to open the play, with Every Breath You Take (The Police) in the pre-show; spooky and sweet, and both underscoring the creepy, stalker vibe of the revenge plot.

The Pigeon continues in the Alumnae Theatre Studio until November 11. Get advance tickets online, by calling the box office: 416-364-4170, ext. 1 or in-person at the door (cash only); box office opens one hour before curtain time. All FireWorks performances run Wednesday – Saturday at 8 pm, with matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 pm.

Check out the trailer for The Pigeon—by Nicholas Porteous.

The three-week long FireWorks Festival continues to November 25, with two more productions (one each week):  Elmar Maripuu’s Moving On (Nov 14-18) and Romeo Ciolfi’s Animal (Nov 21-25).

Keep up with Alumnae Theatre on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Toronto Fringe: Bitterness, revenge & romance in four delicious courses in Kitchen Sink Drama

Mladen Obradović and Kelly Marie McKenna in Savour, the entrée play in Kitchen Sink Drama. Photo by Nina Kaye.

 

Kitchen Sink Productions, Plan A Theatre and Unspoken Theatre invite us into the kitchen for a four-course theatrical meal of bitterness, revenge and romance in their Toronto Fringe co-production of Kitchen Sink Drama; running in the Community Kitchen at the Ralph Thornton Centre.

Our cheeky, charming Waiter (Evan Boutsov) introduces us to each phase of this theatrical meal, ushering us through each course with archly comic entr’acte scenes; written by Sandra Cardinal and directed by Natalie Kaye.

The appetizer: Siren, written and directed by Natalie Kaye. Part origin story, part romance, part adventure on the high seas, a scullery maid’s (Maggie Cheung) life changes dramatically—from one of drudgery and abuse to one of rage and vengeance. Poetic, sensual and intense.

The salad course: Bitter Hearts, by Laurence Braun-Woodbury, directed by Nina Kaye. A heartbroken man (Naseem Reesha) grieves his lost love, rages against betrayal and eschews his former vegan diet as he revenge cooks a meat-based menu with his ex in mind. Tormented and drinking throughout, he begins to question his own sanity. Raw, gut-wrenching and poignant, we move through the emotional impact of this course with our chef.

The main course: Savour, by Aaliya Alibhai, directed by Sandra Cardinal. In an attempt to maintain contact with friends (mostly her ex-husband’s) following the end of her marriage, the restless and adrift Elizabeth (Andrea Irwin) hosts a dinner party at her home. Unbeknownst to her, her catering staff comprises a woodland fairy chef (Mladen Obradović) and a Selkie assistant (Kelly Marie McKenna). The fairies aren’t just there to cook and serve the food—and the evening takes an unexpected turn. Touching, funny and tender; a reminder that love can show up in unexpected places.

Dessert: A Trifle, by Nina Kaye, directed by Collette Radau. Lovers Peach and Plum (Jess Wareing and Maggie Cook) are at a B&B for a romantic get-away weekend and come down to the kitchen for a midnight snack. As they concoct a sweet treat, they begin to deconstruct their relationship; and jealous suspicions and confessions emerge. Adorably playful, sweet and honest; just because something falls down doesn’t mean it can’t be fixed.

And, in case you were wondering (no judgement here, I was wondering the same thing)—yes, there will be snacks!

Kitchen Sink Drama continues at the Ralph Thornton Centre (signs will direct you to the Community Kitchen on the 2nd floor) every night except tonight (July 8) at 7:30 p.m. until July 14. This is an extremely intimate venue—and last night’s performance was sold out—so advance booking is strongly advised.

Orange is the new Hamlet in Driftwood Theatre’s steel-sharp, fast-paced tale of grief, revenge & truth

Hamlet illustrationDriftwood Theatre Group launched its 21st annual Bard’s Bus Tour with their production of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet earlier this month, text adapted by Toby Malone and directed by Driftwood Artistic Director D. Jeremy Smith – currently running in Toronto at Withrow Park from July 21-26.

As part of Driftwood’s Shakesperience program, early arrivals to last night’s performance were treated to a pre-show chat between AD/director Smith and Dr. Jill Levenson, Professor Emeritus at UofT on Hamlet and the adaptation Driftwood is using for this production. The themes of grief, revenge and truth run throughout this tragedy – grief in particular. Malone’s adaptation for Driftwood mainly draws from two versions of the script: the 1603 (first) quarto and the 1623 folio. Known as the “bad quarto,” the 1603 text lacks the refinement of later versions, but has a brisk pace that lends itself well to the action and staging of the play. By combining these two variations of the text, Malone has created a script that is both fast-paced and eloquent – and by so doing, Hamlet doesn’t come off as an overly intellectual procrastinator, but a highly intelligent and virtuous man struggling with grief and rage over the loss of his father at the hands of his uncle.

The set (designed by director Smith) is inspired by a prison motif – real prison, not Martha Stewart prison – the environment is grey, harsh and grim, with concrete slabs, steel girders, chain link fencing and barbed wire. The sparse furniture a single folding chair and a steel cot frame wound with barbed wire, serving as a bed, platform, etc.

Hamlet is one of my favourite plays – and Driftwood’s production is compelling, moving and darkly comical, with a remarkable cast assembled for this journey of revelation and tragedy, most of them playing multiple roles. Paolo Santalucia is stellar as Hamlet, giving the intellectual, melancholic introspection hits of dark comedy and razor-sharp edge (reminiscent of a young Robert Downey Jr. circa Less Than Zero). Layer upon layer of Hamlet’s mind and soul are uncovered – from depression in his grief to blind rage in his revenge. Jon de Leon does a nice job as the arrogant and entitled Claudius, and does some interesting double duty as the ghost, Claudius’s brother/Hamlet’s father, imperious and otherworldly (with some incredible props work on the grotesque skull-like head, mounted on a helmet, its eyes bulging beneath a mouldy crown). Nehassaiu deGannes is regal, sensuous and kind as Gertrude, on her son’s side and unaware of Claudius’s treachery.

As Polonius, Richard Alan Campbell rides the edge of affable and irritating, with the air of a nerdy lawyer, wise in the ways of court politics, but clueless about the more down-to-earth aspects of human nature. Christopher Darroch does some really nice work as the passionate, noble Laertes, a basically good young man pushed to the edge of his own revenge, and a great turn as the thuggish Rosencrantz. Natasha Mumba brings a lovely combination of fierceness and fragility to Ophelia – no push-over, she is Hamlet’s equal, and her spiral into madness over the loss of her father is heartbreaking to witness. Sarah Finn is excellent as Horatio, Hamlet’s loyal friend and confidant – torn between supporting him in these dark times and finding the truth, and protecting him from himself and the forces that seek to destroy him. Horatio is the objective observer – and will be the chronicler of what comes to pass here, a fair-minded speaker of truth who must come to terms with her own grief in the end. And Steven Burley, in his 21st season with Driftwood, does a stand-up job as Hamlet’s hip, bro-like schoolmate Guildenstern and the cheeky, Fool of a gravedigger.

With shouts to costume designer Melanie McNeill, lighting designer Emily Lalonde and composer/music director Tom Lillington for their most excellent work in creating the prison-like world of Hamlet’s Denmark.

Orange is the new Hamlet in Driftwood Theatre’s steel-sharp, fast-paced tale of grief, revenge and truth – stunningly designed and richly performed.

You have a few more chances to catch Driftwood Theatre’s production of Hamlet in Toronto at Withrow Park (until July 26). The company continues its outdoor performance tour of Hamlet around Ontario – visiting 26 communities in all – until August 16; check here for locations/dates and please note the 7:30 p.m. start time.

As some of its previous annual donors were unable to contribute this year, Driftwood is facing a $25,000 funding shortfall this season. Please consider lending your support by donating what you can to this remarkable local Shakespeare touring company.

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.

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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.

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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.