Revolution, reversal, revulsion: Soulpepper’s disturbingly hilarious, brutally satirical, timely Animal Farm

Rick Roberts, Sarah Wilson & Miriam Fernandes. Set and costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by André du Toit. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper brings George Orwell’s chilling and bizarre cautionary tale of revolution, politics and corporate greed to life with its world premiere of Anthony MacMahon’s stage adaptation of Animal Farm, directed by Ravi Jain, assisted by Darwin Lyons, currently running at the Young Centre in the Distillery District.

Originally written as an allegorical representation of the rise of Stalin in Russia, Animal Farm gets a decidedly contemporary take in this stage production—it’s all too familiar and hits the mark with discomfiting accuracy.

The animals on Farmer Jones’s farm have had it with their lives and working conditions. Inspired by elder pig Old Major’s (Jennifer Villaverde) “All animals are equal” speech, they plan a revolt, resulting in casualties, including their beloved comrade Bessie the cow (Leah Cherniak). When it comes time to organize in the aftermath and make a plan to take over the farm going forward, the pigs take charge, and eventually comprise the only candidates for the leadership election. Moderated by his right-hand pig Squealer (Miriam Fernandez), the right wing, conservative Napoleon (Rick Roberts) faces off against the more progressive, liberal-minded Snowball (Sarah Wilson) in a debate—and things get ugly. Accusing Snowball of colluding with the humans, with her book learning and desire for committees and studies, Napoleon effectively bullies his way to the win, with his Doberman allies (Paolo Santalucia and Sugith Varughese)—who later become his security/muscle—chasing Snowball off.

Animal Farm, Soulpepper
Oliver Dennis and Guillermo Verdecchia. Set and costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by André du Toit. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Projecting an image of strength, resolve and deep caring for everyone, Napoleon is a master of providing easy answers to complex questions—and what the populace wants to hear. His promises of a better life and golden years of relaxation in a field of clover win over the exhausted and simple-minded alike, including the lovable old horse Boxer (Oliver Dennis). But the farm’s donkey Benjamin (Guillermo Verdecchia) and chicken Mercy (Raquel Duffy) aren’t so convinced. Napoleon, who prefers building fences to bridges, is highly suspicious of the neighbouring farm animals (in an insightful parody of foreign trade/relations); yet is constantly shifting position on the nature of those relationships (aptly illustrated when he blind-sides Mercy on an AFNN interview). Even worse, domestic policy makes labour conditions even worse and puts social services on life support, forcing the old and injured to continue working without proper medical care (Michaela Washburn’s Doctor is also an animal—you’ll have to go see for yourself to see what kind), medical insurance or employer support to recuperate.

Under Napoleon’s rule, the rich live a tax-cut life of comfort and leisure, while the workers put in longer hours for the same pay, and struggle with basic cost of living and services. Old Major’s original proclamation “All animals are equal” earns the addendum “but some animals are more equal than others.” Who is Napoleon really working for? Once discovered, or even hinted at, the backlash is inevitable.

Kudos to the largely multitasking cast for their solid, compelling performances in this playful but disturbing story of a society gone wrong. Roberts does a fantastic job as Napoleon, giving us an uncomfortably familiar politician; a charismatic leader who can spout whatever he needs to say to save face and maintain support, Napoleon is a dangerously bellicose man, bullying his way to status and power for the sake of the position. Wilson’s Snowball is the perfect opposite; a level-headed and intelligent, but shy opponent, Snowball just can’t muster the level of popularity she needs. The animals are tired, and feeling put-upon and cheated—and the quick, easy answers coming from Napoleon are much more attractive than the long-term, more challenging proposals she suggests. Sound familiar?

Dennis’s sweet but dim horse Boxer and Verdecchia’s sharp-witted, cynical donkey Benjamin make for a hilarious and poignant odd couple of pals. Not one to suffer fools, Benjamin is at his most patient when attempting to teach Boxer to read. And Dennis is heartbreaking as the old work horse Boxer suffers both disillusionment and injury; the policies of their leader—a leader he believed in—dashing his dreams of retiring to clover-filled fields. And the chickens are off the charts with the LOLs! Duffy is both adorable and impressively determined as feisty Mercy, the chicken’s appointed leader; and Villaverde is a laugh riot as the radical, compost-crazed Poophead.

Animal Farm, Soulpepper
Jennifer Villaverde, Raquel Duffy, Michaela Washburn & Leah Cherniak. Set and costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by André du Toit. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Big shouts to the design team for their incredible, imaginative work on this production: Ken MacKenzie (assisted by Christine Urquhart on set and costumes), André du Toit (lighting), Richard Feren (sound and music composition) and mask consultant Nicole Ratjen.

Animal Farm continues in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre. Get advance tickets online or call the box office: 416-866-8666 / 1-888-898-1188. Last night’s performance was packed, so advance booking recommended.

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NSTF: Giving the last word where last word’s due in the startling, sharply pointed, satirical JONNO

Jason Deline and Erica Anderson in JONNO. Costume design by Christina Urquhart. Set design by Chandos Ross. Lighting design by Steve Vargo. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Rabbit in a Hat Productions presents Alix Sobler’s JONNO, directed by Paul Van Dyck for the Toronto Fringe Next Stage Theatre Festival, running now at Factory Theatre.

JONNO was inspired by a famous sexual assault case that saw a popular Canadian radio personality put on trial—we all know who—and comes in the wake of subsequent sexual harassment and assault scandals that have called out Hollywood celebrities and, most recently, a prominent Canadian theatre artistic director. Delving into the mind of the perpetrator and providing a platform for the myriad complex responses from, and impact on, the survivors—the play speaks beyond any one particular case.

Jonno (Jason Deline) hosts a popular talk radio show; his rich, full tones open the episode with a spoken word essay, and his charming interview style doesn’t shy away from confrontation. One by one, we see his romantic encounters with women turn violent: feminist blogger Marcy (Erica Anderson), singer/songwriter Dana (Parmida Vand) and sex worker Bernadette (Glenda Braganza). The only witness is Mr. Donkey Long Ears (Allan Michael Brunet), a stuffed toy from his childhood who he shields from seeing too much.

When word of his actions goes public, he is visited by Maureen (Alanis Peart), a corporate rep from his employer who has some exploratory and pointed personal questions to ask. A self-professed feminist and lover of women, Jonno genuinely sees nothing wrong with what he’s done—he sees his sexploits as being simply imaginative and out of the ordinary.

The women he choked, hit, kicked and coerced into sexual activity would say otherwise. But, unlike Jonno, who’s perfectly clear and happy to rationalize the events surrounding the encounters, the women are left wondering what the fuck happened and try to make sense of it all as they second guess, struggle with self-doubt and give him second chances. And while the responses of the women are different, all are valid as they play over events in their minds and debate the situation with each other.

The shocking moments of sexual violence are balanced nicely by satirical scenes of corporate investigation, surreal conversations between Jonno and Long Ears, and some darkly funny girls’ night out debates over wine. And the imaginative, effective staging aptly illustrates the serial nature of Jonno’s behaviour, while creating space for the more playful, theatrical elements of the piece.

Amazing work from the cast on this sensitive and infuriating subject. Deline does a great job with the public and private faces of Jonno: the smooth-talking, accomplished, pro-woman radio host and the callous, violent and sociopathic misogynist. Brunet makes an excellent Long Ears; inspired by Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh, he is sweetly droopy and sulky—and acts as both witness and counsellor to Jonno’s actions. A childhood toy/imaginary friend, he is Jonno’s displaced conscience and child-like innocence—even, perhaps, humanity.

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Alanis Peart, Jason Deline & Allan Michael Brunet in JONNO. Costume design by Christina Urquhart. Set design by Chandos Ross. Lighting design by Steve Vargo. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

The women in the cast make for a powerful unit of their own. Like Jonno, these characters are attractive, intelligent and accomplished in their own right—and each takes the journey from victim to survivor in her own way. Philosophical and lyrical, Vand’s Dana strives to gain an understanding through conversation with Jonno. Anderson’s wide-eyed activist Marcy thrives in dialogue with fellow survivors—and finds her inner warrior as a result. Braganza’s Bernadette is sensuous, irreverent and outspoken; surprisingly conservative, Bernadette is a reminder to not judge a book by its cover. And Peart is a hilarious powerhouse as the mercurial, assertive Maureen, who fights fire with fire when she puts Jonno in the hot seat.

With shouts to the creative team for bringing this starkly real and magical world together: Christine Urquhart (costume), Chandos Ross (set), Steve Vargo (lighting), Richard Feren (composer and sound), and Jade Elliot (fight and intimacy coordinator).

In the end, while we may be able to muster a modicum of sympathy for the devil, we believe the women—and whatever personal history or demons Jonno may have do not excuse his actions.

Giving the last word where last word’s due in the startling, sharply pointed, satirical JONNO.

JONNO continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace till January 14; for exact dates/times and advance tickets, visit the show page.

Family, transition & mental illness in the honest, engaging, moving Little Pretty and The Exceptional

Sugith Varughese & Farah Merani in Little Pretty and The Exceptional—photo by Joseph Michael

 

A South Asian Canadian family navigates a career transition, personal milestones and mental illness in Anusree Roy’s Little Pretty and The Exceptional, directed by Brendan Healy, assisted by Ryan G. Hinds—running in the Factory Theatre Mainspace.

Little Pretty and The Exceptional takes us to Toronto’s Little India, to a store on Gerrard St. East where Singh family patriarch Dilpreet (Sugith Varughese) is preparing for the Canada Day grand opening of his family-run sari shop with the help of his daughters Simran (Farah Merani) and Jasmeet (Shruti Kothari). To his chagrin, Jasmeet has also enlisted the help of her boyfriend Iyar (Shelly Antony).

The entire Singh household is running on the stress and excitement of major life events: Dilpreet is navigating a career transition, going from shop employee to shop owner; Simran, who wants to be a human rights lawyer, also works at the library and is awaiting her LSAT results; and Jasmeet is preparing for prom and gunning for the coveted Prom Queen crown.

When Simran’s LSAT score is lower than she needs to get into Osgoode, she begins a downward spiral into extreme tension and anxiety. As she struggles to sign up for LSAT prep classes and reschedule the test, her ongoing nightmares and headaches are getting worse, and she’s beginning to hallucinate. And when she goes missing one night, returning with a story of seeing her dead mother, her father wants to take her to the doctor, but her sister thinks she just needs time and space to relax.

Haunted by their shared history of a wife and mother who struggled with mental illness, and with the grand opening just days away, the Singhs are torn about what to do for Simran—but as her visual and auditory hallucinations worsen, even Jasmeet realizes they must seek medical intervention. In the end, as much as the Singhs strive for normalcy as they open the shop, things will never be the same again.

Lovely work from the cast in this poignant, sometimes funny, family story. Varughese gives a moving and powerful performance as Dilpreet; a loveable, outspoken and somewhat stubborn man with a wry wit, Dilpreet is a middle-aged father bravely shifting from employee to entrepreneur. An immigrant who came to Canada to make a better life for his family, the cultural and generational divides with his daughters make for some fun comedic moments of communication and butting heads. Merani is heartbreaking as Simran; the ‘smart one’ of the Singh sisters, Simran’s decent into Schizophrenia is devastating to watch—from her perspective as a strong academic student aiming for law school, and the varied responses from her family.

Shruti Kothari and Shelly Antony in Little Pretty and The Exceptional - Joseph Michael Photography (1)
Shruti Kothari & Shelly Antony in Little Pretty and The Exceptional—photo by Joseph Michael

Kothari is a firework as Jasmeet, the ‘pretty one;’ a young woman of boundless energy and a touch of vanity, Jasmeet’s a high school senior who wants to be a fashion designer. Outspoken like her father, she’s a take-charge gal—but when it comes to her big sis, she goes into denial over the increasingly erratic behaviour. Haunted by vague memories of their “crazy” mother, Jasmeet doesn’t want to consider that Simran may need psychiatric help. Antony is a delight as Iyar; high-energy, laid back and supportive, Iyar has no trouble gently calling Jasmeet on her attitude towards Simran’s situation. And though he’s not technically a member of the Singh family, he does great service assisting with the store opening and overall emotional support.

With shouts to the design team for their work in creating the lush, evocative space—filled with rich, gorgeous fabrics, and music and lighting that goes from bright and lively to malevolent: Samantha Brown (set, props), Chantelle Laliberte (costumes), André du Toit (lighting) and Richard Feren (composer and sound).

Family, transition and mental illness in the honest, engaging, moving Little Pretty and The Exceptional.

Little Pretty and The Exceptional continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace till April 30. Advance tix available online or by calling 416-504-9971.

Check out Anusree Roy’s beautiful, honest and personal piece on mental health in Intermission Magazine.

SummerWorks: Turnabout is fair play as women’s sex & violence fantasies take centre stage in Beautiful Man

BeautifulMan-400x320A puppet show within a play within a TV show within a movie. All very sexy. All very violent. All featuring powerful, strong women with beautiful men in the background.

Yep, you read that right. This is the multidimensional storytelling the audience experiences in Groundwater Production’s Beautiful Man, written by Erin Shields and directed by Groundwater co-Artistic Director Andrea Donaldson – now running at the Theatre Centre Mainspace as part of SummerWorks.

It all starts with three friends talking about a new cop movie featuring a female homicide detective on the hunt for a serial killer who’s preying on beautiful young men. After the cop’s nurse boyfriend gives up on their now cold anniversary dinner when she’s late getting home, she sits down to relax and watch TV: a sword and sorcery tale where women are the rulers and warriors, with men acting in the periphery as consorts or slaves. And so the nesting doll structure of storytelling begins – talking about the movie becomes a discussion about the TV show within the movie, then morphing into the play within the TV show and the puppet show within the play. Got it?

Fabulous work from the cast in this mercurial and visceral relating of each story, rife with detailed descriptions, sex and violence. Anusree Roy as the imperious and precise Sophie; Ava Markus as the playful and curious Pam; and Melissa D’Agostino as the straight-shooting, spunky Jennifer. All three women are passionate, assertive, sensual and deeply committed to these stories – so much so that they become fully immersed as they relate each gory, erotic detail. There’s a lot of penis talk. Like, a lot. And detailed too; this is a world where full frontal male nudity is commonplace, and erections (“semi” or full) aren’t just for porno any more. And most of the men seem to have sandy blond hair. Was someone thinking about Ryan Gosling? 😉

Oh, yeah, and Brett Donahue is the Beautiful Man. And he certainly is. Positioned in the background, upstage on a platform behind the three women, Donahue does a great job taking on the roles of each of the beautiful men in these stories – from the cop’s neglected boyfriend, to the queen’s consort, to a wounded soldier bound for his captor’s harem of men. You get the picture.

A reminder to never underestimate what turns women on – and that sex and violence have universal appeal. It’s very possible that the cop in that movie needs to be looking for a female serial killer. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that a bunch of unsolved real-life cases went cold because the cops weren’t looking for a female perpetrator.

With shouts to music and sound designer Richard Feren for the bang-on Game of Thrones-inspired soundtrack.

Turnabout is fair play as women, and their sex and violence fantasies, take centre stage in hilarious, insightful Beautiful Man.

Beautiful Man continues at the Theatre Centre Mainspace until Aug 16 – check here for the show’s full schedule. This is another very popular show, so advanced booking or early arrival at the box office is strongly recommended.

In the meantime, check out the teaser trailer:

Toronto Fringe NSTF: An intense, startling & thought-provoking look at sexual violence in DINK

DINK-250x250Theatre-a-go-go explores the themes of sexual violence, society’s response and the celebrity of the villain in Caroline Azar’s DINK, on at the Factory Theatre Mainspace for the Next Stage Theatre Festival.

Inspired by the real-life case of former Canadian Forces Colonel Russell Williams, as well as incidents of missing/murdered women from marginalized communities/ethnicities, and the societal/social media bullying and shaming of victims and the families of the accused, DINK (the acronym for Double Income No Kids) is part drama/part musical/part social commentary, with songs by Azar, S. Lewis and sound designer Richard Feren.

Over lunch, a workout and shopping at Holt’s, sisters Lolly (Christy Bruce) and Deb (Sharon Heldt) talk about Lolly’s recent home security measures as daughter Bethany (Jasmine Chen) is being stalked, while Deb is up to her eyeballs with home renovation and contractors. Deb’s husband Bill (David Keeley) is a proud military man who’s served in Afghanistan, a sweetheart with his wife, but under investigation by homicide detective Matt De Souza (Kris Siddiqi) over two missing/murdered women who served under him: soldier Danielle (D.T.) Bryce (Andrea Brown) and Tim Hortons server Izzy Melisano (Lise Cormier).

The action shifts between present-day scenes in multiple scenarios and flashbacks from the past, as well as musical numbers featuring various characters, but mainly the two murder victims Danielle and Izzy (where the song breaks work best). The effect is disturbing, distracting and disorienting.

DINK highlights how victimization goes beyond the missing/murdered women to take in their families, the families of the predator (who are often blamed for not seeing what was going on and failing to blow the whistle) and the investigators. The play also sets out to raise up the victims of sexual violence – including moments of empowerment, some imaginary – and put the predator down. The serial killer, while his actions are monstrous, is not a monster – just a man. A very sick man and, in the end, a pathetic man lost in his revolting and dangerous obsessions and desires. The celebrity of the serial killer – and real-life villains in general – is a symptom of social illness.

Excellent work from the cast. Bruce brings a jaded, tired quality to Lolly, a fiercely protective mother with a wry wit, and an ineffective husband (invisible to us, but present in scenes of one-sided conversation). Heldt’s Deb is brash, irreverently funny and creative, an adoring wife throwing her energy into creating the perfect oasis at home. Keeley does a very nice job with Bill’s double life: a sweet and attentive husband at home; a misogynistic, homophobic bully of a commanding officer on the job, covering even darker activities in his personal time. Siddiqi brings a nicely layered quality to Detective De Souza, a good cop struggling with his personal, if not questionable, relationship with Izzy as he conducts the investigation. Brown’s Danielle is strong, cocky and direct, a woman of courage and conviction; and Cormier brings an intelligent, precocious charm to the adventurous Izzy. Chen does a lovely job with Bethany’s conflicted responses to her situation; a smart, imaginative and energetic teen – but, like her mother and aunt, the pressure of pretending that everything is alright becomes too much to bear and boils over.

DINK is an intense, startling and thought-provoking piece that reminds us to put our focus on the victims and their families – and cautions us on how we respond to the perpetrators and their families.

DINK continues its run until Sun, Jan 18 – book advance tix here.