Toronto Fringe: Family, sacrifice & hope in the timely, heart-wrenching Seeking Refuge: A Musical Tragedy

Trisha Talreja, Jennifer Walls & Liana Bdewi in Seeking Refuge: A Musical Tragedy—photo by Dahlia Katz

Thick and Thin Theatre Productions presents Rick Jones’ timely and poignant musical Seeking Refuge: A Musical Tragedy. Directed by Barbara Larose, assisted by Ellen Green, with music direction/accompaniment by Robert Graham and stage management by Margot “Mom” Devlin, the Paul O’Sullivan Prize-winning show is running at the Randolph Theatre for Toronto Fringe.

Opening not with music but with the sounds of gunfire and bombs, we are thrown into a horrific world of civil war, where sisters Mara (Liana Bdewi) and Saleet (Trisha Talreja) have lost everything—except each other. In search of a safe place away from the bullets and collapsing buildings, they accept the help of family friend Tobim (Nabil Ayoub), a soldier fighting for the government who has connections with a man who can get them passage across the sea. Only able to afford one passage, Mara insists that her younger sister Saleet go, and plans to reunite with her sister when Saleet has settled somewhere safe. Their mother’s jewellery proves insufficient payment to the pirate Zaydal (Milton Dover, in multiple roles, including the Judge), and Tobim pledges to work security for him for a month.

During the sea voyage, Saleet meets Manu (Noah Beemer); he has papers, money and a lawyer aunt sponsoring him, while she has nothing. In a bargain that will benefit them both, she accepts his “on paper” marriage proposal, as it will be better for them both to be travelling as man and wife. Meanwhile, Tobim is taking out his displeasure at having to work for Zaydal on Mara, who is forced to become his slave in order to survive in the refugee camp. Raped and beaten, she never gives up hope that Saleet has made it to safety.

By the time Saleet and Manu get to his aunt’s (Jennifer Walls, in multiple roles), they have fallen in love; and with a baby on the way, they are granted refugee status and set about sponsoring Mara. Unfortunately, Mara’s application is denied; she’s been associated with Tobim, who’s been labelled a terrorist. They must find another way to bring Mara over—but will it work?

The music has a Western Asian flavour; and there are some particularly beautiful duets, especially between the sisters, and Saleet and Manu, with stand-out vocals from Talreja, Beemer and Walls (who also plays a UN refugee worker). News headlines come into an up-close and personal focus as we see the human stories behind the statistics. As this is a musical tragedy, there is heartache and grief—and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one with tears in my eyes.

Family, sacrifice and hope as separated sisters struggle for safety and reunion in the timely, heart-wrenching Seeking Refuge: A Musical Tragedy.

Seeking Refuge: A Musical Tragedy continues at the Randolph Theatre until July 16; see dates/times and get advance tickets online.

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.

Happy feet & hopeful hearts in Alumnae Theatre’s delightful, poignant Stepping Out

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Front: Jessica Westermann Back (l to r): Felicia Simone, Mish Tam, Kay Randewich, Alyssa Quart Cartlidge, Rebecca Grenier, Scott Turner & Lisa Kovack in Stepping Out – photo by Bruce Peters

Alumnae Theatre Company’s got its dancing shoes on as it mounts its retrospective production for the 2015-16 season: Richard Harris’s Stepping Out (originally produced by Alumnae in 1989), which opened on the main stage to a packed house last night. Directed by Executive Producer Brenda Darling, assisted by Liz Best, and choreographed by Alyssa Martin and Jessica Westermann (Act I), with support from dance coach Sandra Burley.

Set in 1980s London in a local church hall, Stepping Out takes us on the year and a half-long journey of one of Mavis’s (Jessica Westermann) tap dance classes, accompanied by pianist Mrs. Fraser (Jeanette Dagger). The class includes seven women and one man: Lynne (Mish Tam), a cheerful and sensitive nurse; Dorothy (Kay Randewich), the sweet, mousy, bicycle-riding mensch of a social services worker; Maxine (Lisa Kovack), a vivacious saleswoman; Andy (Rebecca Grenier), introverted and painfully awkward, but committed to learn; Rose (Linette Doherty), the wry-witted Trini wife and mother run ragged looking after everyone but herself; Sylvia (Felicia Simone), the outspoken, genuine and irreverent youngster; Geoffrey (Scott Turner), the quiet, gentle widower; and newcomer Vera (Alyssa Quart Cartlidge), the wealthy, prim Stepford wife meets Martha Stewart housewife who lacks an internal editor.

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Jessica Westermann, Jeanette Dagger & Alyssa Quart Cartlidge – photo by Bruce Peters

The cast does a lovely job telling the stories of this class and these characters. Stand-outs include Westermann (also the cast dance captain), who brings a warm, saint-like patience and nurturing quality to Mavis, a woman struggling to make ends meet and supporting an unemployed boyfriend; she’s an extremely talented hoofer with broken dreams of her own. Dagger is deliciously abrasive as Mrs. Fraser, the dance class’s stern and fastidious accompanist; a mother figure to Mavis who helps with the administration of the classes, there’s more to her piano talents than just tinkling the ivories for dance students. Kovack’s Maxine is an extroverted gal-on-the-go and former child performer with a can-do attitude; struggling at home with an unruly stepson and absent husband, she too is clearly dancing as fast as she can to beat the blues. As for Grenier’s Andy, still waters run deep; the shy, submissive and plain exterior belies a deep inner strength, fierceness and beauty. And beneath the tough-talking cockiness and everyday vanity, Simone’s Sylvia is a tired young wife who wants a break – and to feel beautiful again.

Ultimately, for everyone involved in the class, it’s not just about dancing – it’s about filling an empty place inside, and finding family and a sense of belonging.

With shouts to the design team: Doug Payne (set designer/lead carpenter), Bill Scott (lighting), Bec Brownstone (costumes), Razie Brownstone (props) and Rick Jones (sound assembly).

Happy feet and hopeful hearts in Alumnae Theatre’s delightful, poignant production of Stepping Out.

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Jessica Westermann stepping out solo – photo by Bruce Peters

Stepping Out continues on the Alumnae main stage until Feb 6. You can get advance tickets online or by calling the box office: 416-364-4170; or you can purchase in person (cash only) at the box office one hour before show time. Special events include a pre-show panel discussion on Sun, Jan 24 from 12:30-1:30pm: “Stepping Out Through the Arts” Can the Arts heal? And on Sat, Jan 30 at 8pm: 80s Dress-Up Night – Should blue eye shadow be banned?

Check out this experiential piece by Toronto Star writer Melanie Chambers on auditioning for Stepping Out. And take a look at the Stepping Out trailer (by Nicholas Porteus):

Delightful comedy ensues as scandal & chaos erupt in a good English country home in Mr. Pim Passes By

Madeleine Kane & Steve Ness in Mr. Pim Passes By - photo by Jennifer Etches
Madeleine Kane & Steve Ness in Mr. Pim Passes By – photo by Jennifer Etches

Was out at the Village Playhouse last night to see the Village Players’ production of Mr. Pim Passes By, by A.A. Milne (yep, the one who wrote the Winnie the Pooh stories), directed by Barbara Larose, assisted by Ellen Green.

In her director’s notes, Larose describes the play as “a comic charmer filled with innocence and irony” – and she and a fine cast deliver on this assertion big time as the relative peace and quiet of George Marden’s (Rob Candy) country home in Buckinghamshire is set at sixes and sevens after some disturbing news from a visitor. The visitor, Mr. Pim (Steve Ness), passes along some news that could have a disastrous impact on George and Olive’s (Kathleen Jackson Allamby) marriage. Meanwhile, all George’s niece and ward Dinah (Madeleine Kane) wants to do is marry socialist artist Brian Strange (Daniel Carter), but George forbids it on the grounds of their youth, as well as Brian’s occupation and politics – and the young couple has joined forces with Olive to get George to reconsider.

Ness gives the unassuming Mr. Pim a nice befuddled and affable quality, not unlike Milne’s most beloved character Pooh. Kane is an adorably precocious and energetic chatterbox as Dinah, and has a sweet, playful chemistry with Carter’s charming and passionate abstract painter Brian. Candy’s George is comically stubborn, proper and set in his ways – not a bad or particularly harsh man, just an old-fashioned patriarch struggling with progress. Jackson Allamby is lovely as the modern, forward-thinking and infinitely patient Olive, who is artful but not conniving in her dealings with George’s obstinacy. And Barbara Salsberg’s Lady Julia Marden is the perfect picture of an imperious older aunt, commanding both respect and familial fear, but essentially sensible and pragmatic in action.

Rob Candy & Kathleen Jackson Allamby in Mr. Pim Passes By - photo by Jennifer Etches
Rob Candy & Kathleen Jackson Allamby in Mr. Pim Passes By – photo by Jennifer Etches

Add to that some good fun comic turns by the two maids – Shobha Hatte’s prim, stern and all-seeing Anne, and ASM Laura Conway as the younger, cheeky maid – and you have an all-around good time.

With shouts to the design team for their work in creating this idyllic 1919 morning-room world in the English countryside: Steve Minnie (set), Theresa Arneaud (costumes), John Cabanela (lighting) and Rick Jones (sound), with the talents of Kyra Millan on piano. And, as always, to Margot “Mom” Devlin, the intrepid SM/lighting op who keeps it all together and running smoothly.

Delightful comedy ensues as scandal and chaos erupt in a good English country home in Mr. Pim Passes By.

Mr. Pim Passes By continues its run at the Village Playhouse until October 3 – check here for scheduling and tickets.

A darkly funny & eerie look into the mind of Lizzie Borden in Blood Relations

Blood RelationsSo, first, a confession: I’d never read or seen Sharon Pollack’s Blood Relations. Not until last night, that is, at Alumnae Theatre Company’s opening night, directed by Barbara Larose, assisted by Ellen Green.

We are in the Borden home in Fall River, Massachusetts, 10 years after Lizzie Borden’s acquittal of the brutal double murder of her stepmother and father. Ragtime music fills the theatre and, in the dim pre-show lighting onstage, you can make out the main floor of the home: dining room and parlour, separated by a dark wood finish staircase. Down stage right is a pigeon coop; down left is a garden with a stone bench.

The ever present question: “Did you, Lizzie? Lizzie, did you?” sets the scene for a memory game of storytelling, played by Lizzie (Marisa King) and her friend/lover The Actress (Andrea Brown), taking the audience back in time to the circumstances leading up to the murder and trial. Adding to the ghoulish fun and intrigue, The Actress plays Lizzie in the flashback scenes, with Lizzie taking on the role of Bridget, the family’s maid.

We see Lizzie Borden as an unconventional woman out of place in a conventional household and society, her feelings of entrapment aptly illustrated – with shades of the macabre to come – by the empty red wire bird cage in the corner of the parlour. That trapped feeling comes to a boiling point for Lizzie when her stepmother’s brother Harry (Rob Candy) arrives to bargain with her father (Thomas Gough) over the family farm, a move that would see the farm willed to stepmother Abigail (Sheila Russell). And Lizzie’s older sister Emma (Kathleen Jackson Allamby) is more interested in absenting herself from the family strife than in saving their inheritance.

Larose has an excellent cast for this exploration of the famously accused and acquitted suspected murderess. King brings a quiet, slow burning intensity to Lizzie, and a sassy, firey mischief to the Irish maid Bridget. Brown is seductive and playfully dramatic as the beautiful extrovert Actress; and gives a sharp-witted, modern-thinking edge to her portrayal of the caged and frustrated Lizzie. Gough’s Andrew Borden is a disturbing, paradoxical combination of serious patriarch and doting father, capable of both extreme kindness and cruelty. Russell’s Abigail is a sturdy, practical and self-righteous housewife, but perhaps not above using her own family connections to gain power within her new family; and Candy brings a lovely ick factor to her snake-like brother Harry, a cunning man driven by avarice and giving no thought to his nieces’ futures beyond marrying them off. Jackson Allamby gives us an Emma who struggles to keep the family peace, but is terribly worn down by constantly being caught in the middle – put upon and wanting out as much as Lizzie, but lacking the rage to rouse herself to action. And Steven Burley does a nice job with his dual roles as the Defense and Dr. Patrick, the latter a particular delight as Lizzie’s charming and flirtatious friend and playmate, a married Irishman grappling with their complex relationship.

With shouts to the design and creative team: Margaret “The Costumator” Spence’s gorgeous period costume design, featuring Lizzie in hunter green and the Actress in deep purple; Ed Rosing’s magnificent set design, with its deep wood and sea foam green tones, and highlights of red throughout – realized by master carpenter Sandy Thorburn, with painting crew led by scenic artist Mark Cope – and lighting by Gabriel Cropley, especially effective in the carousel fantasy scene. With Razie Brownstone’s props selection, everyday household items like a silver tea service becoming projectile weapons – the civilized trappings of society covering darker emotions that lie just beneath the surface. And, of course, the ax. Speaking of, who doesn’t like a little Ragtime with their ax murder (thanks to Rick Jones’ sound design)? And to SM Margot “Mom” Devlin, who ran the lighting board and kept things moving along smoothly.

Did she? Alumnae Theatre’s Blood Relations is a sharply drawn, darkly funny and eerie look into the mind of Lizzie Borden – and the assumptions others have about her.

Blood Relations continues its run on the Alumnae mainstage until February 7. Alumnae usually does a talkback with the director, cast and creative team following the second matinée performance, so keep an eye out for that on Sunday, January 31. For ticket info and reservations, click here. Go see this.

Magic & mayhem in a small town – Alumnae Theatre’s The Killdeer

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A rural kitchen with lavender walls, wallpapered below the chair railing on one side and paneled with different cuts of wood on the other. An open doorway reveals a pantry, shelves full of mason jars of colourful preserves. Up centre, a tree sprouts, covered in all manner of porcelain knick-knacks – a tea pot, glass animals – instead of leaves. Through the window, a portion of it cut away, vines enter from the outside world, and we get the stage right view of white birches, giant bull rushes and the beginning of a glittering green swamp.

Marysia Bucholc’s set is the audience’s introduction to the world of the Alumnae Theatre Company’s production of James Reaney’s The Killdeer, directed by Barbara Larose, with assistant director Ellen Green, part of Alumnae’s “Countdown to 100” retrospective programming as it approaches its 100th anniversary (it’s 95 now). Reaney’s play, which came about due to the encouragement of late director and Alumnae member Pamela Terry, had its premiere at Alumnae in 1960 (back when it was located on Bedford Road) and was directed by Terry – and it launched Reaney’s career as a playwright.

In this seemingly quaint country town – part rural gothic, part fairy tale place – with a mysterious and violent history, this kitchen in the Gardner home is a whimsical oasis of innocence. Through prose that is at times vernacular, at others poetic, storytelling and gossip, The Killdeer takes us on an intense, dramatic – and at times magical – journey into the lives and secrets of its characters.

Like me, you may be asking, what the heck is a “killdeer”? The press release for the production provides a helpful definition: a killdeer is “a small bird, known for feigning a broken wing to draw predators away from its nest, which is built on open ground, and for calling out its own name.” Sound designer Rick Jones incorporates the call of the killdeer into the production, along with musical touches of whimsy, mystery and drama, inspired by the original production’s sound design by John Beckwith.

The Killdeer features a very strong cast. Tricia Brioux’s Madam Fay is a deliciously arch, darkly comic and dangerously crazy lady with issues, while Tricia’s real-life nephew Matt Brioux (playing Madam Fay’s son) rounds out Eli’s seemingly simple-minded, childlike behaviour with good sense and a good heart. Rob Candy does evil up good as Clifford, a notorious piece of work whose menacing character rivals even that of Madam Fay. As Mrs. Gardner, Anne Shepherd combines a sense of rural tradition and individual quirkiness as Harry’s bric-a-brack collecting, overprotective mother, while Marie Carrière Gleason is great fun as Mrs. Gardner’s gossipy neighbour Mrs. Budge. Paul Hardy offers a nice transition as Harry goes from wide-eyed innocent teenager to a good man searching to find his way and save the true love of his life; and Blythe Haynes is lovely as Rebecca, a lost innocent like Harry, protective of those she loves even to her own detriment. Naomi Vondell adds some nice layers of mystery to the put upon Jailer’s wife Mrs. Soper, left to manage the cells while her husband is away. In their multiple roles, Michael Vitorovich is delightfully evil as the Hangman and comically officious as the Judge; Joanne Sarazen is especially entertaining as the mercurial Crown attorney and Tina McCulloch – doing quadruple duty playing two characters, as well as marketing/publicity and co-producer – gives a nice comic turn as courthouse cleaning lady Mrs. Delta. Peter Higginson’s enigmatic physician turned hermit Dr. Ballad is both gently wise and sharply funny.

Razie Brownstone’s costumes, and prop team’s Tess Hendaoui and Deborah Roed detailed touches, make for a lovely combination of realism and once upon a time. And Ed Rosing’s lighting design ranges from the clever (the box-like light on the floor for the witness stand in the courtroom) and magical (the lighting on the swamp and the twinkley lights on the walls of the set that burst out into the back of the house). All held together by intrepid SM/lighting op Margot “Mom” Devlin and her ASM team. Shouts also to co-producer Lynne Patterson and opening night catering mistress Sandy Schneider – and to Suzanne Courtney at Ticking Time Bomb Productions for the graphic design work on the poster (and for the entire season).

This was one crazy trip. And The Killdeer leaves the audience talking.

The Killdeer runs on the Alumnae Theatre main stage until April 27, with a talkback following the April 21 matinée. In the meantime, check out this Hye’s Musings blog interview with director Barbara Larose.

Falling – first rehearsals

As some of you know, I auditioned for Alumnae Theatre Company’s New Ideas Festival 2013 and, after being called back to read for two plays, was cast in the Week One reading of Jamie Johnson’s play Falling, directed by Ed Rosing.

I don’t want to give too much away – since I dislike spoilers and want you to come see for yourselves – but I can tell you that Falling is a mother/daughter drama, beautifully written, and presented through personal storytelling and fairy tale. The daughter (Constance) is presented at four different ages, played by four different actors, and each contributes pieces of memory – vital moments from her life at that age – in a desperate effort to reconnect with her estranged mother Lou. I play the oldest version of Constance, at 48 years old.

Last night, we just finished the second of our first two rehearsals – the first on Friday night was a series of one-one-on meetings with Ed and assistant director/stage manager Jake Simpkins to discuss character specifics, as well as the overall rhythm and tone of the play. The entire cast was out last night for the first read-through: Ruth Miller (Lou), me (Constance, at 48), Kristen Scott (Consti, at 30), Cora Matheson (Con, at 18) and Carys Lewis (Connie, at 12). We were joined by Jamie, as well as sound designer Rick Jones, who is putting together some lovely background music for the fairy tale portions of the reading. BTW: Jake schleps in from Windsor to work with us and, luckily, he drives – though we were a bit concerned about the driving conditions in last night’s weather.

It is both interesting and complex playing one version of the same character. The older the version of Constance, the more autobiographical knowledge she has – and we discussed how some of us would know things our younger selves wouldn’t, and how each older Constance had the opportunity to be reminded of forgotten details by a younger self. Personally, I’ve been fascinated by those little tricks of memory, and how we sometimes need to rely on journals or others to fill in forgotten details – positive or negative. How is the current version of us different from younger versions? Our similarities can be even more interesting. What about our younger self do we miss, want back? What changes do we embrace?

Another big topic that came up was things hidden and things revealed. Lou is hearing some familiar stories of her daughter’s life – but is unaware of the whole story. The same goes for Constance regarding her mother’s experience. And, in the case of Consti and Constance, mother and daughter are all but strangers. As our characters, we’re exploring: What do we know? How does what we’re hearing differ from what we thought we knew? What are we hearing for the first time?

In a combination reminiscent of the play Albertine in Five Times and the movie Terms of Endearment, Falling combines the complexity of multiple versions of the same character with the complications of the mother/daughter dynamic – with the backdrop of domestic violence in a rural setting.  Along with the languid fairy tale storytelling , the imagery is lovely, magical and haunting: the moon, the night, the apple tree. And, while Lou’s and Constance’s lives are far from happy ever after, it is Lou’s fairy tale storytelling that comforts and binds them together – and becomes a possible path to reunion and forgiveness.

Falling will be presented as a reading, with one performance only, on Saturday, March 9 at noon in the Alumnae Theatre Studio. New Ideas Festival readings are pay-what-you-can. For full program details and reservations, please visit the Alumnae Theatre website: http://www.alumnaetheatre.com/