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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Preview: LOL warfare with neighbours from Hell in the quirky, edgy Person of Interest

There are good neighbours and there are bad neighbours. This is a story about the latter: The neighbours from Hell. And what happens when a good neighbour gets pushed too far. Written and performed by Melody A. Johnson, with additional dialogue by Eric Woolfe and directed by Rick Roberts, Person of Interest previewed last night in the Tarragon Theatre Workspace.

Inspired by the true story of an event that happened on Johnson’s street in Little Poland, Person of Interest is a one-woman tale of a neighbourly dynamic gone wrong. Horribly, horribly wrong.

Wanting to help out at her son’s school on Pizza Day, Johnson must submit to a background check to determine eligibility/fitness for the task. Standard procedure. What’s not so standard is that her application is denied; she’s been flagged as a Person of Interest. And so we go back to the beginning, back to when she, an actor, met and married Allen, a composer, and how they bought a house in a cool little west end neighbourhood, on a street off of Roncesvalles, and moved in with their five-year-old son Dashiell and their rescue dachshund Luna.

They soon meet the Krakowskis, the next door neighbours with whom they share a three-foot wide alley. A primly neat, pressed, conservative couple with a pre-schooler and a dog of their own, no sooner have the introductions been made when the Krakowskis request that Johnson and family move their furnace vent, as they fear it’s a hazard. In true Canadian fashion, Johnson complies; it seems to be a simple enough request and their contractor is still onsite. She later realizes she should have listened to her mother and not given in.

That first request is just the beginning of a series of increasingly nit-picking, unreasonable expectations that go from passive aggressive to downright bullying, with infuriating impacts on outdoor décor and landscaping, not to mention the Krakowski’s Hummer blasting exhaust fumes into Johnson’s home. Cue the subsequent retaliation and the Law & Order gavel thunk! Desperate, crazy times call for desperate, crazy measures.

Johnson is an entertaining storyteller and a treat to watch. Endearingly Puck-like, full of energy, mischief and irreverence for the mundane, but genuinely wanting to get along, she weaves this sometimes shocking tale of neighbourhood warfare with candour and an edgy sense of fun. Deftly shifting in and out of her cast of characters, highlights include the uptight, controlling, mom from the Hummer driving couple from Hell next door; and her smoking, knitting, crime procedural loving mother, who’s always up for offering her own brand of sage and wry-witted advice. As herself, Johnson plays out with hilarious honesty scenes from her actor’s life, her growing neurosis as she navigates the looming jackassery next door alone while Allen is away on a gig, and serves up snapshots of universal observational humour.

Person of Interest opens in the Tarragon Workspace tonight and runs for one weekend only, with three more performances: tonight and March 3 at 8:00 pm, and March 4 at 2:30 pm. Get advance tickets online or by calling 416-531-1827. It’s an intimate venue and a super short run—and last night’s preview was close to sold out— so advance tickets are recommended.

Hamlet as you’ve never seen it in the haunting, beautiful ASL/English adaptation Prince Hamlet

Christine Horne as Hamlet in Prince Hamlet—photo by Bronwen Sharp

 

Why Not Theatre mounts Ravi Jain’s exciting bilingual (ASL and English) adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet with its production of Prince Hamlet, directed by Jain; and currently running at the Theatre Centre.

This production has already been garnering some well-deserved buzz. Not only does Prince Hamlet make the Shakespeare classic accessible for Deaf audiences, it addresses issues of diversity and inclusion in casting, particularly for the largely white, male, Eurocentric, and hearing, classics. Jain’s text adeptly shifts scenes (Horatio’s speech to Fortinbras, usually seen at the end of the play, is used as an introduction, with Horatio addressing the audience), and effectively interweaves scenes of action with those of corresponding exposition (Horatio and the guards encountering/reporting of the ghost, as well as moments/reports of Hamlet’s erratic behaviour) in an engaging and theatrical way. We also see scenes from different perspectives—and it’s all performed by an outstanding ensemble of actors, with female actors taking on a number of male roles and a male actor playing Ophelia.

The program provides a handy synopsis of the play, which I will not replay here; if you need a refresher or you’re new to Hamlet, you can also check out the Wikipedia page. What is remarkable about this production is that Horatio (played by Deaf actor Dawn Jani Birley) is featured prominently; our narrator, he is both witness to and interpreter of (signing much of the text) Hamlet’s (Christine Horne) story. ASL is incorporated into the dialogue in a seamless, inclusive way that reveals relationships, in that Horatio is understood by Hamlet when he signs, and Hamlet communicates with him in both English and ASL. In many respects, the story is told from Horatio’s point of view—culminating in that fateful final scene where the dead outnumber the living and, one of the few still standing, Horatio bids a tearful farewell to his friend.

Joining Birley and Horne for this journey of revenge, reflections on mortality and tragedy are Miriam Fernandes (Rosencrantz, Player King, Gravedigger), Jeff Ho (Ophelia), Hannah Miller (Guildenstern, Player Queen), Rick Roberts (Claudius), Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah (Laertes), Karen Robinson (Gertrude) and Maria Vacratsis (Polonius); all actors play their respective characters as originally written and all introduce themselves in ASL at the top of the show. These are actors playing characters, and regardless of gender casting, each brings a grounded, genuine and unique interpretation of the person they’re playing. And this cast looks like the people we see every day in our city.

Horne gives us a compelling and moving Hamlet, bringing a fragile edge to his melancholy, countered by a sharp, wry sense of humour. This adaptation has Horne also playing the ghost of Hamlet’s father, an interesting choice that evokes dark moments of possession. A bashful and cheeky romantic in love with Ophelia, playful and candid with his bosom friend Horatio, and poetic in his philosophical inner debates on revenge and mortality, this is a Hamlet for the 21st century.

PRINCE HAMLET-Dawn Jani Birley as Horatio-photo Bronwen Sharp
Dawn Jani Birley as Horatio—photo by Bronwen Sharp

Birley’s complex, conflicted Horatio is both a part of and witness to the tragedy that unfolds. Also acting as our host and guide, Horatio signs his dialogue and translates the text into ASL throughout, including some brilliant comic relief during one of Hamlet’s encounters with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. She gives a gripping interpretation of the fight scene between Hamlet and Laertes, and her “Goodnight, sweet Prince” is both beautiful and heart-breaking.

As Gertrude, Robinson brings a sharply drawn evolution to the relationship with Claudius, from giddy in love to devastated and horrified. Concerned for the welfare her son throughout, Gertrude finds herself faced with a choice between her new husband and her son. Roberts gives us a big, lusty Claudius; living the dream until he’s called out by Hamlet’s carefully crafted play presentation. In a moving and tortured prayer scene, dejected and unable to repent, Claudius realizes he’s unwilling to give up the spoils of his crime, resorting to further treachery and cover-ups.

PRINCE HAMLET-(standing) Karen Robinson as Gertrude, Rick Roberts as Claudius, (kneeling) Jeff Ho as Ophelia, Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah as Laertes-photo Bronwen Sharp
Foreground: Jeff Ho as Ophelia & Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah as Laertes; Background: Karen Robinson as Gertrude & Rick Roberts as Claudius—photo by Bronwen Sharp

Ho is lovely as the playful, but delicate Ophelia, whose descent into madness is both heartbreaking and disturbing. Vacratsis is hilariously wordy and sharply academic as Polonius; decidedly not a man of few words, he nevertheless has wisdom to impart, as evidenced in his famous advice to Laertes. And Roberts-Abdullah gives Laertes a fierce edge under that affable, good son exterior; belly full of fire, he’s hell-bent on revenge for his father and sister, but never loses his sense of fairness.

Fernandes and Miller do a great job juggling multiple roles; Fernandes is great fun as the impudent, philosophical Gravedigger and Miller brings a sense of sass to Hamlet’s pal Guildenstern.

With big shouts to the design team for their rich, evocative work on this production: Lorenzo Savoini (set and costumes), André du Toit (lighting) and Thomas Ryder Payne (sound).

Hamlet as you’ve never seen it in the haunting, beautiful ASL/English adaptation Prince Hamlet.

Prince Hamlet continues at the Theatre Centre until April 29; get advance tickets online.

Check out this conversation (in ASL and English, with subtitles and interpreter voice-over) between director Ravi Jain and actor Dawn Jani Birley for Intermission Magazine.

SummerWorks: Capturing the humanity & quirks of Toronto’s west end in Face Value: West

FaceValueWest-400x300One woman. Six photographs. Limitless possibilities.

Still black and white images of west end Toronto life come alive in a wonderful, collaborative work by actor Tracey Hoyt and photographer Kate Ashby, directed by Melody A. Johnson and Rick Roberts, in Dorothy Mae Productions’ Face Value: West – now running at the Theatre Centre Incubator space as part of SummerWorks.

Brilliantly conceived and performed, with sharply-drawn characters, Hoyt is the orchestra, and Ashby’s west end Toronto photographs are both the sheet music and the conductor. Combining improvisation with personal storytelling, Hoyt responds to each photograph that appears onscreen by acting out the scene and using this as a jumping off point for anecdotes of moments and memories from her own life.

A woman sitting by herself outside the ROM, her back to us, sits across the sidewalk from a solitary man – their postures informing the tone of the characters as the story takes an unexpected, comic turn. A sign taped to the window of a bar, advertising a  karaoke night hosted by Maria creates a multicultural/multilingual cast of characters that incorporates the audience and includes a shy would-be performer who longs to sing “Edelweiss.”

People out on the street, some of them homeless. A shirtless old man sitting on a stoop, cigarette in one hand as he gestures with the other, becomes “The Captain.” A guy and a girl panhandling on the sidewalk, the girl eating an ice cream cone with a dog snoozing under her outstretched legs, becomes a family, each member with very different priorities. A young man with a parrot becomes a licensed street busker. And a scene of a woman and two men sitting side by side on the subway unfolds into moments from a disappointing second date witnessed by a watchful secret admirer. In the end, all six photos appear – and each of these fictional, improvised moments and lives are wrapped up with a final word from the characters.

Funny, poignant and observant – Face Value: West captures the humanity and quirkiness of everyday folks hanging out in Toronto’s west end. All in all, a delight to watch.

Face Value: West continues at the Theatre Centre Incubator until Aug 16 – see the show page for exact dates/times.