Mystery & memory in the delightfully whimsical, darkly funny, compelling DIANA (I Knew You When We Were Fourteen)

Ian Goff & Alexa Higgins. Photo by Barry McCluskey.

 

Falling Iguana Theatre Co., in association with The Centre for Drama, Theatre & Performance Studies (CDTPS), University of Toronto, presents the delightfully whimsical, darkly funny and compelling DIANA (I knew you when you were fourteen), by Falling Iguana co-founders Alexa Higgins and Ian Goff, with contributing playwright Sarah Higgins. A physical theatre, dark comedy mystery journey—weaving movement, memory, fantasy, fact and fiction in a fairy tale-like detective story—when Diana disappears after a high school dance, Michael is determined to find out what happened to her. Supported by consulting director Gillian Armstrong and dramaturg Sharisse LeBrun, DIANA opened for a short run in the Robert Gill Theatre at U of T last night—presented as this year’s CDTPS Alumni Performance Project.

Inspired by a footnote at the end of Michael Ondaatje’s poem Elimination Dance that read: “Diana Whitehouse, where are you?”, DIANA traces the individual paths of high school classmates Diana (Alexa Higgins) and Michael (Ian Goff) as they grow into adulthood—with Michael determined to find out what happened to Diana when she disappeared after a high school dance when they were in grade nine. Stretching out across the years, across Canada from small-town New Brunswick, to Vancouver, to Toronto—with side trips in Europe—we’re introduced to the cast of characters they cross paths with; all set to a sparkly, rockin’ 80s soundtrack.

Fact, fiction, fantasy and memory intertwine in a tale that is part dark comedy mystery and part fairy tale. Incorporating music, dance, movement and a cast of characters, we watch Michael investigate as gossip and recollection merge in the stories and perceptions about Diana and her parents. And we see events unfold from Diana’s perspective; confirming, denying and refining what people think they know about her and her family. Darkly funny, at times tender and compelling, lyrical and balletic, the audience gets caught up in both journeys as Michael searches for the truth, and Diana reaches out for a life away from the small-town rumour, judgement and assumptions about her and her parents.

Outstanding work from Higgins and Goff in this 60-minute marathon of storytelling; conveying character, emotion, action and place through monologue, dialogue, dance, movement and practically zero props/set pieces with energy and precision. Higgins brings a sardonic sense of humour with an edge of loneliness to the pragmatic, restless Diana. An enigmatic presence at school—which is what draws Michael to her—Diana struggles with flying under the radar of the small-town gaze while at the same time longing to break free. Goff is delightfully awkward, earnest and curious as Michael; unlike Diana, Michael is an open book, and his sharp focus and positive demeanour keep him on his mission to find Diana, in spite of his own personal heartbreak. And the two are hilarious as honeymooning couple Steve and Sarah; experiencing comic misadventure during a tandem bike tour around Paris. And as assorted elderly and/or gossiping neighbours, telling tall tales of the family who used to live in that house.

Memory can really be a funny thing; and can often say more about us than about the actual events we’re recalling. Tainted by judgement and assumption, and eroded by time, we may not really know what we think we know.

DIANA continues at the Robert Gill Theatre until September 15, with evening performances at 8pm, and matinées at 2pm on Sept 14 and 15; tickets available online or at the door.

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Toronto Fringe: Millennials surviving working & adulting in the lighthearted, satirical Above & Beyond

Seated: Tatyana Mitchell & Natasha Ramondino. Standing: Felix Beauchamp, Rabiya Mansoor, Andrea Irwin & Francis Masaba. Set and costume design by Jules Mendoza. Photo by Angela Sun.

 

JackieTol Productions gives us a lighthearted, satirical look at slogging it out in an office cubicle as two Millennial pals try to survive working and adulting in Jaclyn Toledano’s Above & Beyond, directed by Rebecca Ballarin and running in the Robert Gill Theatre.

BFFs Jamie (Tatyana Mitchell) and Nicole (Natasha Ramondino) are sales reps at Bright Star Tours, a travel agency that specializes in educational tour packages for schools. Former employees of Oyster Tours, Bright Star’s biggest competitor, Jamie is killing it at their new company, while Nicole—who used to also rock—is now struggling. Both are dying of boredom at this dead-end job, but Jamie’s able to play the game; Nicole not so much.

Added to the mix are their warm, technically-challenged boss Tracey (Andrea Irwin), and colleagues Steph the go-getter (Rabiya Mansoor), macho dude Brett (Francis Masaba) and charmer Jared (Felix Beauchamp). We also get a glimpse into Oyster Travel, a larger organization with a more corporate vibe, and their shark-like staff (played variously by Mansoor, Irwin, Beauchamp and Masaba)—who are stunned and perplexed that smaller fish Bright Star is outperforming them. Could it be that former employees Jamie and Nicole are now Bright Star’s secret weapons? And what’s the deal with Tracey’s hard-ass replacement Andrea (also played by Irwin)?

From soul-destroying moments on the job, to presentations, holiday parties and advice on Tinder swiping, anyone who’s worked in a cubicle farm will certainly recognize these characters and workplace situations—and shouts to the cast for their sharply drawn work. Mitchell and Ramondino are nicely matched, with Mitchell’s chill Jamie taking their situation in stride, her friendly out-going nature endearing her to the teachers she pitches to. But being too easy-going can land you in trouble sometimes. Ramondino’s Nicole is reminiscent of Anna Kendrick in Pitch Perfect; wry-witted and cynical, she’s wondering WTF she’s doing there and if it’s the right place for her—and if she’ll ever get her sales groove back.

Outstanding character work from Irwin, switching from the amiable, supportive boss Tracey, to the sharp corporate Oyster employee, to the scary mean girl boss Andrea and the sweet, protective teacher Helen. Mansoor brings big LOLs as Steph the uber keener; you know the type, and you’re never quite sure if it’s all a put-on or if they’re really that into their job. Masaba also brings the comedy as the office’s bro about town Brett; full of himself and utterly clueless about how he comes across, Brett is clearly enjoying his cruise through work and life. And Beauchamp is adorably charming as Jared, bringing just the right amount of slick to make you wonder if he’s actually a good guy or not.

It’s fun, it’s relatable—and you may find yourself asking if you’re living to work or working to live. And sometimes, it takes a little while to get your work groove back.

Above and Beyond continues at the Robert Gill Theatre to July 13. Check the show page for exact dates/times and advance tickets.

Toronto Fringe: An enjoyable history what-if in charming, entertaining Exposure

Craig Walker, Laurel Paetz & Christopher Blackwell in Exposure - photo by Greg Wanless
Craig Walker, Laurel Paetz & Christopher Blackwell in Exposure – photo by Greg Wanless

I also saw another enjoyable history-inspired piece yesterday at Toronto Fringe: Undershaft & Lazarus Productions’ world premiere of John Lazarus’s Exposure, directed by Kathryn MacKay – running at the Robert Gill Theatre.

Inspired by Louis Daguerre’s ground-breaking photograph of a man getting a shoe shine on the Boulevard du Temple, Paris, Exposure fills in the blanks as it theorizes who that man and shoe shine woman could have been.

Mme. Brillante (Laurel Paetz), former actress and now a purveyor of shoe shines and fortunes, and Daguerre (Craig Walker) are unexpectedly reunited on the Blvd. du Temple outside his theatre as he’s rushing off to present his new invention at the Académie Française in the hopes of getting a development grant. His invention: a camera that captures images on a glass plate; however, his street scene exposures are currently unable to capture people and other moving subjects. Some time later, Mme. Brillante encounters Anonyme (Christopher Blackwell), a young man disappointed in a failed attempt at an acting career now bent on drowning himself. In an effort to prevent his suicide, she persuades him to stop for a shoe shine.

Lovely work from the cast in this historical what-if play. Paetz is intrepid and upbeat as Mme. Brillante, whose years of name changing and acting serve her well as she puts on a cheerful disposition when she needs to; she has a quick, sardonic wit and a kind heart. Walker gives Daguerre a nice combination of brilliance and anxiousness – a man of clockwork habits who is ambitious and driven, at times uncertain of his own talent, but not above accepting assistance. A hard-working artist and scientist, he has not entirely abandoned his humanity for his work. As Anonyme, Blackwell has an affable but entitled air about him; a young aristocrat, he has the flair of nobility in his dress and carriage, but not the snobbery. His treatment of Mme. Brillante, a street vendor, indicates that he judges people by their actions and not by their station in life.

Shouts to set designer Bill Penner and director MacKay for the costume design.

Exposure is a charming and entertaining history-inspired piece on love, art and science, featuring a fine trio of actors.

Exposure has two more performances at the Robert Gill Theatre: July 9 at 9:15 p.m. and July 10 at 4:30 p.m.

A brave & vulnerable hero’s journey – Just Lift Your Feet

Twitter JLYF header DSCF0736-editfinl_1Actor/playwright Heather Allin’s one-woman fable Just Lift Your Feet had its  Toronto Fringe Festival opening at the Robert Gill Theatre last night, playing in a late-night time slot to a small but engaged audience.

Directed by Dennis Hayes, Just Lift Your Feet has its origins in a SoulOTheatre solo show workshop intensive with Tracey Erin Smith. Drawing on archetypal characters, spiritualism and personal storytelling, the play examines fear, creativity and being true to oneself.

Lost and struggling to find her voice, Morgan’s trek to the forest in an attempt to regain her creative mojo becomes an unexpected hero’s journey – one in which the shadow self (the goddess Morgaine) and wise self (the Doe) battle for her allegiance. As Morgan tends to the injured doe, protecting her from Morgaine even as she protects her creativity from the bitch goddess, she finds strength in fragility.

Allin does a lovely job of using specific physical and vocal characteristics to draw and differentiate each character – and the one-person sword versus dagger fight between Morgaine and Morgan is masterfully choreographed and executed. The set, props and sound transport us to a world of magic realism: the music wondrous and twinkling, the wood and rock of the forest with its luminous birch trees and blue/black fabric river, the warrior’s breastplate, sword and dagger – and the red fabric that represents the severely injured animal.

The performance was followed by a brief talkback Q&A session, where Allin, Hayes and the audience discussed character delineation, and the process of finding and writing the story. The possibility of a version with multiple actors came up too, but one audience member noted how the piece is especially powerful as a one-woman show. I have to agree with the latter assessment – the play’s themes of personal journey, and the inner struggle against fear and striving to find a true voice, are well-suited to a one-person format.

Universal in its depiction of the longing to find one’s place – one’s self – in the world, Just Lift Your Feet is a brave and vulnerable piece of storytelling that touches, teaches and tickles.

Just Lift Your Feet runs at the Robert Gill Theatre until Saturday, July 13. Click here for complete show date/time details.

Just Lift Your Feet – interview with actor/playwright Heather Allin

S3lgwNs8bmvaHRI5RnMpjysm3SA20iBRu2--D1NuG5kJust one week away from the opening of the Toronto Fringe Festival, my friends, and I had the pleasure of interviewing actor/playwright Heather Allin, who took some time amidst a super busy pre-Fringe schedule to answer some questions over email about her upcoming one-woman Fringe play Just Lift Your Feet.

LWMC: Hi, Heather. Thanks for taking the time to speak about Just Lift Your Feet. What is Just Lift Your Feet about?

HA: It’s the story of a woman, a creative woman, who has lost her connection with herself. Fear, loss and failure have arisen. She heads off to the forest, hoping to leave the judgments behind to try to reconnect. She fails miserably. In so doing she “gives up,” opening her world to the non-ordinary experience. There she meets a Goddess and a Doe who vie for her creativity, one who wants to consume it, while the other wants to help her reconnect. In the format of the traditional Hero’s journey, Morgan, the lead, is shown the path she took and relearns how to be connected with what matters, and at the end of her fantastical journey, she reconnects with those two sides of herself, goddess and wise woman, to be able to create again, for the joy of creating.

LWMC: Just Lift Your Feet had its genesis in a SoulOTheatre solo show workshop intensive with Tracey Erin Smith. Can you tell us a bit about that process and how you came to find this story?

HA: I loved that workshop. In it there were four other fantastic women, each of us with stories to tell. Tracey was like a guide in the dark helping us to find creative impulses and stories that were meaningful to us, that she would hear, spell bound. Presenting that piece to an audience gave me a focus to craft a play and the opportunity to see if it was of interest to friends and strangers. From that I decided I wanted to continue to develop it. This version is very different that that one. Yet the threads of what I wanted to talk about: fear, and how debilitating fear can be; the power we all have inside ourselves to be creative and contributing and connected humans with self, others and everything around us. I was fortunate to have my friend and dramaturge Jani Lauzon to help guide me along the path as a writer of a play. SoulOTheatre was the kick-starter to this play. Tracey helped to inspire me and to keep me going when the fear of failure arose – as it still does.

LWMC: Had you written anything before?

HA: I have written many an essay, speeches, president’s messages, scenes and a short play, but this is my first full-length play.

LWMC: How did you manage to navigate your dual writer/actor role during the dramaturgical and rehearsal process? Did you find one hat more challenging to wear than the other?

HA: I feel like I’m wearing about 15 hats. Letting go of ‘writer’ was probably the hardest, because it’s also the newest. If I’d known how much work it all is, I might have thought twice, but probably still chosen to do the show. I had to learn to triage, to delegate, and when that didn’t work, I had to let some things not get done, and be okay with it.

LWMC: You also have scenes where you’re playing multiple characters in various relationships to each other. What’s that like? What helps you ground yourself in each character throughout as you shift back and forth?

HA: I’ve put together a fantastic team: voice, movement, fight and of course my director and stage manager who can be that outer eye, and help me figure out the gesture, the voice, the breath, the stance and the power. All of which went put together, create characters on stage being played by one woman. My set, lighting and sound designers support the story, and my performance. My communications team have put together a beautiful and integrated branding of the show that evokes the play.

LWMC: Dennis Hayes is your director for the Toronto Fringe production. How did you find each other? Did he also assist with dramaturgy?

HA: Dennis is incredible to work with. He knew my two co-producers and they recommended he be the right person for this script. Jani Lauzon has been working on the dramaturge of the script with me since last summer. She’s helped me learn how to tell a story dramatically and theatrically. Dennis has helped to sculpt those intricate moments.

LWMC: Any revelations – personal or professional – that came about during your time writing, editing and rehearsing that you care to share?

HA: When I began thinking of writing, I thought I didn’t have anything to say. Then I realized I had so much to say I couldn’t begin. And so I followed my heart, and at each step of my journey the right people arose to help me get to the next step. There are stories in each of us. It takes a lot of bravery to start and even more to finish, but step by step you move forward. If it calls to you, follow your heart.

LWMC: At this point, do you have any plans for Just Lift Your Feet beyond the Toronto Fringe run?

HA: Well, we frequently refer to “in the Mirvish production,” while recognizing we’re in the Fringe Festival. In my quiet moments, I hope I can develop the play to its next level, and that it will find spots in a theatre company’s season. I also think it could travel. So yes, but right now I’m focused on this stage, and this time.

LWMC: Do you have any other projects in the works?

HA: Right now, this is my focus.

LWMC: Anything else you’d like to share with folks?

HA: I encourage everyone to find your own creativity. I ask you all to support the arts and, in particular, artists. Watch us, so that theatre lives vibrantly. Pay us, so we can afford to bring you new stories. Enjoy theatre, and what it offers. I am fortunate to have some very talented and dedicated artists working with me on this project. The team that surrounds me and supports the creation of Just Lift Your Feet are amazing to work with. I thank them.

Thanks, Heather!

For those of you on Facebook, check out the mention of Just Lift Your Feet in 2013 Toronto Fringe Picks by Derrick Chua.

Just Lift Your Feet runs July 3-13 at the Robert Gill Theatre:

Show Code

Length

Show Time

Venue

903

90

Wednesday, July 3, 2013 – 10:30pm – Thursday, July 4, 2013 – 12:00am

Robert Gill

909

90

Friday, July 5, 2013 – 5:15pm – 6:45pm

Robert Gill

917

90

Saturday, July 6, 2013 – 7:30pm – 9:00pm

Robert Gill

928

90

Monday, July 8, 2013 – 3:00pm – 4:30pm

Robert Gill

937

90

Tuesday, July 9, 2013 – 8:30pm – 10:00pm

Robert Gill

940

90

Wednesday, July 10, 2013 – 2:00pm – 3:30pm

Robert Gill

966

90

Saturday, July 13, 2013 – 10:30pm – Sunday, July 14, 2013 – 12:00am

Robert Gill