Questions of perception, assumption & expectation in the powerful, riveting, provocative Actually

Tony Ofori & Claire Renaud. Set design by Sean Mulcahy. Costume design by Alex Amini. Lighting design by Steve Lucas. Photo by Joanna Akyol.

 

The Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company, in association with Obsidian Theatre, opens its 13th season with Anna Ziegler’s Actually, directed by Philip Akin, assisted by Kanika Ambrose; and running in the Greenwin Theatre at the Meridian Arts Centre (formerly the Toronto Centre for the Arts). Two Ivey League freshmen, a Black male student and a Jewish female student, make a connection that becomes sexual in nature—and each has a very different experience and account of the night they spent together. Powerful, riveting and provocative—featuring compelling and genuine performances—this timely two-hander takes you on a see-saw ride of belief, empathy and understanding; highlighting perceptions, assumptions and expectations based on race, gender and class.

Excited, terrified and determined to do well, Amber (Claire Renaud) and Tom (Tony Ofori) arrive at Princeton for their first year of studies. She’s quirky and awkward, with romantic notions of sex and limited experience; he’s got swagger and game, with a sexually active lifestyle and a commitment to sowing his youthful wild oats. Opposites attract on common ground as the two make a connection; and attraction brings them together in Tom’s bed.

During their encounter, Amber finds that something changes for her; and their initially sexy fun times experience becomes uncomfortable and unwanted. She relates how she attempts to put a stop to it by getting off the bed, saying “Actually…” Tom believes she was into it, and later remembers nothing from her verbal communication or body language that would have suggested otherwise. Amber comments on the night to a friend, and the response prompts her to report the incident to the university, which launches a sexual misconduct investigation and hearing. Amber believes she was raped, and Tom is shocked and mortified by the allegation.

As their individual and collective stories unfold, the audience goes from being confidante—as we hear about their lived experiences with family, sex, desire, what inspires them—to university hearing panelist as they make their statements. Both had a lot to drink on the night in question. Both feel like outsiders with much to prove, anxiously navigating their first year at a prestigious school, along with raging 18-year-old hormones, and a culture of sex and partying. Not the best conditions for making good choices. Both live with body issues: Amber with the pressures of traditional feminine beauty standards; and Tom with the everyday racism and prejudice that accompany the colour of his skin. The seriousness of Amber’s rape charge lands particularly hard on Tom—a young Black man living in a world stewed in toxic, ongoing systemic racism. And Amber’s initial tacit consent that night, going to his room for the purposes of sex, combined with her behaviour earlier that evening, puts her credibility in question.

Compelling, genuine and nuanced performances from Renaud and Ofori in this vital, timely piece of theatre. Renaud brings a big spark of light, energy and pathos to the adorkable, hyper-talkative Amber; a young woman desperately treading water to stay afloat in a new world of classes, assignments, squash practice and obligatory partying. Amber finds herself wanting and not wanting at the same time; pressed forward by social media-driven peer pressure, she engages in activities and behaviour even when her heart isn’t really in it. Ofori’s Tom is a complex portrait of a confident, frank young man who wants to do his family proud; Tom is the first of his working class family to attend university, let alone at an Ivey League school. There’s a sensitive soul beneath the swagger, expressed through Tom’s love of classical music and piano playing—where he finds a space to be free.

It would be grossly simplistic to call this a “he said/she said” story. As you vacillate between believing and sympathizing with one, and then the other, in the end you may find yourself believing both of them. And if both are right, on which side of this 50/50 situation will the feather land in the final decision? In this age of #MeToo and #consent, and with all of these complex and intersectional variables to consider, audiences will no doubt come away with questions, conversations and reflections. This story is a prime example of why sex, sexuality and consent need to be taught in elementary and secondary schools.

Actually continues in the Greenwin Theatre at the Meridian Arts Centre (formerly the Toronto Centre for the Arts) until September 29. Advance tickets available online by clicking on the show page calendar.

ICYMI: Check out assistant director Kanika Ambrose’s Artist Perspective piece for Intermission Magazine.

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The bittersweet rhythms of life in the wistful, nostalgic, entertaining Dancing at Lughnasa

Opening its 2018-19 season at Alumnae Theatre last night, the Toronto Irish Players take us to 1936 Donegal, and the rural home of the Mundy family as they struggle with life, love and changing times, in their wistful, nostalgic and entertaining production of Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa, directed by David Eden.

A bittersweet memory play, we’re hosted by narrator Michael (Enda Reilly), who was raised by his single mother, spirited, irreverent Christina (Lauren McGinty) and her four sisters. Their parents dead, the eldest resident sibling and local school teacher, the prim and proper Kate (Erin Jones) is the de facto matriarch; family clown Maggie (Rebecca De La Cour) looks after the small family farm; and the quiet Agnes (Donna O’Regan) and simple-minded Rose (Áine Donnelly) earn money by knitting gloves.

The return of their brother Father Jack (Ian McGarrett), sent home from his mission in Uganda by his superiors, both causes and coincides with significant changes in their lives and position in their home village of Ballybeg—especially lending truth to the rumour that Jack was dismissed for “going native” and adapting, in the eyes of the Catholic Church, a too familiar and accepting attitude of local custom and ritual. Industrialization is catching up with rural Ireland, and factory-made goods are putting handwork at risk. Ongoing, if not sporadic, visits from Michael’s father Gerry (Sean Gilheany), a Welsh wanderer turned gramophone salesman, give the family—especially Christina and Michael—rare and welcome glimpses of the possibility of hope for something better; and a brief respite from the dullness of their workaday lives and the stresses of making ends meet during the Depression.

The family’s individual and collective history is both merry and melancholy; and lives are forever changed by forces largely beyond their control. And while Michael acknowledges the hard times of struggle, sacrifice and loss, he takes heart from the good times the family shared together—the love, laughter and dancing around the Marconi wireless. The rhythms of life, love and changing times.

Lovely work from the cast in creating this intimate family story. Reilly’s Michael makes for an affable and animated host; and he’s especially adept at conjuring the wide-eyed, precocious and imaginative child Michael. De La Cour is a treat as the feisty jokester Maggie; using humour to cheer and diffuse tension, her glass-half-full perspective is also crucial to her own survival. O’Regan and Donnelly have a beautiful rapport as the BFF sisters, the unassuming, protective Agnes and the child-like, naive Rose, who both come to show there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to notions of romance. McGinty gives a well-rounded performance as the conflicted young mother Christina; the family beauty, and raising the love child of a man she hardly ever sees, Christina’s youth has been interrupted by the more pragmatic concerns of a single mother—and in a time and place that frowned upon women like her. In classic Irish matriarch fashion, Jones’s Kate says as much with a look or gesture as she does with a word; having missed on romance herself, Kate’s stern disposition also a masks a broken heart.

McGarrett gives a poignant performance as the sisters’ brother Father Jack; once the golden boy of the family and the village, Jack has returned, frail and barely recognizable, and hardly knowing his own hometown. And Gilheany gives a charming turn as Gerry; a man of the road who loves to love, Gerry means well, but has trouble with the follow-up.

With shouts to the design team for their evocative work in transporting us to this nostalgic Depression-era world of memory and family in rural Donegal, Ireland: Chandos Ross (set), Livia Pravato (costumes), Karlos Griffith (lighting) and Dan Schaumann (sound).

Dancing at Lughnasa continues on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage until November 3; advance tickets available online or by calling 416-440-2888. Keep up with The Irish Players on Facebook and Twitter.

Sharply funny, moving, candid looks at LGBTQ lives in 7th annual Gay Play Day

Gay Play Dayan annual festival of short, new plays written by LGBTQ playwrights and their allies—returns to the Alumnae Theatre Studio for two days only. This is the 7th year of the fest for founding AD Darren Stewart-Jones and the GPD team, which this year includes technical director Johnny Salib and Henry Keeler on front of house. The 2018 edition includes two programs, each featuring four short plays: the Lavender Show and the Pink Show. I caught both at opening night last night; here they are, in order of appearance.

THE PINK SHOW (approx. 75 minutes)

Fade to Black. Written/directed by Darren Stewart-Jones. Old Hollywood meets 21st century fandom when aging former Hollywood icon Bedelia Blake (Nonnie Griffin) finds an unexpected #1 fan when she meets Jamie (Nathaniel Bacon), a young gay man volunteering for Meals on Wheels. Largely secluded from the world for some time, Bedelia finds renewed public interest in her life and career as that first meeting evolves into friendship. Also featuring Philip Cairns as Mr. Johnson. Tender and nostalgic; featuring lovely, layered performances from Griffin and Bacon, as Bedelia and Jamie open up and feel at home enough to be their true selves with each other.

Labels. Written/directed by Erika Reesor. Lesbian couple Danny (Leigh Patterson) and Mia (Emily Schooley) live with Danny’s mom and are preparing for her birthday. Already stressed about the situation, when Mia finds a prescription for testosterone in Danny’s jeans, Danny has some serious explaining to do—sparking a series of confessions and revelations about their relationship and beliefs about gender. A funny, poignant and real two-hander; with grounded, engaging performances.

Diamonds on Plastic. Written/directed by Philip Cairns. Doris (Margaret Lamarre), a straight married spitfire of a southern lady of a certain age confides in us about her love of shopping and all things that sparkle—and goes on to open up about a blossoming affair with a childhood friend, also a straight married woman. Confessions of a shopaholic who adores jewels, shoes and surprisingly more; and a hilarious and entertaining performance from Lamarre, who also gives an LOL turn as Doris’s husband.

Point and Click. Written/directed by Steven Elliott Jackson; stage manager/producer Winston Stilwell. Gossiping away on his cellphone, the arrogant, catty photographer Andre (Adam Bonney) talks trash about friends and colleagues while waiting for a male model to arrive at his studio, virtually ignoring Shannon’s (Jim Armstrong) arrival. A sharply funny look at the perceptions of beauty, with schooling on fat shaming and body image; nicely paired casting, with spot on comic timing from Armstrong.

THE LAVENDER SHOW (approx. 65 minutes)

I’ve Just Seen a Face. Written/directed by Kris Davis. Charlie (Sav Binder) and their friend Mel (Chantel Marostica) attend a queer date/games night, hosted by Sage (Kasden Leo Indigo). While Mel gets to know Sage, Charlie has a near miss with Annie (Rose Tuong), but finds an opportunity for a meet cute at the Knit Café, where Annie works and teaches knitting workshops. Charlie is smitten, but how do they tell Annie that they have facial blindness? A sweet queer rom-com vibe; with hilarious, entertaining performances—particularly Marostica’s cynical, edgy comic Mel, and Binder’s adorkably awkward romantic Charlie.

Missed Connections. Written/performed by Mark Keller; directed by Nick May. Single and alone for the past two years after a break-up, a 30-something gay man surfs the Internet for missed connections, in desperate hopes that someone’s noticed him. Beginning to question his own sanity, he reminisces about his past love as he tries to find the courage to find a new one. Full of LOLs and deeply poignant moments that resonate with any lonely soul who’s had their heart broken.

The End is the Beginning. Written by Tina McCulloch; directed by Josh Downing. The relationship dynamics between Elena (Devon Hubka), Vivian (McCulloch) and LeeAnne (Kelly-Marie Murtha) play out in reverse in this brief, dramatic, time-shifting look at the nature of love and alternatives to traditional monogamy. A candid, deconstructed look at coupling in the face of an ongoing relationship; nicely present, intimate work from the cast.

Coming Clean. Written/performed by Laura Piccinin. Part stand-up, part personal storytelling, Piccinin stands behind a mic and tells us her coming out stories (yes, there’s more than one). Sharply observed, tightly delivered—and finding laughter in the pain—for an entertaining and insightful, out and proud ride.

Missed last night? No worries! Gay Play Day runs for two days, continuing today (Saturday, September 8) up in the Alumnae Theatre Studio: the Lavender Show at 3pm and 7pm; the Pink Show at 5pm and 9pm. Get advance tickets online or at the door (cash only).

And keep up with all things Gay Play Day on Facebook and Twitter.

Love, sacrifice & the heartbeat of time in the delightful, poignant Sisters

Laura Condlln & Nicole Power. Set design by Michelle Tracey. Costume design by Erika Connor. Lighting design by Kimberley Purtell. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper opened its striking world premiere of Rosamund Small’s delightful, poignant Sisters—a story of love, family, sacrifices and the march of time—to an enthusiastic full house last night. Inspired by Edith Wharton’s novella Bunner Sisters and directed by Peter Pasyk, Sisters is running in the Michael Young Theatre at the Young Centre.

It’s the turn of the century in New York City, and sisters Ann (Laura Condlln) and Evelina (Nicole Power) live quiet, regular lives, working and living in a small shop, selling notions and jams, and providing sewing services. Both are single at an age that would label them as spinsters; and their small, humdrum workaday lives get a spark of excitement when Ann buys a clock for Evelina’s birthday—and both become enamoured with the quiet, charming clockmaker Ramy (Kevin Bundy). Adding to the fun is their observant friend and neighbour, Mrs. Mellins (Karen Robinson), a widowed dressmaker who lives upstairs.

Torn between her feelings for Ramy and love for her sister, Ann steps aside to make room for a match between Ramy and Evelina—a decision made all the more heart-wrenching when Ramy takes a job in St. Louis, taking his new wife with him and leaving Ann to run the shop alone. Dependant on return customers and referrals from more privileged ladies—like the affable Lady with the Puffy Sleeves (Ellora Patnaik) and the wealthy, entitled Customer (Raquel Duffy)—Ann and Mrs. Mellins are also facing a new wave of industrialization; one in which much of the textile industry will be mechanized, with factories churning out large amounts of pre-made, less expensive off-the-rack goods. Dealing with the separation as best as she can, when Evelina’s letters stop coming and her letters come back return-to-sender, Ann sets on a search for Evelina’s whereabouts; and with the help of Mrs. Mellins, gathers some troubling information about Ramy in the process.

sisters-2
Karen Robinson, Laura Condlln & Nicole Power. Set design by Michelle Tracey. Costume design by Erika Connor. Lighting design by Kimberley Purtell. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Lovely work from the cast in this tale of everyday heroism and perseverance in the face of longing, heartbreak and loyalty. Condlln is heartbreaking and inspiring as the older sister Ann; practical and better with the accounts than she is with the creative side of the business, Ann puts her own desire for romance aside to make her sister happy. Power (who Kim’s Convenience fans will recognize as Jung’s quirky boss Shannon) is a day-dreamy spitfire as younger sister Evelina; bored and skeptical that things will get better, Evelina is more pessimistic than her sister—but is able to see colours in music and match the perfect accessories to a dress. Robinson (who Schitt’s Creek fans will recognize as Ronnie Lee) is a treat as Mrs. Mellins, performing with gusto and impeccable comic timing; while she has a morbid fascination in the seedier side of the city, Mrs. Mellins’ penny dreadful notions of life outside the shop make way for sage advice and motherly watchfulness over the sisters. And Bundy seduces as the reserved, gallant German clockmaker; shy, sickly and precise, Ramy is a mystery man of changeable temperament—which perhaps makes him all the more attractive.

The perspectival, display case-like set with a raked floor (Michelle Tracey), atmospheric lighting (Kimberly Purtell), stunning period costumes (Erika Connor) and haunting music box music (Richard Feren) make for an aesthetically pleasing, finely honed view of this world.

Sisters reminds us of the precarity of life for working women; reliant on men and those who are better off in general to make something of their lives. And of the saving grace of love, hope, faith and determination—with a little help from family and friends.

Sisters continues at the Young Centre until September 16. Get advance tickets online or call the box office: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

Toronto Fringe: Art, longing & acceptance in the poetic, heart-wrenching, gender-bending The Bird Killer

Clockwise, from bottom left: Emerjade Simms, Tymika Tafari, Subhash Santosh, Mo Zeighami, Evan Mackenzie & Mike Ricci. Photo by Patrick J. Horan.

 

LET ME IN presents Justine Christensen’s poetic, heart-wrenching modern-day, gender-bending adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull with its Toronto Fringe production of The Bird Killer, directed by Patrick J. Horan and running in the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace.

A group of artist friends grapple with the day-to-day challenges of artistic expression, and personal and professional fulfillment—all while maintaining their relationships and support network. Masha (Emerjade Simms) is a keen observer of her friends’ goings-on, and acts as a host/narrator when she’s not directly involved in a moment. Wearing black to mourn the state of her life, her sardonic sense of humour masks a broken heart: her unrequited love of the driven, tormented playwright Kostya (Mo Zeighami). Kostya is with the nervous emerging actor Nina (Even Mackenzie), who stars in her new contemporary theatre piece. Singer/songwriter Medvedenko (Mike Ricci, who also supplies original music for the production) is Kostya’s loyal, hard-working stage manager; and taken with Masha.

Kostya’s wise-cracking stand-up comic brother Arkadina (Subhash Santosh) brings his girlfriend, renowned playwright Trigorin (Tymika Tafari), to an invitation-only presentation of Kostya’s new work; setting off debates of artistry vs. celebrity, and changing the group dynamic. He’s unwittingly set in motion a significant ripple within the group—and things will never be the same.

Beautiful, moving work from the ensemble with a piece that cuts close to home for all artists. Each character longs for love and professional artistic fulfillment, but finds it difficult to achieve satisfaction. Does acknowledgement and accolades make one artist’s work more important than another’s? How does an artist navigate authenticity vs. marketability? And, most importantly, how does an artist accept him/herself?

The Bird Killer continues in the Tarragon Mainspace, with two more performances: tonight (July 13) at 9:15 pm and July 15 at 3:30 pm.

Want to check if the show you want to see is sold out? The Toronto Fringe folks have set up a page for sold-out shows, updated daily.

 

Toronto Fringe: Ruminations on love, beauty and aging in the nostalgic, intimate, haunting Cheri

cheri-on-the-run-productions invites us to sit down with a former courtesan as she ruminates on love, beauty and aging in the intimate, haunting Cheri. Inspired by the novels of Colette, and written and directed by Sky Gilbert, with music composed by Dustin Peters, Cheri is currently running in the Al Green Theatre for Toronto Fringe.

A music theatre piece within a theatre piece, Cheri weaves storytelling by way of personal anecdotes and reminiscences, and songs—all presented by our hostess Lea (Theresa Tova), a retired courtesan accompanied by the beautiful pianist/singer we only come to know as Cheri (Dustin Peters). And the farther she wanders down the road of memory and loves past, the more she sees in her accompanist the face of lost love—her Cheri.

Tova gives a powerhouse performance as Lea; her elegance, moxie and nostalgic melancholy hearkens back to the golden age of vaudeville and cabaret. Passionate, playful, petulant, and filled with a lust for life and all that is elegant and lovely, Lea is a hopeless romantic with a penchant for harsh honesty. And her heartbreaking torch songs are delivered with vulnerable candor and rich, resonant vocals. As Cheri, Peters is the perfect foil; fastidious, aloof and having none of Lea’s shenanigans and flirtations, Cheri (we never do learn his real name) bears himself with directness and professionalism. Cheri’s desire for privacy and boundaries could be construed as secretive and stand-offish, but one gets the impression that it’s the armour that protects his soul against the barrage of attention his beauty garners.

The march of Time is inevitable and aging is a natural part of life. We can choose to accept ourselves at each stage of our lives and continue moving forward as we cherish our memories of younger days—or risk getting lost in the past.

Cheri continues in the Al Green Theatre until July 15; check the show page for exact times and dates.

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.