A heartbreaking, erotic & darkly funny journey of identity & intimacy in Aromas

Aromas 4
Andy Fraser – photo by Tim Leyes

“Sex is never just about sex, it’s about so much more.”

The Junes Company* production of Aromas, written and directed by Andrew Faiz, and starring Andy Fraser, opened at Red Sandcastle Theatre last night.

Shifting between time, space and – possibly – reality, Aromas is a one-woman show, featuring two main characters (ice dancer Katalin and professional escort Chanel) and two supporting characters (Katalin’s immigrant mother and former schoolmate Angela), among others. Katalin resides in the past, recounting stories of the people, places and parties she’s experienced on tour. A traumatic childhood encounter with Angela and an ecstatic first time seeing Swan Lake with her mother were defining moments for her, flipping on a switch inside, directing her future path. Chanel talks about her life in the present; straightforward and professionally detached, her body is a commodity and its commercial activity allows her the experience of physical intimacy without the underlying baggage that accompanies romantic relationships. A grown-up Angela, still dealing with ongoing anger management issues, sees Katalin’s life as exciting and glamourous – and can’t help but take credit for being a catalyst for it.

The question of identity arises: are Katalin and Chanel the same person? Is Chanel a fantasy for Katalin – or an evolution of spirit? Katalin wonders herself, who is she – is she merely a product of her experiences, set on certain paths by critical life events? One of the most touching – and telling – lines from the play comes from Chanel: “The Kama Sutra is a book of prayers you do with your body. Even a broken body wants to pray.” Here, this reference touches on the true physical intimacy – and spirituality – of being totally present, as well as making reference to a severely disabled young client – and possibly even regarding Katalin. In the end, we see that, while Katalin is damaged, she is not broken; drifting and in need of closure, but not without hope.

Fraser gives a stunning performance. As Katalin, she is vibrant, vulnerable, irreverently funny and flirtatiously sexy, seizing the day and acting on instinct and, in some cases, impulse. Chanel is wry-witted and sophisticated, approaching her work in a detached and professional manner – but not without sensuality, empathy and compassion. Or is that Katalin? The performance is compelling in its character and time shifts – and the storytelling is gut-wrenching and deeply poignant, with hints of edgy humour.

Brandon Kleiman’s set, with boxed rows of hotel room keys as a backdrop, provides an visually appealing and versatile playing area for this production, the story unfolding nowhere and anywhere, past and present; and his costuming both distinguishes and describes the characters. Ed Rosing’s lighting provided atmosphere for the action, most notably some warm, sensual ambers, as well as cues to the shifts in time and scene. Sound designer Richard Jones built a soundtrack around contemporary pop and snatches from Swan Lake, and original composition, from incidental to industrial synth, nicely underscoring the storytelling. The sense of smell, a highly evocative key to memory, and what it perceives – hence, the play’s title – while not physically present, is highlighted in the text.

All of this is held together and kept running by the production’s intrepid stage manager Margot “Mom” Devlin (a name that Alumnae Theatre Company fans will recognize from countless shows there), who was multitasking as sound and lighting operator, as well as box office for the opening performance.

Aromas is a heartbreaking, erotic and darkly funny journey of identity and intimacy, a moving piece of non-linear storytelling, compellingly told.

Aromas runs at Red Sandcastle until October 4. You can purchase advance tickets online or at the door (cash only). And you can follow Aromas on Facebook.

*The Junes Company is “a flexible collective of comprised of professional theatre/film/TV performers, creators and producers.” Past shows include A Damn Fine Nite of Actors, an evening of short plays written, directed and performed by the “Monday Niters.” The company will be mounting a production of The Lion in Winter at Alumnae Theatre next year, directed by David Ferry, and featuring Shawn Lawrence and Rosemary Dunsmore.

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Love, desire & betrayal in Pieces

Cue 6 Productions’ Pieces, by Sarah Illiatovitch-Goldman and directed by Jill Harper, opened this past week at Unit 102 Theatre and I had the pleasure of seeing the early evening performance last night.

“Jim and Susan are married” appears under the play’s title in the program and it is this relationship that is at the core of the play. A fifty-something couple, they’ve done a very neat job of living their separate lives together: Jim (James Downing) is a photography professor who travels a lot for work and Susan (Rosemary Dunsmore), also a professor and a self-described “single parent,” manages their home and raises their daughter. All very neat until Jodi (Allison Price) appears at their door. Jim has also been living another separate life.

Jenny So’s set (with Scott Penner as consultant) portrays these separate lives nicely. At first glance, it appears to be a bachelor apartment, with a dining area stage right and a bedroom stage left. But it soon becomes apparent that these are the two worlds of the play – even within the same household – the bedroom being both a part of Jim and Susan’s home, and Jodi’s in other scenes. The worlds of domestic and desire.

And that’s pretty much all I can tell you without including some major spoiler points. What I can tell you is that Pieces is a sexy dynamo of emotion, desire and betrayal – leaving the audience hoping against hope, taking sides and making moral judgments. Right along with the characters.

As an audience member, you won’t be able to sit on the fence about these characters – and that’s due in a large part to an outstanding cast. Rosemary Dunsmore is lovely as the supportive, strong and practical – and also passionate – Susan, the grown-up in her marriage to James Downing’s Jim, a charming and seductive artist/academic with desire to burn. And then there’s Allison Price’s Jodi – a sexy, smart student to Jim’s professor – in many ways a young Susan – captivated and so in love with Jim. Jim and Susan are married. And the revelations that emerge as a result of Jodi’s appearance are heartbreakingly earth-shattering – and put each to the test.

What makes the performance of Pieces particularly impressive is that the five middle scenes that take place in the present never appear in the same order. I had a great chat with producer Allie Lalonde (who’s also the thesp GM – more on thesp later in this post) and Christine Groom (thesp Director of Development) – both before and after the performance – about this unique aspect of the production. Before each show, there is a draw that decides the running order of those scenes – first, final and flashback scenes stay put. This means the actors and stage manager (Melissa  Cameron) must adjust each performance, constantly keeping them on their toes and in the present. And, last night, they did two shows. I know! For the audience, this means impressions will shift as well – and folks can come back and see the show again at a reduced price. For a more detailed description of this aspect of the production, take a look at NOW Magazine’s interview with playwright Illiatovitch-Goldman: http://www.nowtoronto.com/stage/story.cfm?content=186864

Cue 6 Productions is a member of thesp, an organization that provides assistance and resources to indie theatre companies, and info for audiences on theatrical happenings in Toronto. For more info, check here: http://thesp.ca/

Pieces runs until June 9 at Unit 102 Theatre – 376 Dufferin Street, Toronto (west side, just south of Queen St. West). For info and reservations, drop by the Cue 6 site: http://cue6.ca/