The kids aren’t alright in the Howland Company’s raw, intense, disturbing Punk Rock

Tim Dowler-Coltman. Set and costume design by Nancy Anne Perrin. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Photo by Neil Silcox.

 

The Howland Company gets raw and apocalyptic with the Toronto premiere of Simon Stephens’ Punk Rock, directed by Gregory Prest assisted by Brittany Kay; opening last night in the Scotiabank Community Studio at Streetcar Crowsnest.

Set in present-day Stockport, part of the Greater Manchester, UK area, we become flies on the wall of the abandoned upper library of a tuition-paying grammar school, which a group of seniors has taken over as their hang-out. Lilly (Ruth Goodwin), the new kid trying to find her way, meets the good-natured William (Cameron Laurie), who’s more than happy to offer hilariously helpful tips to navigating the school. William also introduces Lilly (and us) to the rest of the gang: the sociable Tanya (Kristen Zaza), officially tasked by the school with showing Lilly around; the domineering Bennett (James Graham) and type-A Cissy (Hallie Seline), who are a couple; the jock Nicholas (Tim Dowler-Coltman); and the super intelligent, quiet Chadwick (Andrew Pimento).

William, who has an extremely poignant and unusual autobiography to share, is clearly crushing on Lilly, but she has eyes for someone else. Bennett is the class bully, with Chadwick as his prime whipping boy and some secret desires of his own; we see a brief moment of tenderness with his kid sister Lucy (Marleigh Merritt, who shares the role with Sophia Jin). Cissy has a photographic memory and barely studies for exams, but manages to get straight As—and is terrified of getting a lower grade. Nicholas is a gifted athlete, but doesn’t lord it over his schoolmates; he has a gentle, affable nature—and eyes for Lilly. Tanya is dealing with body image issues, expressing herself by adding colour to her look, and is just trying to fit in. The timid Chadwick is a science wiz, especially in physics—and he wears a jacket over his blazer to hide his school tie, which is different from the standard tie and sets him apart as a scholarship kid. Lilly, the daughter of a university professor who’s moved a lot, hides a self-destructive edge beneath a brave face exterior. The only adult we meet along this journey is the calm, steady Dr. Richard Harvey (Sam Kalilieh).

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Hallie Seline & James Graham. Set and costume design by Nancy Anne Perrin. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Photo by Neil Silcox.

The upper library hang-out becomes a microcosm of the school, which in turn becomes a microcosm of the world at large. All of these kids are bracing themselves, preparing in varying degrees and states of distress, for their upcoming mock exams, a litmus test for their finals later in the year. Facing a crucial transition point in their lives, these 17-year-olds are continuously bombarded with social, family, academic, socio-political and environmental expectations and pressures. And as the heat gets turned up, the space between them becomes a pressure cooker—and everyone’s going to explode.

In the program, the director’s remarks include a note on dialect from the playwright, expressing a desire for North American productions to use their own dialects; this means the actors speak with their natural accents—and it brings an immediacy and intimacy to the performance of this timely, disturbing play. This could be any school, anywhere.

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Cameron Laurie & Ruth Goodwin. Set and costume design by Nancy Anne Perrin. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Photo by Neil Silcox.

Outstanding work from the entire cast. As William, Laurie’s charming class clown persona gradually spirals from engaging and enthusiastic to deeply disappointed and troubled. And he has some lovely two-handers with Goodwin, who gives Lilly a secret dark edge of her own, masking Lilly’s own sense of fear and vulnerability.  As class power couple Bennett and Cissy, Graham and Seline appear to be polar opposites. Bennett’s sharp intellect is overlaid with a wild, sadistic streak, while Cissy is a tightly wound overachiever whose smug self-assurance belies an underlying fear of failure. And Pimento’s Chadwick is the mouse that roared, his scientific mind spitting rapid fire facts about the impending global apocalypse.

Shouts to the design team: Nancy Anne Perrin (set and costumes), Jareth Li (lighting) and Andy Trithardt (sound). The use of animal masks during scene changes, coupled with the jolting punk rock soundtrack and dramatic lighting blasts, highlight the raw, primal underbelly of these uniformed, and largely privileged, teens.

The kids aren’t alright. Ferocious urges, dark thoughts and painful secrets in the raw, intense, disturbing Punk Rock.

Punk Rock continues in the Streetcar Crowsnest Studio till April 14; advance tickets available online. In the meantime, check out the trailer:

 

 

 

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Toronto Fringe: Navigating a 140-word day world in provocative, intimate, sharply funny Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons

The Howland Company and Slow Blue Lions present Sam Steiner’s Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, directed by Harveen Sandhu; running at the Theatre Centre for Toronto Fringe.

Lawyer Bernadette (Ruth Goodwin) and composer Oliver (James Graham)—young, in love, living together—must navigate their burgeoning relationship through a new 140-words/day law.

What will they say? How will they say it? Do words reveal or do they get in the way?

Weaving in and out of time and space, and featuring a meet cute and sharp, compelling performances, there’s lovely chemistry here. Goodwin’s Bernadette is delightfully neurotic and fastidious workaholic; Graham’s Oliver is laid back, creative and socially aware. Opposites attract, repel and complement.

Lovers navigate a 140-word day world in the provocative, intimate and sharply funny Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons.

Runs to July 16; strongly recommend getting tickets in advance.

Magic, heart, comedy & truth in and out of love (again) in 52 Pick-up remount

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Playing one of the four rotating couples in the production, Ruth Goodwin & Alexander Crowther toss the deck into the air in 52 Pick-up

Tell me a story.
Real or made-up?
Both.
Happy or sad?
Both.

These are the opening lines of TJ Dawe and Rita Bozi’s 52 Pick-up – produced by the Howland Company, and directed by Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster and Paolo Santalucia – setting the stage for a random, non-linear piece of two-handed storytelling about the beginning, middle and ending of a relationship. After delighting sold-out houses at last year’s Toronto Fringe, then going on to The Best of Fringe, the production is getting a remount at Fraser Studios.

52 Pick-up has a performance rotation of four couples: two guy/girl, one girl/girl and one guy/guy. I’d previously seen both guy/girl couples: real-life couple Hallie Seline/Cameron Laurie and Ruth Goodwin/Alexander Crowther. The remount features two new actors, replacing co-directors Ch’ng Lancaster and Santalucia, who both acted in the Fringe production: Llyandra Jones and Alexander Plouffe, who stepped in to play half of the same-sex couples (with Kristen Zaza and James Graham, respectively). I saw the girl/girl couple (Zaza and Jones) yesterday afternoon.

For those who haven’t seen 52 Pick-up, it goes something like this. At the top of the show, the relationship has already ended and the couple decide, together, to tell us their story. The order in which the story is told is dictated by the random selection from a deck of cards, tossed into the air, each card containing a word or phrase that defines the scene they’re about to play out for us.

So, between the four rotating couples and the random running order, you’ll never see the same story the same way twice – even with the same couple. The outcome can also result in some happy coincidences, like yesterday when the “Psychic” scene came right after a scene in which psychics were discussed. Each couple makes it clear that they’re telling us a story, winding in and out of scenes and returning to us, the cards on the floor and the box into which the discards go. Speaking directly to us – and like the “How do you know her?” scene – sometimes gently interacting with someone in the audience, the actors charm, engage and move us. It’s like hearing two friends talk about how they met, courted and gradually grew apart before breaking up – and even though the story is told out of order, your mind wants to put it together, like a puzzle, in linear format. And, like most break-ups, there isn’t necessarily a readily definable ‘why’ – and, in many cases, it’s about two people coming to realize that they just don’t fit together.

For those who have seen one of the guy/girl pairings, Zaza takes on the “girl” role and Jones the “guy.” In many respects, it would be more helpful to describe the couple as Person A and Person B. This is not about imposing heteronormative dynamics on the same-sex couples, it’s about showing two personality types come together, and the way the two succeed – or fail – to connect. Seeing a same-sex couple in this show, especially for those unfamiliar with such a relationship, highlights how romantic relationships aren’t so dependent on sex and gender as they are on personal character dynamics, lifestyle issues and wanting the same things from life.

Zaza and Jones have great chemistry, telling us the story of this couple with a playful sense of awkwardness, passion and romantic friction – with great comic timing and emotional connection. This couple is adorably awkward, earnest and committed, from the brief meet cute over the bladder health benefits of cranberry juice to the sniping over how to chop carrots – funny, moving and above all truthful. Jones brings a lovely bashful, soft butch quality to her laid back, home body character, while Zaza is the bubbly, assertive and outgoing femme – and we’re sad to see these two characters part.

52 Pick-up has all the magic, heart, comedy and truth of falling in and out of love. Now, if I can only work out my scheduling to see the guy/guy couple. Go see this – or go see this again. And again.

52 Pick-up continues at Fraser Studios until March 22. Seating is limited, so booking ahead is strongly recommended – you can do so online here (and see the full schedule and what couple is on when).

SummerWorks: Powerful, moving & darkly funny apocalyptic musical And Now, The End

HERO-And-Now-the-End-149-620x500A musical about an impending apocalypse by asteroid? Count me in!

Ante Up Productions’ And Now, The End at SummerWorks – by writing team Victoria Hauser, Emily Nixon, Drew O’Hara, Zach Parkhurst and Jake Vanderham, with music, lyrics and music direction by Vanderham, and direction by Esther Jun – is just the thing.

Roxton, a small Canadian town, becomes a microcosm for a what-if scenario of an upcoming global-scale disaster, where we see the practical, social, emotional and psychological effects on humanity. The opening scene between the Doctor (Amir Haidar) and Patient (Zach Parkhurst) sets the tone: the Doctor’s job has become about assisted suicide.

Attempts to stop Asteroid AXS-677’s trajectory towards Earth have failed and citizens have been told that it will collide in a year, in effect ending the world. The news throws society into chaos, forcing people to rely on transistor radios and landlines to maintain communication. Buddies Dan (Paolo Santalucia) and Scott (Jeff Yung) have taken advantage of the situation at the local, now abandoned, radio station where they once worked low-level jobs to start their own radio show, providing news, views and music. Cathy’s (Tamara Bernier Evans) astronaut husband is stranded on a space station and befriends her neighbour’s brother Frances (Troy Adams), who has returned home to find his brother’s family gone. School’s out for high school seniors Johnny (Hugh Ritchie) and Clare (Ruth Goodwin), but these BFFs will never really graduate. And Inez (Kaleigh Gorka) is alone and will give birth within the year.

The score soars and moves, with gorgeous cello arrangements, beautiful lyrics and strong vocals from the ensemble. Full cast choral work book-ends the show with “Beneath Our Falling Sky” to set the scene and the finale “Look To The Burning Horizon,” a bittersweet, hopeful anthem for what’s to come. Santalucia’s and Yung’s scenes provide great comic relief (“Listen To Our Show”). Gorka and Haidar give a lovely performance of the passionate and conflicted love song “Kiss Me;” while Bernier Evans’ moving “Parts of You” is a heartbreaking grasp at the memory of what her husband looks like – and Adams is equally moving as the man who reluctantly stands in for that memory (“Crazy”). Goodwin’s account of an incident from Clare’s past, one that has repercussions today (“Look in the Eyes”), is a beautifully rendered ballad of pain and conflicting emotions. Ritchie’s “Frogs in the Rain,” a song about Johnny and Clare’s childhood adventures, brought tears to my eyes.

These are complex relationships, made all the more poignant by the countdown to impact: One year, one month, one week. One day.

With shouts to Beth Kates’ set design: the sterile white environment, the abandoned personal artifacts, and the moving flats with black light-activated illustrations of the constellations, are starkly beautiful – not to mention eerie.

And Now, The End is a powerful, moving and darkly funny apocalyptic musical with an outstanding cast and score.

Do the Mirvish folks know about this?

There are two more performances for this run, playing at the Theatre Passe Muraille main space: tonight (Sat, Aug 16) at 10 p.m. and Sun, Aug 17 at 5 p.m. You can also follow And Now, The End on Facebook.

Toronto Fringe: A complex relationship plays out randomly in Howland Company’s brilliant 52 Pick-up

52_pick-up.web_-250x250The Howland Company’s production of TJ Dawe and Rita Bozi’s 52 Pick-up, directed by Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster and Paolo Santalucia, is a truly unique, moving and entertaining theatrical experience that audiences are loving at this year’s Toronto Fringe.

Part sharply written theatre and part improv, 52 Pick-up tells the story of one relationship, played out over 52 short scenes, all dictated by words or phrases written on a deck of playing cards. The actors throw the cards into the air, then randomly select one and play the scene – repeating until they’ve gone through the entire deck.

The show will never play the same way twice, partly because of how it’s structured and also due to the fact that the pair of actors changes with each show: Ruth Goodwin and Alex Crowther, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster and Kristen Zara, Hallie Seline and Cameron Laurie, and Paolo Santalucia and James Graham.

The performance I saw yesterday featured Seline and Laurie – and they were a joy to watch. The relationship has broken up and we see them play out scenes from their history as a couple. Seline is lovely and sassy as the world traveller girlfriend of the pair, delivering some awesome emotive punctuation at the end of each scene, carrying through the mood as she places the finished card into the box. Laurie is adorkably sweet in a Harry Potter sort of way (he wears glasses in this), a homebody and so perfectly his girlfriend’s opposite/complement. Both actors are engaging and truthful as the couple struggles through the relationship’s ups and downs. Try as they may to be good sports with the other’s foibles, baggage and divergent life goals/desires, the two eventually come to face the reality that the relationship is just not meant to be.

From their awkward first meeting, to sharing personal histories, to the chilly silences and curse-laden fights, we see the world of this relationship play out over the course of 75 minutes – and, as the scenes are drawn randomly, the relationship is not revealed in a chronological arc. And I love how it all begins and ends with “Tell me a story…”

52 Pick-up is a remarkable show – a brilliant concept with an outstanding cast.

The show continues its run at the Tarragon Extra Space until July 13 – check here for exact dates/times. Strongly suggest advance tix for this one, as it’s an extremely popular show that folks will likely try to see more than once.