Preview: A friend in need in Cue6’s powerful, intimate, intense Dry Land

Mattie Driscoll. Photo by Samantha Hurley.

 

Funny how it’s easier to share a secret with someone you barely know—and ask them to help you execute a critical decision. Dora award-winning Cue6—who brought us pool (no water)—presents an intimate and intense Toronto premiere of Ruby Rae Spiegel’s Dry Land. Directed by Jill Harper, this powerful and timely story of female friendship, abortion and perseverance previewed to a packed house at The Assembly Theatre last night and opens tonight.

Set primarily in the girls’ locker room of a Florida high school, we witness the evolution of the relationship between swim teammates Amy (Veronica Hortiguela) and new girl Ester (Mattie Driscoll). Both grappling with issues of sexuality, identity and the future, the tough-talking, sexually experienced, popular Amy and the introspective, naïve, socially awkward Ester are an unlikely pairing, to say the least. But Amy can’t bring herself to tell her mother or even her BFF Reba (Reanne Spitzer) about her unwanted pregnancy, so she turns to the new girl for help. Meanwhile, Ester is facing the pressures of being scouted by a university swim team—and dealing with her own desires and demons as she makes decisions about her future.

The stakes go up with each strategy Amy concocts, with Ester acting as a sounding board, personal assistant and devil’s advocate. Compelling, layered performances from both Driscoll and Hortiguela in this odd couple friendship. Driscoll rounds out the mousy Ester with hidden reserves of strength, determination and chutzpah; and Hortiguela deftly navigates the conflicted Amy, who masks her profound sense of vulnerability with cruelty and a “slut” image. Amy pushes Ester away when things get too real, too close—and only in the end does Amy realize how much she cherishes the relationship.

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Mattie Driscoll, Reanne Spitzer & Veronica Hortiguela.

Spitzer gives us a great comedic turn as Reba; a bubbly, irreverent and sharply observant gossip queen, Reba’s presence adds some much needed comic relief. The two male characters—university student Victor (played with likeable, awkward affability by Jonas Trottier), the son of a friend of Ester’s mother who hosts her during her university try-out, and the high school Janitor (Tim Walker, in a nicely understated, protectively watchful and largely silent role)—are secondary witnesses and assistants to the events that unfold. Amy and Ester are in the driver’s seat for their actions and the trajectory of their future—and the tight friendship that unfolds between them proves that old proverb “a friend in need is a friend indeed.”

With women’s reproductive rights constantly being challenged south of the border; and the sex ed curriculum here in Ontario being knocked back into the previous century, Dry Land is a candid, timely look at some serious feminist issues—particularly those facing women in their teens.

Dry Land continues at The Assembly Theatre until September 22; get advance tickets online or at the door (cash or credit card).

In partnership with Planned Parenthood Toronto, Cue6 will be presenting two post-performance talkbacks on September 13 and 20 to discuss the play and how it relates to sexual health challenges faced by youth in our current climate.

 

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Sympathy for the devil & debate on the nature of humanity in darkly comic, thoughtful Dead End

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Christian Smith, Ceridwen Kingstone & Chris Wilson in Dead End – photo by Samantha Hurley

Theatre Lab opened its production of Jonny Sun’s Dead End, directed by Michael Orlando, on Thursday night in the Factory Theatre Studio, where I caught it last night, along with a post-show talkback with Sun and Orlando.

Set in an isolated and claustrophobic fourth floor corridor of an abandoned high school during the zombie apocalypse, we’re introduced to the world of Dead End via voice-over (by Ceridwen Kingstone) – and in darkness. A wry, matter-of-fact, school announcement vibe, we’re told we’re lucky to be in the high school, which aside from being run-down and neglected, has largely escaped the ravages of the apocalypse. Unlike the neighbouring middle school, which was not so lucky. But even so, this hallway was once the sad and sorry student path to the math classrooms – and for some of us, that is pretty scary in itself.

Stumbling into this space, two young men (Christian Smith and Chris Wilson) fumble about with flashlights, searching the darkness for possible danger. For a while, they are contented that they are safe and zombie-free. But not for long. They are joined by a lone zombie (Kingstone), which is now blocking their way out. One man (Wilson) has a gun. But it only has one bullet left. Dark hilarity ensues as the two men try to come up with a plan to evade the zombie and get to safety. Oddly, the zombie appears to be disinterested in them.

This three-person cast does a remarkable job within the span of about 65 minutes, where discussion and debate ranges from death, attraction, sexual preference, gender, the five second rule – and, especially, the nature of zombie life. As the man with the gun (the characters have no names here), Wilson is the sharp, cynical dominant of the pair; edgy and quick to jump to conclusions, there’s a soft centre under there somewhere. Smith brings a whimsical, at times goofy, philosophical vibe to man without gun; not wanting to take things at face value always, he’s continually questioning the status quo and what they think they know. And Kingstone’s zombie is a masterpiece of sound and movement; with the character based on movement and groan directions in the script, she’s created a distinct personality – bringing humanity to an otherwise wretched and solitary, perhaps even lonely, creature.

Is a zombie an “it” or does it retain its human gender identification – and if the latter, how would you know? And, of course, you can’t speak of monsters without addressing the nature of humanity. And who is that last bullet for?

The show was followed by a short talkback, where we learned that playwright Sun got into theatre when he discovered he missed it while he was in engineering school; he’d been really involved in high school and got into writing sketch comedy at U of T. Dead End came from an exploration of anxiety and depression – particularly internal anxiety versus external stress – Sun found that comedy was a good way to work through stuff; and the last bullet decision is a metaphor for this exploration. Dead End started as a sketch, and Sun realized that there was more to say, so it went from five pages to the 65-minute one-act script we see today. A question about character names and gender came up; the zombie is played by a female actor, but is referred to as “he” (by man without gun, called No Gun in the script) or “it” (by man with gun, called Gun). The characters were written without names, just descriptions, and with no set gender in mind; gender is pretty much irrelevant. One audience member noted that the dialogue is “sporadic and naturalistic” in rhythm and tone, and wondered how much of the play is improv. The cast is strong with the improv force, so Orlando let them riff around the structure of the script, creating a different dynamic every time, but still hitting all the cues (which was a relief to SM Heather Bellingham, I’m sure).

With shouts to the creative team for their amazingly creepy, eerie atmospheric work on this production: Megan Fraser (SPFX) and Valentina Vatskovskaya (production makeup/hair), Melissa Joakim (lighting), Jason O’Brien (sound), Roselie Williamson (costume) and Louisa Zhu (fight director).

Sympathy for the devil and debate on the nature of humanity in darkly comic, thoughtful Dead End.

Dead End continues in the Factory Theatre Studio space until October 23; advance tix available online. Come on out for some good, creepy pre-Halloween fun with two guys and a zombie.

You can keep up with Theatre Lab on Twitter and Facebook.

 

Preview: $h!t gets real in sharply funny, brutally honest We Three

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Sarah Naomi Campbell, Hallie Burt & Suzette McCanny in We Three – photos by Samantha Hurley

Last night, it was out to Tarragon Theatre for a preview performance of Cue6 Theatre’s latest offering: Sarah Illiatovitch-Goldman’s We Three, directed by Jill Harper, with script contributions from Harper, and actors Suzette McCanny, Sarah Naomi Campbell and Hallie Burt.

Toronto roommates Skye (Burt), an alternative education PhD candidate, and Jamie (Campbell), a feminist blogger, are excited to be hosting an intimate dinner party for their university friend Blaire (McCanny), who got married and moved to Calgary two years ago, where she works as a very well-paid executive assistant. Their enthusiasm turns to bewilderment and disappointment when they find their friend has changed a lot – both physically and philosophically – and the anxiously anticipated reunion becomes a mine field as the conversation detours from catch-up to heated debate about feminism, rape culture and being a woman in the 21st century.

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Sarah Naomi Campbell & Suzette McCanny

The writing is smart, edgy, real and very funny – and the performances are strong and beautifully nuanced. Burt’s Skye is an adorkable academic; whip smart, with a fastidious and positive energy (if this were the Odd Couple, she’d be the Felix in the equation), she is intensely loyal to her friends – and her more centrist views put her in the middle of the heated debates, making her the ad hoc mediator/peacemaker. Beyond the chipper Mary Poppins exterior are secrets, as well as reserves of bravery and strength, that her friends can only guess at. Campbell and Burt have excellent chemistry as the long-time friends/roommates – so much so, that there is a married couple vibe between Jamie and Skye. Campbell gives an amazing, multilayered performance as Jamie; smart, cynical and fiercely outspoken (and the Oscar of the household), Jamie is painfully aware of her own inner struggles as she tries to reconcile her feminist beliefs with personal body image issues. McCanny mines the depths beneath the sharp, edgy and ambitious Blaire; deeply immersed in a corporate, conservative world, she perhaps hasn’t drunk the Kool-Aid as much as sipped it. She too was anxious and excited to reconnect with old friends – and stunned when the evening doesn’t turn out to be the love-in they were hoping for.

These women have an intensely personal history and a very tight friendship bond. The conversation runs from the ridiculous to the sublime, as they discuss dildos, “Blurred Lines,” university memories and cosmetic surgery. The ferocious debates on feminism, rape culture and womanhood reflect their equally strong love for each other. And they’re fighting tooth and nail – and throwing a living room dance party – to regain a connection they’ve lost, perhaps permanently.

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Hallie Burt & Sarah Naomi Campbell

With shouts to the design team for the lovely and meticulously crafted space and intimate atmosphere for this production: Christine Groom (set/props), Simon Rossiter (lighting) and Tim Lindsay (sound). The empty chair at the dining table (placed at the downstage side of the table) feels like it’s for us, the audience, as we play the fly on the wall to this encounter.

Shit gets real with fierce love, friendship and feminism in sharply funny, brutally honest We Three.

We Three continues at the Tarragon Workspace (aka Studio) till April 17; get your advance tickets here. It’s an intimate space and a popular company, so advance booking strongly recommended.