Casual cruelty & family secrets in ferociously funny, devastatingly poignant August: Osage County

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Marie Carriere Gleason (foreground), with Paul Cotton, Kelly-Marie Murtha, Melinda Jordan, Pearl Ho & Andrew Batten – photos by Bruce Peters

Alumnae Theatre Company cordially invites you to attend a family gathering at the home of Beverly and Violet Weston in Pawhuska, Oklahoma.

Alumnae opened its production of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County on the mainstage last night. Directed by Victoria Shepherd and featuring a talented ensemble, this is family dysfunction at its grittiest, no holds barred best.

When the Weston family patriarch (Thomas Gough) goes missing, middle daughter Ivy (Andrea Lyons) – the only child who stayed in town – rallies the family around her ailing mother Violet (Marie Carriere Gleason). Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Carol McLennan) and husband Charlie (Rob Candy) are the first to arrive, and we get a sense of the estrangement that underpins the family dynamic. The Weston’s oldest daughter Barbara (Kelly-Marie Murtha) is the most wanted – but least wanting – to be there; she arrives from Colorado with husband Bill (Paul Cotton) and 14-year-old daughter Jean (Melinda Jordan) in tow. Add to this mix youngest Weston girl Karen (Kathleen Jackson Allamby) and fiancé Steve (Chris Peterson), and cousin Little Charles (Neil Cameron), and the family circus is complete – occasionally witnessed from the outside by housekeeper/caregiver Johnna (Pearl Ho) and Sheriff Deon Gilbeau (Andrew Batten). The atmosphere becomes rife with nostalgia (for better or worse), secrets and schemes as things fall apart and come together only to fall apart again and again.

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Marie Carriere Gleason & Andrea Lyons

Nice work all around from this large, engaging cast. The play runs two and a half hours, plus intermission, but doesn’t feel like it. The Weston family women anchor this story – and the cast is particularly strong here. Gleason’s Violet is a complex puzzle of illness, addiction and survivor; quick to offer unsolicited – and decidedly not feminist – advice to the women in her life, her brutal honesty is shockingly unforgiving. Moments of manipulation and Hollywood-calibre drama queen can turn (seemingly) into flashes of genuine tenderness. Lyons gives a lovely, multi-layered performance as the put-upon Ivy; a character that could easily become a one-dimensional family doormat, she pushes back with a sharp wit and dark sense of humour. She has a pure heart and the patience of a saint, but as the main butt of her mother’s criticism, even she has her limits. Murtha’s Barbara is the picture of a woman on the edge, struggling with a complex set of emotions as her whole world is crumbling around her. The family rock, she strives to keep things together even as she’s falling apart herself – by turns angry, exasperated, protective and acerbically funny, putting out one fire as another appears. Allamby’s Karen is a beautiful contradiction; a high-energy chatterbox, Karen strives for self-awareness and adulthood, but comes off as flakey and deluded, with a poignant, child-like quality to her rose-coloured family nostalgia, born of selective memory. McLennan’s Mattie Fae, like her sister Violet, is a complex woman of contradiction – as cruel in her judgemental criticism (in her case, aimed at her son Little Charles) as she is fiercely protective of her family, including her son. And Jordan brings a precocious, wise child edge to Jean; a self-possessed young film buff coming into herself as she deals with her parents’ relationship issues.

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Pearl Ho & Thomas Gough

Other stand-outs include Gough’s wry-witted, melancholy alcoholic Beverly; a lauded poet and academic at the end of his rope, we only see him at the top of the play, but his presence resonates and stays with us. Batten brings an understated, quiet and boyish bashfulness and sense of anticipation to the Sheriff, a former beau of Barbara’s. And Peterson’s Steve is both charming and skeevy; a smooth operator under that sweet, helpful exterior.

It’s like watching a train wreck – and you can’t look away. The high drama of this family gathering is tempered by sharp-edged, dark humour – which the family uses for both self-protection and sniper attacks – and occasional moments of genuine, loving connection. Nothing brings out a family’s true colours like tragedy.

With shouts to set designer Alexis Chubb’s minimalist, multi-level set, with its inventive and effective multiple playing areas and nooks for the various family vignettes. And to John Stuart Campbell for the sound design and original composition; his song “Can’t Run Far Enough” features vocals by Vivien Shepherd and Ron Smith on harmonica – and haunting, wistful western sounds.

Casual cruelty and family secrets abound in Alumnae’s ferociously funny, devastatingly poignant production of August: Osage County.

August: Osage County continues on the Alumnae mainstage until April 23; check here for ticket purchase/info. Performances include a pre-show chat with the design team at noon tomorrow (Sun, Apr 10); and a post-show talkback with the cast and crew on Sun, Apr 17.

Related trivia/info: Former Alumnae President (and damn fine actor) Dinah Watts is in a London Community Players’ production of August: Osage County in London, ON right now. Lett’s first play Killer Joe is in production at Coal Mine Theatre till April 24 (I’m seeing it on Tuesday). And founder/playwright at Cue6 Theatre Sarah Illiatovitch-Goldman (who was in Alumnae’s production of Wit, and has play We Three running now at Tarragon) is on the Steppenwolf Theater Company’s literary team for the world premiere of Letts’ play Mary Page Marlowe.

Oh yeah, and here’s the awesome trailer for the Alumnae production of August: Osage County (video by Nicholas Porteous):

 

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.

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/