The “wangled teb” of perception in the darkly funny, thoughtful, poignant The Play About the Baby

Judith Cockman, Will King, Nora Smith & Scott McCulloch in The Play About the Baby

If you have no wounds, how can you know you’re alive?

Seven Siblings Theatre opened their production of Edward Albee’s The Play About the Baby, directed by company co-founder Erika Downie, upstairs at The Rhino to a sold out house last night.

The Boy (Will King) and the Girl (Nora Smith) are young, big time in love and just had a baby. Their blissful, sexy times reverie is interrupted by a mysterious Man (Scott McCulloch) and Woman (Judith Cockman), who appear unannounced in their living room. Trickster shenanigans and cryptic pronouncements turn serious when, pressed to reveal what they want, the Man tells the young couple that he and the Woman are there to take the baby.

Solid and genuinely connected work from the cast—no mean feat in a story that travels into Albee bizarro land. King and Smith have great chemistry as the adorably wide-eyed, carefree innocents. For a couple of new parents, the Boy and the Girl are remarkably energetic and horny. King is hilariously randy as the Boy—who seems to have a constant boner, either physically or on the brain—the performance balanced by a child-like vulnerability and need for comfort. Smith’s Girl is sweet and good-natured; extremely patient with the Boy, the Girl manages to divide her time between her two babies, as mother and wife. A good sport but no pushover, the Girl has no trouble setting boundaries with her overly enthusiastic husband.

McCulloch and Cockman are deliciously mischievous as the Man and Woman, the trench coat clad agents of shenanigans—or are they? Cynical and callous, McCulloch’s Man has with a wry-witted, cocky bravado about him; the Man has the heart of a philosopher and likes getting to the point in his own way, even if he must be cruel to be kind. Cockman’s Woman is the perfect ‘good cop’ foil to McCulloch’s Man; a delightful, nice woman who enjoys tripping off into day-dreamy, fanciful recollections, the Woman is a fond memory raconteur—and decidedly gentler on their mission than her partner.

Albee’s bizarre, darkly funny and thought-provoking play goes to the core of identity and perception. As we define ourselves in terms of our roles—gender, age, job, relationship status, parenthood, etc.—memory can be a tricky thing. And ‘reality’ is often a function of need. The nature of the Boy and Girl’s meet cute and subsequent courtship is the stuff of modern-day fairy tale; and are set in interesting contrast and parallel to the Woman’s romantic exploits. And in the second act, varying versions of reality make the Boy and the Girl, and even the audience, question what’s really going on here.

The “wangled teb” of perception and that which makes us stronger in the darkly funny, thoughtful, poignant The Play About the Baby.

The Play About the Baby continues up on the second floor at The Rhino till May 21; for advance tickets, scroll down on the show page to place an order. Advance booking strongly recommended; it’s an intimate space (and you can order a drink downstairs and bring it up with you)—and this is an exciting company to watch out for.

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Profound longing & desperate hope in the beautifully melancholy, immersively designed Three Sisters

Left, clockwise from top: Dana Puddicombe, Arinea Hermans & Christina Fox; Right, from top: Nikolas Nikita & Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski—photo by Joseph Hammond

With several highly successful one-off productions under its belt, Wolf Manor Theatre Collective continues its inaugural 2017 season with its second production, Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, directed by Mallory Fisher—opening last night at Kensington Hall in Toronto’s Kensington Market.

Wolf Manor gives the Chekhov classic a contemporary flavour with a gender-fluid take on the story of three sisters struggling with the ennui of living in a dull provincial garrison town as they long to return to their beloved Mosco.

The play opens on youngest sister Irina’s (Christina Fox) name day; it’s also a year to the day since their father died, leaving his four adult children the house. Eldest daughter Olga (Dana Puddicombe) is a teacher and middle daughter Masha (Arinea Hermans) is married to teacher Kulygin (Kaleb Horn); all three women are tired with boredom and long to return to Mosco. Only Irina and their brother Andrey (Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski), who often keeps to his room reading or playing violin, are cheerful. She’s young, and still full of hope and possibility; and he’s in love with Natasha (Nikolas Nikita).

Brief respites from the gloom of ennui emerge, courtesy of a family friend, the entertaining Doctor Chebutykin (Scott McCulloch), and visits from local officers Tuzenbach (Jordin Hall) and Solyony (Nikita). And the arrival of the new commander Vershinin (Meghan Greeley) makes things even more interesting—especially for Masha, who has over the years become repulsed by her bookish and pedantic, but kind, husband and finds herself drawn to the chatty, philosophical newcomer.

Disappointment and disillusionment snowball over the few years that pass. Andrey realizes that marriage isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and escapes into gambling, which puts the whole household into great debt. The Doctor, two years sober, falls off the wagon in a very bad way. Natasha lords it over her sisters-in-law, taking over the house and revealing a vicious side under that elegant demeanour, and creating a growing sense of claustrophobia among those who live there. Olga becomes something she vowed she’d never be: Headmistress. And even Irina’s balloon is popped, as she takes on work that is meaningless and mind-numbingly dull. Things go from bad to worse when a fire destroys a large section of the town, and the news that the battalion is being sent off on a new assignment—a heartbreaking prospect for Vershinin and Masha.

The immersive design places the audience both in and around the action, with a main playing area in the centre, and nooks and spaces around the outer edges (Beth Elliot, technical director/lighting design). Only two characters address us directly, baring their souls: Andrey and Chebutykin. By the end of the play, it’s as if we’re the birch trees surrounding the family home; silent witnesses to the goings-on there.

Beautiful work from the cast on these characters who all long for connection, belonging and understanding; each is grasping for meaning and hope, if not for now then for the future. Fox does a really nice job with Irina’s dissolve into disillusionment; having put her love life on hold with the idea of finding true love in Mosco, Irina settles for Tuzenbach, who is a good man, but not her desire. Hermans is heartbreaking as Masha, whose default is melancholy and whose heart awakens with the arrival of Vershinin; and the news that Vershinin must leave destroys her. Puddicombe brings a great sense of inner conflict to Olga; an ‘old maid’ school teacher and protective big sister to her siblings, Olga has abandoned her own desires to familial duty—a brave soldier who carries on no matter what. Shepherd-Gawinski brings a sharp edge to Andrey, the picture of the adorable, beloved brother who turns to gambling in his distress; outnumbered and put-upon by his sisters and his wife, he is as good-humoured as he can be. Stuck in the middle as he is, he too has put aside dreams in order to fit into his new life as husband and father—and the strain shows.

Greeley gives a moving performance as Vershinin, a military officer with the heart of a lover and philosopher. With an emotionally fragile husband and two daughters at home, Vershinin too finds an escape from the struggles of her life when she meets Masha. And their goodbye is heart wrenchingly sad, but inevitable as Vershinin must do her duty. Nikita does a marvelous job juggling Solyony and Natasha, as well as being the production’s costume designer. While both are classist, vain and irritating, these characters also have their secret hearts; Solyony is in love with Irina and Natasha is anxious to be accepted into Andrey’s family.

McCulloch’s performance as Chebutykin reveals the deep darkness in the Doctor’s heart; a jovial, sharp-witted man of 60-something, Chebutykin’s tendencies towards fatalism, and even nihilism, send him back to the bottle. Horn gives us an adorkably funny and mildly irritating Kulygin, who’s a silly nerd, but with a truly kind and forgiving heart under the dapper suit and glasses. And Hall gives us a lovely idealistic and philosophical Tuzenbach; like the others, he too wonders what the future will bring, but he’s also got his feet planted firmly in the present and wants to make the best of it.

Profound longing and desperate hope in the beautifully melancholy, immersively designed Three Sisters.

Three Sisters continues at Kensington Hall till March 26; full schedule and advance tix available online; advance booking strongly recommended, as it’s an intimate space with limited seating.

You can keep up with Wolf Manor Theatre collective on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Looking to support great local indie theatre? Please consider supporting the company’s Fund What You Can campaign.

The Hogtown Experience is the bee’s knees!

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Laura Larson (as Anastasia Petrov), Dov Mickelson (as Tracey Doyle) & Aisha Jarvis (as Sally Styles) – photos by Joseph Hammond

Better late to the party than never – I finally got out to see the Hogtown Experience at Campbell House Museum last night. And what a party it was!

Written by Drew Carnwath and Sam Rosenthal, and directed by Rosenthal, assisted by Nicola Pantin, the Hogtown Experience is an immersive, site-specific theatrical event that puts you in the middle of the action, which includes over 30 actors and live music, as you rub elbows with politicians, union muscle, gangsters, speakeasy girls, temperance ladies, party girls, moonshiners, a lady doctor and a baseball star.

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David Rosser as Sam McBride

When you arrive at Campbell House (I’d suggest getting there half an hour before show time), you may wander the grounds and the house. Catch some jazz in the basement speakeasy or get an early introduction to some of the characters on the front lawn, where the Temperance ladies are protesting the evils of drink, and mayoral candidate Sam McBride (David Rosser) and his wife Fanny (Kirstin Rae Hinton) are greeting and glad-handing, and the small-town Busch brothers (Matthew Bradley and Tim Ziegler) are anxiously anticipating a meeting with Delacourt to pitch their moonshine. Or wander towards the back, where the Schwartz brothers (Scott McCulloch and Jorge Molina) talk business and the wily, opportunistic Tracey Doyle (Dov Mickelson) inspects his girls before they start their shift – one of which (Anastasia, played by Laura Harding in last night’s performance) makes an appointment with the friendly, socially aware local doctor Libby Prowse (Lori Nancy Kalamanski) for her friend/co-worker Maddy (Lea Beauvais). And there’s a rambunctious, playful and strange little girl (Claire Frances Muir) running around there too.

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Dana Fradkin (as Ronnie McBride) & Drew Carnwath (as Ben Stein)

Newspaper man Ben Stein (Carnwath), who’s dating the McBride’s daughter Ronnie (Sappho Hansen Smythe,* who has been playing the role this summer), gives us an introduction and some ground rules. We are here for a party at the home of union boss Bob Delacourt (David Keeley) on the night before the 1926 municipal election, where the conservative, tee-totalling, penny-pinching incumbent Mayor Thomas Foster (Jerome Bourgault) is up against the more progressive, alcohol-friendly and forward-thinking McBride. From there, the audience is divided into three groups, and each group is guided to a room in the house to start their rotation of three scenes. You may speak to the characters, but only when spoken to.

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Jerome Bourgault as Thomas Foster

My group was first taken upstairs to the ballroom, to a meeting of the Christian Women’s Temperance Union, led by the imperious President Mary O’Grady Hunt (Tara Baxendale), where we hear anecdotes of personal family tragedy that resulted from intoxication. We were then treated to a lively and intense dining room scene, where the McBrides and their supporters – including Delacourt, who remained eerily silent and stone-faced – toasted their good fortune, and a surprise guest made an appearance, decidedly spoiling the good cheer. Then it was down to the games room, where our cheeky hostess Katie (Siobhan Richardson) took all bets, including one from the jovial Police Chief Draper (Robert Clarke); and over to the speakeasy for drinks (cash bar, where you can order wine in a teacup or a can of beer in a paper bag) and music, overseen and kept running smoothly by the tough, but gentleman-like Donato Granta (Conrad Bergschneider).

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David Keeley as Bob Delacourt

From there, where you go and what you see is up to you. You are encouraged to give rein to curiosity and follow characters, open doors – and see what you may find. Young love. Backroom deals upon backroom deals. Desperate, last-ditch efforts to win a race. One of the speakeasy girls in trouble. You won’t be able to catch everything, and you may want to see the show more than once; to this end, keep your program (handed out as you leave) and that will serve as your discount voucher for your next visit. And with all the election and boozy shenanigans – not to mention the red hot jazz – you may want to take them up on that deal.

An outstanding ensemble and fabulous music, creating a unique, intriguing and engaging theatrical experience, and a colourful taste of 1920s Toronto. This humble scribe had a marvelous time at the pre-election soiree at Campbell House last night. The Hogtown Experience is the bee’s knees – go see it!

The Hogtown Experience runs until August 28 at Campbell House Museum; performance info and advance tickets here; otherwise, it’s cash only at the gate.

In the meantime, you can keep up with Hogtown on Twitter and Facebook; and check out the show trailer:

* Department of Corrections: The role of Ronnie McBride, previously attributed to Dana Fradkin, was actually played by Sappho Hansen Smythe. Due to the scope of the show and the size of the ensemble, there is a rotating cast, so some characters are played by different actors, depending on when you see the show.

Alice through the looking glass into Brazil in darkly funny, absurdly mind-bending The Trial of Judith K.

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Scott McCulloch & Stephanie Belding in The Trial of Judith K. – photo by John Gundy

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. – Director’s Note

Thought For Food opened its production of Sally Clark’s The Trial of Judith K. in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Backspace last week, directed by Tyler Seguin, assisted by Tamara Vuckovic. I caught the show last night, in a performance that featured a post-show talkback with Clark.

A gender-switching stage adaptation of Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial, The Trial of Judith K. is set in 1980s Vancouver, the surreal world of the story taking on the unique flavour and hard-working, hard-playing hedonism of that decade. Judith (Stephanie Belding), a 30-something professional accounts manager at a bank, wakes one morning to discover she’s being arrested – for what, she is not told. The bizarre legal debates, interrogations and meetings that follow turn her life upside down. It’s like she’s being punked and everyone else is in on it, their smug assurances of “it’s common knowledge” leaving her out of the game. What follows is a crazy, sharply funny, sometimes deeply disturbing journey through the most fucked up legal system you’ve ever seen.

As playwright Clark said during the talkback, comedy works better when it’s fast – and the ensemble does a bang-up job of it, with most cast members playing multiple roles as they roll out this edgy, absurd tale set in this bizarro world. Belding gives a powerful, sexy and funny performance as Judith; a wry-witted and irreverent, but organized and put-together professional with a can-do attitude whose life is thrown into utter disarray as she attempts to unravel wtf is going on with the charge against her.

Belding’s cast mates are all excellent multi-taskers, performing each role with high energy and enthusiasm, no matter how big the line count. Toni Ellwand does a great turn, going from Judith’s befuddled landlady Mrs. Block, to her office nemesis, the jealous Voight, to the reckless and dangerous party girl Stella; she has an extremely poignant moment as Block, a somewhat smug veteran of the legal system who gets a rude awakening about her case. Patrick Howarth (Inspector/Ted/Flogger) is an especially sexy beast as the charming, bad boy, possible serial killer Ted; deathly irresistible with a soft spot for a certain kind of woman. Helen Juvonen (Lang/Theodora/Girl 2) stands out in her roles as Judith’s timid secretary Lang, and particularly as hooker turned lawyer Theodora; whip smart, languid and ruthless, with a flair for the dramatic and a jaded, pragmatic acceptance of this fucked up world, there’s a hint of Marlene Dietrich about her. Andrew Knowlton (Biff/Milly/Tracy/Brazier) is hilarious as Biff, one of the court-appointed officers sent to arrest Judith, and as Brazier, the ridiculously cheerful, classic 80s sporto pain-in-the-ass client Voight turfs over to Judith, much to Judith’s dismay. Scott McCulloch (Clem/Magistrate/Timmy/Pollock) is especially compelling as Pollock, an artist and legal system insider who professes a desire to be of assistance to Judith, all the while attempting to barter information for sex – a prime example of the diabolically funny combined with the truly cringe-worthy elements that run throughout this play. Cara Pantalone (Maria/Deedee/Nun) does a great job going from Judith’s comic, tacky sister-in-law Deedee to the imperious, mysterious, parable-telling Nun; the Madonna to Theodora’s Whore, with religion serving the divine truth as the law doles out the profane.

During the talkback that followed, Clark mentioned that the piece was commissioned in the 1980s, originally as a one-woman show, and the idea came up to treat The Trial as a comedy. An early draft was even more Alice in Wonderland than the version we see today – and Clark was inspired to draw upon a serial killer case that was underway in Vancouver at the time. Responding to a question about Judith’s reaction to seeing the men in her bedroom at the top of the play, and how audience reception to that moment has changed over time, she spoke about the gender reversal in this adaptation, changing the situation of women throwing themselves at a man (from the novel) to men throwing themselves at a woman. While the reversal of attention takes on a different tone in Judith K., the sexual politics are still there – and it’s still a struggle for sexual dominance – in this case, with an 80s feminist sensibility. In response to a query about the shifting audience reaction to authority, Clark pointed out that the law is a metaphor, a higher power, in the play – and the court is life. It receives you when you’re born and dismisses you when you die. And the doorkeeper in the Nun’s parable represents one’s belief system – and how it can distract and compromise away from one’s life. Kafka foresaw Orwell in this dystopian world – and you pretty much have to laugh to keep from crying.

With shouts to the design team for bringing this wacko world to life and conveying a taste of the 80s in this small, narrow playing space: David Poholko (set), Miranda VanLogerenberg (costumes), Jareth Li (lighting) and Alex Eddington (sound, featuring an awesome 80s pre-show soundtrack).

It’s Alice through the looking glass and into Brazil in Thought For Food’s darkly funny, absurdly mind-bending production of The Trial of Judith K.

The Trial of Judith K. continues till Feb 14 in the TPM Backspace. You can get advance tix online or by calling 416-504-7529 – or purchase at the door.

Dragged kicking & screaming by desire – JR Theatre’s The Dreamer Examines His Pillow

Dreamer_poster_WEBThis was my first time seeing John Patrick Shanley’s The Dreamer Examines His Pillow – this production directed by Eva Barrie for JR Theatre Company – and I wasn’t familiar with the play at all. Written around the same time as Shanley’s Savage in Limbo, Dreamer touches on some similar themes: love, desire, life – and the crazy-making nature of it all.

When I step inside the theatre at The Box Theatre, located in an old warehouse on Niagara Street, the first thing that strikes me is the pre-show soundtrack. Surreal, dream-like spoken word – sometimes barely distinguishable – accompanied by a percussion-driven back beat. Then, the space itself. The 45-some seats are set up in four rows along the length of the playing space, two on each side. This will be an up-close and intimate experience. The painting that hangs at one end of the sparsely furnished space – child-like and linear, an orange face on a grey background – reminds me of Denise Savage’s dream monologue in Savage in Limbo, during which she’s peeled away her face like it was tissue, leaving a piece of “flat grey cardboard where (her) face had been.” We later learn that this is a self-portrait of Tommy. The whitewashed brick walls of the playing area are curtained floor to ceiling with plastic, bringing to mind an artist’s studio. Or a serial killer’s lair.

Dreamer thrums in the space between visceral and cerebral, primal and evolved, profane and divine – and the storytelling style shifts between real and surreal, art and life, dreaming and waking. And the cast of Yehuda Fisher (Tommy, also co-producer with Rifkin), Scott McCulloch (Dad) and Jada Rifkin (Donna) are up for the challenge.

Performing with guts, passion and the drive of philosophers seeking the answer to the mystery of the universe, the actors dive into the dynamics of boyfriend/girlfriend, father/daughter and father/daughter’s boyfriend with courage and honesty. The play is broken into a series of mostly two-handers, each character struggling with messy but vital relationships, and with his/her own sense of identity. The father/daughter scene is particularly moving and revealing, bringing us to the core of the play. Men and women, and the primal drive to connect, to create – and how we are all changed in the process, our former selves torn apart and transformed into something new. We are drawn into love by an unstoppable desire that drags us kicking and screaming – and, to a large extent, with our consent.

I was very happy to have seen this show on Valentine’s Day, which also happened to be the Friday before the Family Day long weekend. It reminded me of how much relationships can play on a razor’s edge, so fragile and complex and fierce at the same time – and the brutal honesty and nurturing that love requires.

You have two more chances to see JR Theatre’s production of The Dreamer Examines His Pillow: tonight (Sat, Feb 15) at 8 p.m. and tomorrow (Sun, Feb 16) at 2 p.m. Tonight may be sold out, so best to book ahead in order to avoid disappointment.