Whooping it up like it’s 1926 in the entertaining, intriguing Hogtown: The Immersive Experience

Mark Prince, Dan Willmott & Jerome Bourgault in Hogtown—photo by Sam Gaetz Photography

Back by popular demand, The Hogtown Collective returns to Campbell House Museum for a new run of Hogtown: The Immersive Experience—written by Drew Carnwath and Sam Rosenthal, and directed by Rosenthal—with new stories and adventures as the audience finds new intrigue and secrets around every corner and behind every closed door.

It`s the eve of the 1926 municipal election, and union boss Bob Delacourt (Dan Willmott) is hosting a big shindig at his home. The incumbent, conservative prohibitionist Mayor Thomas Foster (Jerome Bourgault) is up against the progressive, union- and booze-friendly Sam McBride (Mark Prince). And everyone`s making backroom deals, including McBride`s fierce wife Fanny (Kirstin Hinton).

Meanwhile, local scribe Ben Stein (Gord Gammie) divides his time between covering the event and wooing the McBrides’ daughter Ronnie (Sappho Hansen Smythe), a modern young woman with dreams of becoming a famous reporter. And country bumpkin brothers, the clumsy Tanner (Jonathon Ellul) and malapropism-dropping Jackson (Derek Keurvorst) Busch have high hopes of making loads of cash from their home-cooked hooch; and the menacing Gil Schwartz (Jorge Molina) hopes to get in on some big time gangster action with the rumoured arrival of Chicago rum-runner Franco Vitale (is he really there or not?).

The action starts out on the lawn around the house, as we take in various goings-on and meet some of the key players. Once inside, we are ushered in groups from room to room, getting the opportunity to see three different scenes. My group first entered the dining room, where the McBrides were hosting an intimate gathering of friends and supporters, including Delacourt, developer Lol Solman (Keurvorst) and clergyman Eddie Smalls (Ben Bain). It’s all aces until they’re interrupted by the appearance of a surprise guest—and it’s Mrs. McBride who’s the most infuriated by this unexpected arrival.

Upstairs, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union is having a meeting. Chaired by the imperious Mary O’Grady Hunt (Tara Baxendale), assisted by her demure daughter Eleanor (Jaymee Fuczek) and radical colleague Pauline Drabble (Andrea Irwin), these ladies are hell-bent on spoiling the fun. Even here, there is division on how to best accomplish their goal of keeping prohibition alive and getting Foster re-elected. Even O’Grady Hunt has a secret, which we learn by way of confession and cautionary tale when she has a mother to daughter sit-down with Eleanor, who she fears is getting too friendly with Lulu and Toni.

hogtown gals
Laura Larson, Karen Slater & Emmea Wiechers—photo by Sam Gaetz Photography

Downstairs in the gaming room, Shwartz is waiting on the outcome of some bets—and we’re ushered over to the basement speakeasy when his private meeting arrives. Over in the speakeasy, we can buy yourself a prohibited beverage while we wrap your ears around some hot jazz, courtesy of Cali-Mays Johnson (Michelle Piller) and her girls, accompanied by Colin Frotten on the ivories. It’s here that we learn that Foster’s daughter Maddy (Karen Slater) is working as a singer, and has set up a meeting with Dr. Libby Prowse (Claire Francis Muir) via her pal Anastasia (Emma Wiechers). Don’t worry, barkeep Mad Tom (Michael Lamport) is the soul of discretion, and Katie O’Malley (Susie Burnett) can find you some company or place your bets.

Then, we are invited to wander the house to discover what we may. Upstairs, baseball star Tommy Burt’s (Eric McDace) secret is revealed even as he discovers the secret of another; and his attempt to solicit help from Solman takes an unexpected turn. Wayward Catholic schoolgirls and wanna-be flappers Louise “Lulu” (Laura Larson) and Antoinette “Toni” (Arinea Hermans) may be okay on the dance floor as they try out for jobs in the speakeasy, but they may be in over their heads when it comes to handsome Tommy—lucky for them Detective Hank Dyer (Matt Richardson, also the fight director) steps in. And across the hall at the latest temperance meeting, Pauline makes a dramatic revelation as to how far she’s willing to go for the cause.

hogtown ronnie & tom
Sappho Hansen Smythe & Michael Lamport—photo by Sam Gaetz Photographer

It’s an entertaining and exciting ride. You never know who you’ll encounter or what’s going to happen. And everyone has a secret. The ensemble is fantastic—genuine and engaging storytellers fully inhabiting their characters, interacting on occasion with the audience (we are instructed to only speak when spoken to) to pull us into the story in an up-close and personal way. The show features several musical numbers, with stand-out vocals from Slater, Piller and Baxendale; and a charming duet from McDace and Hansen Smythe, as Tommy, feeling the pressures of external expectation, finds a kindred spirit in Ronnie McBride.

Secrets, back room deals and home-made hooch. Whooping it up like it’s 1926 in the entertaining, intriguing Hogtown: The Immersive Experience.

Hogtown continues at Campbell House till August 20; advance ticket booking strongly recommended—it’s a very popular show. Please note the 7:30pm start time; get there by 7:15pm to see the outdoor scenes. Get a taste from the trailer:

 

 

NSTF: Hidden WWII treasure, a closeted aunt, a shifty foreign cousin & other family secrets in the funny, surprisingly poignant, Songbuster

Songbuster Inc. brings the funny with a musical twist in with Songbuster – An Improvised Musical; a new show created every performance by the ensemble with musical director Tom King. Currently running during the Toronto Fringe Next Stage Festival (NSTF) in the Factory Theatre Studio, the ensemble features Tricia Black, Kristian Bruun, Ashley Comeau, Alexandra Hurley, Stephanie Malek, Josh Murray, Nug Nahrgang, Nicky Nasrallah and Connor Thompson.

It all starts off with an ask. In this case, the ensemble asking an audience member for a setting to work with; something in the nostalgic gathering department. The woman in the front row suggested a family reunion. And off they went.

From there, a series of musical scenes unfolded, incorporating various music styles from classic musical, to country western, to blues, to ballads. A cantankerous, forgetful grandfather has a heart-to-heart with his hair-eating, taxidermy practicing teenage granddaughter Claire, who was named after her grandmother (one of the only things he can remember), who was known to walk the tightrope on occasion. The strained relationship between Aunt Eleanor and her husband Philip, who both really like to drink beer (like, a lot), unfolds as we learn that Eleanor is secretly in love (mutually so) with their next door neighbour Martha. An unexpected guest arrives, a previously unknown cousin from Norway, who cross country skied the whole way there—and who has secrets of his own.

And then there’s Claire’s mother Donna, trying to keep things together at home since her husband John left for another woman. And her kid brother Robert, who misses his dad’s scary bedtime story character voices and takes out his confused frustration by punching trees. Unbeknownst to this family, John is making his way home to the family ranch, hoping for reunion and redemption.

Meanwhile, Grandpa unearths the strange cousin’s secret and rallies the family to protect a hidden cache of WWII treasure (and weapons, apparently) buried on the property—forcing everyone to put their differences aside for the good of the family.

Amazing work from the ensemble in this hilarious trip through family relationships and crises—and all with music and improvised lyrics, folks. And these guys can sing. This performance of Songbuster included some surprisingly poignant moments, especially during John’s entrance. Sorry for his trespasses and realizing the huge mistake he made in leaving, he’s been longing to return home to be reunited with Donna and the kids. Here, solo turns into quartet as Donna and the kids join him in the background.

Hidden WWII treasure, a closeted aunt, a shifty foreign cousin and other family secrets in the funny, surprisingly poignant, Songbuster – An Improvised Musical.

Songbuster – An Improvised Musical continues in the Factory Theatre Studio until Jan 15. Get your advance tix and passes online; and check out the full NSTF schedule.

 

Beautifully profound unfolding of connection & self-discovery in Circle Mirror Transformation

Circle Mirror Transformation. Email PosterSpent a lovely afternoon at the Storefront Theatre yesterday afternoon – this time, for Play Practice Collective’s Toronto premiere of Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation, directed by Heather E Braaten.

Set in a windowless community centre space in small New England town Shirley, Vermont, three adults (James – Mark Whelan, Theresa – Pip Dwyer and Schultz – David Frisch) and one teen (Lauren – Laura Jabalee) set out together with instructor Marty (Jill Harland) on a six-week long drama class for adults. And throughout their time together, working through acting exercises and guided improv, they learn more than they bargained for.

For those who have experienced theatre school or acting class, it will come as no surprise that the exercises and techniques resemble a bizarre combination of psychotherapy and boot camp – often without rhyme or reason. Serious acting classes are not for the faint of heart. As the play unfolds, everyone in the class – including Marty – experiences an evolution of how they see themselves and the other participants as personal connections and relationship dynamics wax and wane. The transformation is gradual, with some intense and difficult – and comic – moments.

Braaten’s cast really brings it for this show. Instructor Marty (Harland) and student husband James (Whelan) are an affable, comfortable 50-something couple with an adorable meet cute story whose still waters run deep – and choppier than at first glance. Harland does a nice job with Marty’s supportive, earth mother acting teacher, whose calm presence is rocked to the core with past and present revelations. Whelan’s James is a real charmer, a good sport pal of a husband to Marty and a lovable guy with widespread appeal – maybe too much. As town newcomer Theresa, Dwyer (also one of the co-producers) gives a lovely performance that is both forthcoming and fragile; Theresa is an actress recently escaped from the insanely fast pace and chilly atmosphere of New York City, and one gets the sense that she doesn’t really need to take the class, but is looking for friendship and community. Frisch gives a nicely layered performance as the recently divorced Shultz, a sweet guy, perceptive and a bit naïve, and – like Theresa – feeling vulnerable and longing for connection. And Jabalee (another co-producer) is bang on as 16-year-old Lauren, awkward, ambitious and wise beyond her years, navigating her way through a class full of adults, some of whom are as old as her distracted, troubled parents. She’s the one who questions the validity of the exercises, wondering aloud if they’re going to get to do some “real acting.”

Everyone has a secret: from their past, or a present desire or fear. And all are profoundly affected and changed by the end of the class. And in a strange – almost magical – way, the room is a character in this story – a crucible in which the alchemy of transformation occurs, while remaining essentially unchanged itself. We see it in stillness and semi-darkness during the longer scene breaks that denote the passage of time from week to week – the atmosphere and barometer of the room only shifting due to the human presence and dynamics that play out within it.

With shouts to Laird MacDonald’s design work – the spot on community centre layout and lighting – and Blair Purdy’s sound editing on the moving and evocative pre-show and scene change music.

Circle Mirror Transformation is a beautifully understated, gradual unfolding of deep connection, intimacy and self-discovery, performed with truth and heart by an excellent cast. Get this into your theatre-going calendar.

Circle Mirror Transformation runs at the Storefront Theatre until October 18; you can purchase tickets in advance online. You can also follow the Play Practice Collective on Twitter and support it via its crowdfunding campaign (open till Oct 15).