Toronto Fringe: Peeling back the layers in the funny, frank, insightful feminist excavation Operation SUNshine

Jennifer McKinley takes us on an unusual reclamation project in her father’s basement bathroom in her one-woman show Operation SUNshine, directed by Clara McBride and running at St. Vladimir Theatre for Toronto Fringe.

Tasked with preparing her father’s home for sale, McKinley tackles the most complex—and unusual—part of the cleaning and purging process: the basement bathroom that was at one time part of her father’s friend Bill’s living space. Walls and ceiling have been wallpapered with Toronto Sun Sunshine Girl clippings. And as she carefully excises these women from their bathroom prison, she discovers more than just a collection of pin-up girls.

Seeing these images as a piece of childhood/family history—not to mention that they present real women living real lives away from their photo shoots—instead of simply scraping the photos off, McKinley chooses to carefully cut and peel. Rescuing these photos and the lives that go with them, she preserves as many of the images as she can and reads the news stories of the day on the other side of each photo page. What she finds are many stories of tragedy and loss—missing and murdered women and children, and the men who put them there—that still resonate 25 years later in that they are still all too common.

The physical activity of removing the photos becomes introspective, inspiring memories of family history, as well as curiosity about the lives of these women. Using specific physical and vocal attributes, McKinley creates a series of compelling, often funny, sharply defined characters, including her father and her younger selves—and a selection of her (and Bill’s) favourite Sunshine Girls. These are women who enjoy their bodies and their sexuality, in some cases promoting themselves and/or earning a living. The rescue mission turns into a feminist excavation—of these models, the accompanying male gaze and, most importantly, of personal self-discovery. She uncovers a hidden part of herself, one that involved choices intended to make herself invisible and safe.

Peeling back the layers in the funny, frank, insightful feminist excavation Operation SUNshine.

Operation SUNshine continues at St. Vladimir Theatre until July 15; advance tickets available online.

Toronto Fringe: Coming out in 1977 in the funny, touching Out

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Big Bappis is out and proud at Toronto Fringe, with its production of Greg Campbell’s one-man show Out, directed by Clinton Walker and running at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse.

A coming out origin story, based largely on Campbell’s own experience as a teen in Montreal, we follow 17-year-old Glen as he embarks on his journey of self-discovery with friends Dmitri and Marco. Protesting Anita Bryant, seeing The Boys in the Band for the first time and dancing at their favourite gay club, Glen explores his sexuality, his dance moves and learns what it is to be queer in the late 70s. All the while, he’s closeted to his parents, who suspect something’s up, and his mother’s pleas to “tone it down” so as to not upset his father, who turns to the bottle in times of trouble and takes it out on her. And then, the penultimate coming out experience when Glen and his friends sign up for their gay youth group’s road trip to NYC Gay Pride Day, and Glen’s decision to come out to his folks.

Campbell is a charming and engaging storyteller, weaving cultural milestones with Glen’s personal anecdotes. And while this tale is full of sex, fun and music, he doesn’t shy away from the challenges Glen faces with his family, particularly his father. He gives Glen a lovely sense of wonder and exploration; a sensitive and curious young man, he fearlessly dives into new experiences and men despite the heartbreak and homophobia.

The magic of the movies. The power of disco. The wisdom of The Village People. Coming out in 1977 in the funny, touching Out.

Out has one more Fringe performance at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse: today (Sat, July 9) at 2:15; for ticket info and advance tickets, check out the Fringe website. Then, it’s off to the Toronto Centre for the Arts for Best of the Fringe, with performances on July 14, 16 and 23 (see the link for show times and tickets).

Star Trek according to Polly Esther in sassy, poignant, personal Dammit, Jim! I’m a Comedienne, Not a Doctor!

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To boldly go where no Polly Esther has gone before…

During a one-night performance at the Social Capital Theatre last night, actor/playwright/comedienne Polly Esther took us along on a multi-media tour of her two-year voyage of exploration of the strange new world of the Star Trek series and movies in her one-woman show Dammit, Jim! I’m a Comedienne, Not a Doctor! Dammit, Jim! premiered in NYC at Solocom in November, 2015 with a 25-minute performance that has since been expanded for the Toronto premiere.

An autobiographical solo show, Polly describes meeting her sweetheart Chris, originally a Facebook friend, in person at Fan Expo Canada. Already a fan of the original Star Trek series, she was reluctant to take a look at any of the newer series and movies – although she admits to loving the J.J. Abrams prequel films – but Chris was gently persistent and eventually, Polly came to realize that she needed to know more about this world. And she goes for it big time, going all in as she hunkers down with Chris to rent the DVDs (from Queen Video), watching every series and every film in a two-year Star Trek marathon.

An enthusiastic, engaging and energetic storyteller, Esther charms and touches as she reveals her favourite characters (including Worf, Q, Lwaxana Troi, Morn and Tuvok) and moments, noting that – beyond the sometimes schlocky bits – Star Trek deals with some serious issues: war, racism, sex, gender, assault and alcoholism, among others. And her experience of the Star Trek world becomes even more heightened and solidified when she and Chris travel to the Las Vegas convention. While she’s having the time of her life meeting other fans, attending panel discussions and treating herself to oodles of merch, something happens. A recovering alcoholic who’s dealt with some other serious life-changing issues herself, she finds that the Star Trek universe, the convention and its fandom aren’t just about fun and insightful shenanigans in space, and the stuff of nerds. It’s about respect, acceptance and family. And she comes to realize that she has something in common with each of her favourite Star Trek characters – flawed, struggling and outspoken as they are.

In the end, what starts off as an innocent, fun-filled exploration of a beloved sci-fi series becomes an eye-opening personal discovery tour. With shouts to slide show master Chris MaGee.

The Star Trek universe according to Polly Esther in sassy fun, poignant and personal solo show Dammit, Jim! I’m a Comedienne, Not a Doctor!

This was a one night only performance at the Social Capital Theatre – but keep your eyes and ears peeled for Polly Esther in a galaxy near you.

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).

A young woman’s journey of love & healing – Felicia Guy-Lynch’s Time For Healing

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As in her poetry collection Scattered Thoughts: A Stream of Consciousness, Felicia Guy-Lynch offers everyday personal wisdom in her novella Time For Healing. Based on a true story and written in the first person, the book reads like part journal, part internal monologue as the reader follows a young Jamaican-Canadian woman, Lydia, on her search for identity and “innerstanding” (love that word).

A first generation Canadian of Jamaican parents living in Toronto, and leaving a childhood trauma behind in the city as the family moves to the suburbs, Lydia navigates the complex and challenging social scene at school as she and her family – with its shifting structure and personal dynamics – struggle to make ends meet in a rough neighbourhood. But, despite these circumstances, she never gives up pursuing her goals of education, independence and finding love, and of walking the path of openness and transparency – and, ultimately, true strength.

All of this is not done on her own. Lydia actively builds – and processes – relationships with family, both biological and chosen (including friends and lovers), and with God; all play a part in helping her find her genuine self. The storytelling is deeply personal in tone, and while Lydia’s perceptions and experiences as a creative, curious and sexual “melinated” (black) woman striving to keep true to her cultural identity are very specific to this young woman’s world, the universal desire and search for connection and belonging – with other human beings and with a higher power – is strongly evident. Like Guy-Lynch’s poetry, the language in Time For Healing is evocative, true to the mark and even playful, with words like “innerstanding,” “melinated” and “politricks” providing insight into Lydia’s thoughts and character.

Always mindful of keeping an open mind and heart, Lydia reminds us that we must first and foremost be our true selves, and conduct our lives with truth and honesty. And never stop learning.

You can find Time For Healing on amazon.com – with shouts to illustrator Bradley Roy Lindsay and designer Seanre Bennett for their work on the book.

You can also pay Felicia Guy-Lynch a visit at her Twitter and YouTube co-ordinates.