Real & virtual worlds collide in the chilling, mind-blowing The Nether

Hannah Levinson & David Storch. Set and lighting design by Patrick Lavender. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Photo by Tim Leyes.

 

Production warning: While nothing graphic whatsoever happens onstage, The Nether has violent and sexually explicit content, including rape, murder, suicide and pedophilia, that may be deeply disturbing to some. Please be advised.

Coal Mine Theatre joins forces with Studio 180 Theatre, opening its 5th season last night, taking us to a shocking virtual reality world with its Toronto premiere of Jennifer Haley’s The Nether, directed by Peter Pasyk. Part crime procedural, part sci-fi thriller, The Nether explores the dark side of human desire, asking us: Are pedophilia, rape and murder, committed with impunity in an online world, truly victimless? And should these online crimes be punishable in the offline world?

The Nether is the evolution of the Internet in not too distant future; an virtual online world that provides access to “realms” of education, work and fantasy role play on a level never seen before. In a world where trees, grass and plants—aspects of nature we take for granted—are rare and costly, The Nether provides access to startlingly realistic environments that engage all of the senses; and the chance to become anyone you want via an avatar persona. It is here that Sims (David Storch) has created The Hideaway, a stately, secluded Victorian home placed in a pastoral setting lush with trees and a garden. Presenting himself as Papa to his virtual guests and employees, he plays host to those who, like himself, have certain proclivities that would be considered heinously criminal in the “offline” world. The Hideaway is a pedophile playground, where adult guests may interact with, rape and murder children with complete impunity. After all, Sims argues, these aren’t “real” children, so no crime has been committed; and his realm provides a service in that it keeps pedophiles from realizing their desires in the real world as they satisfy their hunger online.

Nether law enforcement Detective Moss (Katherine Cullen) would disagree and has taken Sims in for interrogation. [Mini-spoiler alert] As part of the investigation, undercover agent Woodnut (Mark McGrinder) infiltrates The Hideaway as a guest, to witness first-hand the goings-on there. Woodnut spends a great deal of time with Iris (Hannah Levinson), a girl of about 12 and Papa’s favourite. Eerily life-like and possessing of an old soul, Iris is aware of her role as child victim; she is patient and encouraging with newbie Woodnut, who is bashful and hesitant to fully play out the game, assuring him that she resurrects after each murder.

Moss also questions Doyle (Robert Persichini), a high school science teacher and former guest at The Hideaway who claims to know nothing about Sims’ motives and plans, but whose troubled demeanour suggests that he’s hiding something. He does confess to Moss that he wants to “cross over”—leave the offline world behind and live out the rest of his life completely online. Referred to as “shades,” those who set out to do so must make arrangements for life support for their corporeal bodies in the real world—and Moss is alarmed at the prospect, warning Doyle that these supports aren’t as advertised.

What’s critical for Moss’s investigation is that the characters at The Hideaway are not computer programs or AI constructs—they are avatars with a person behind them. And while Sims insists that he fastidiously vets all participants to ensure adult-only entry, Moss believes that his realm is far from victimless.

Gripping, laser-focused work from the cast in this haunting tale of a fascinating and disturbing new world—all the more troubling as it’s not too far into the future. Cullen gives an edgy, driven performance as Moss; determined to get to the truth at nearly any cost, Moss also has her own demons to tame. Storch delivers a razor sharp, complex pair of characters: the cool, clever virtual entrepreneur Sims, and the playful, warm father figure Papa. Masterfully compartmentalizing his offline and online lives, Sims rationalizes his creation by positing that he keeps pedophiles off the streets, but appears to struggle with personal attachments of his own in The Hideaway.

Levinson is a precious, likable smarty pants as Iris; playful, curious, observant and empathetic, Iris begins to question her world, putting her position at risk. Persichini gives a deeply poignant performance as the troubled Doyle; a sharply intelligent and profoundly lonely and sad man, Doyle longs to be in a world where he is loved and feels a sense of belonging. Nicely layered work from McGrinder as the kind, conflicted Woodnut; entering The Hideaway to investigate, he finds himself strangely drawn to this world—and must come to grips with the personal feelings that emerge while in this undercover position.

The ensemble is nicely supported by compelling, atmospheric design elements, from Patrick Lavender’s startling, transporting set and lighting design, to Michelle Bohn’s mix of period and futuristic costumes, and Richard Feren’s spooky, game-like sound design.

It’s a lot to process—and raises important moral and ethical questions about the power of technology to transport, entertain and engage. Would a realm such as The Hideaway keep society safe in that rapists, murderers and pedophiles could enact their dark desires only online? Or would it serve as a dress rehearsal for the real thing or convert those who’ve never considered such atrocities? And if you believe that behaviour is shaped by thought, is there really such a thing as a victimless crime in any world?

The Nether continues at Coal Mine Theatre until November 4; get advanced tickets online—advance booking strongly recommended.

In the meantime, check out cast and crew interview videos on the Coal Mine website.

 

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SummerWorks: Revolution, gratitude & being with a roar in The AMY Project’s brave, bold Lion Womxn

The AMY Project returns to SummerWorks with the brave, bold and deeply personal multimedia, multidisciplinary ensemble-generated Lion Womxn. Directed by Julia Hune-Brown and Nikki Shaffeeullah, assisted by Jules Vodarek Hunter and Bessie Cheng, Lion Womxn ran for three performances at the Theatre Centre—I caught their closing night show in the Incubator last night.

lion-womxnCreated and performed by nevada-jane arlow, Clara Carreon, Olivia Costes, Gabi M Fay, Carvela Lee, Megan Legesse, Laya Mendizabal, MORGAN, Whitney-Nicole Peterkin, Rofiat Olusanya, Aaliyah Wooter and Fio Yang, Lion Womxn is a theatrical collage of personal storytelling; told through a combination of monologue, dance (choreography by Jasmine Shaffeeullah), song, poetry and projection (design by Nicole Eun-Ju Bell).

With high-energy and soul-bearing performances, each shares her/their own joy, pain, rage, gratitude, struggle and strength—shouting out feminism, self-care, respect, gratitude, community and sex-positivity; and calling out misogyny, racism, homophobia and transphobia, body shaming and slut shaming. Raw and poetic at the same time, the result is heartbreaking, charming, anger-inducing and, ultimately, inspirational.

This was the final performance of Lion Womxn at SummerWorks, but keep an eye out for The AMY Project and future productions. Learn more about The AMY Project on their website—and give them a follow on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Toronto Fringe: An intersectional heart-to-heart on the state of manhood in the candid, funny, brave We The Men

Sunday Muse, Mercy Cherian, Rachel Brophy & Sundance Nagrial. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Sam’s having the guys over at his cottage—and we’re all invited!

The back room stage of the Cadillac Lounge is transformed into the living room of Sam’s cottage as Soulo Theatre takes us behind the scenes of a heart-to-heart gathering on the state of manhood with its Toronto Fringe production of We The Men. Co-created by director Tracey Erin Smith and an ensemble of Dude for a Day workshop participants, and inspired by hearing men’s stories during Soulo Theatre’s Step To The Line events, women portray male characters—and the sexes come together from the other side of the gender divide in the hopes of bridging the gap and coming to a greater understanding.

The storytelling, which includes stories that emerged from male Step To The Line participants, draws on important and timely ongoing issues: Debates about complicity—direct or indirect—in #MeToo scenarios; societal, familial and cultural challenges and pressures; physical abuse and bullying; and struggles with identity, sexuality, loneliness and finding love. Heartfelt anecdotes and confessions emerge from the cocky, fart-filled party atmosphere as the men confront themselves and each other with their experiences, beliefs and perceptions—giving us a fly-on-the-wall perspective of men’s lives. And one is struck that, while women will naturally open up and have these kinds of conversations—revealing shame, vulnerability and confusion—it’s maybe not so easy or as common for men. And we all need to have those conversations.

Featuring energetic, entertaining and poignant performances from Rachel Brophy, Mercy Cherian, Jacqueline Dawe, Savoy Howe, Sunday Muse, Sundance Nagrial, Silvi Santoso, Savannah Binder and Todd, We The Men is a candid, funny and brave intersectional exploration of what it means to be a man in the 21st century.

We The Men continues at the Cadillac Lounge until July 15; check the show page for exact dates and times. For the inside scoop on the inspiration and creative process, check out this great interview with Tracey Erin Smith by She Does the City. And check out the show’s Facebook event page for bios and character descriptions.

Lust, corruption & the pursuit of justice in Shakespeare BASH’d sharply funny, timely Measure for Measure

Sochi Fried & Geoffrey Armour. Scenic design by Caitlin Doherty. Photo by Kyle Purcell.

 

Shakespeare BASH’d returns to a Toronto pub to present one of the less produced plays of the canon: Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, directed by Catherine Rainville and opening last night at Junction City Music Hall. Given the current #MeToo climate, with powerful and famous—in some cases, respected and even beloved—men called out and taken to court for sexual harassment and assault, and female accusers disbelieved and finding themselves faced with challenging choices, it couldn’t be more timely.

Duke Vincentio (David Ross) is well aware that local laws regarding moral and sexual conduct have gone by the wayside, with officials turning a blind eye to cases of fornication, adultery and sex work. When he decides to get some distance and perspective on his kingdom and people—in what today, we’d call an undercover boss move—he leaves his deputy Angelo (Geoffrey Armour) in charge, with trusted advisor Escalus (Olivia Croft) acting as his second; the Duke tells no one that he’s actually staying in the city, disguised as a Friar as he conducts his observations.

No sooner has Angelo been granted power than he starts rounding up whores, bawds (Lesley Robertson as Pompey) and fornicators, including young Claudio (Jeff Yung), who with the exception of an official ceremony is essentially married to his pregnant love Juliet (Megan Miles). Juliet’s condition protects her from execution, but Claudio is to be put to death for his crime. Claudio’s friend Lucio (Michael Man) informs Claudio’s sister Isabella (Sochi Fried) of her brother’s fate, urging her to plead with Angelo for mercy. When she does so, Angelo’s response is to extort her chastity in exchange for her brother’s life.

Faced with the terrible choice of seeing her brother put to death or surrendering her virtue, Isabella encounters the disguised Duke, who has some interesting information about Angelo, and hatches a plan with her, the maid Mariana (Melanie Leon) and the Provost (Drew O’Hara) to make things right.

With its signature accessible performance and resonant connection with the audience, Shakespeare BASH’d plays up the comedy in this production, however dark at times, to add a spoonful of sugar to this otherwise serious cautionary tale. Angelo’s heavy-handed adherence to the letter of the law, coupled with his vain and entitled sense of virtue and status, make for an ugly and merciless rule—and, like many men in his situation, he believes his power and position make him immune to scrutiny. Who would believe the accusations of a young female nobody? This is how men like him have gotten away with it. The ending is a question mark, making us wonder even about the ‘good guys.’

The ensemble is a finely tuned storytelling delight. Stand-out performances include Armour’s conflicted but entitled Angelo; a dark and corrupt man who struggles with his own lustful desires, he ultimately believes he’s above the law he’s so cruelly enforcing. As Isabella, Fried brings a sense of quiet contemplation, thoughtful oration and fierce vulnerability; Isabella’s genuine goodness and attempt at true justice stand in sharp contrast to Angelo’s hypocritical mask of virtue. Ross gives the Duke a balanced sense of fairness and firmness; progressive where Angelo is regressive, the Duke realizes that the law is a living thing that must reflect the society it rules. Hilarious, sharp-witted comic turns from Man, as the incorrigible scallywag Lucio; and Robertson, as the delightfully coarse Pompey. And shouts to producers/co-founders Julia Nish-Lapidus and James Wallis for stepping in with outstanding comic timing and panache—and off book!—for actor Cara Pantalone (as Mistress Overdone, Froth and Abhorson), who was off sick with no voice last night. The show must, and does, go on.

Lust, corruption and the pursuit of justice in the face of merciless hypocrisy in Shakespeare BASH’d sharply funny, timely Measure for Measure.

Measure for Measure continues at Junction City Music Hall till May 6; advance tickets available online ($20) or at the door ($25 cash only). The first half of this short run is sold out, and there’s limited availability for Friday-Sunday. Tickets are going fast, so book in advance or arrive extra early to get on the wait list.

Sex, death, snakes & the healing power of flowers & family in Red Betty Theatre & the G Girls’ political, theatrical Ganga’s Ganja

We struggle in birth. We struggle in death.

I popped over to Geary Lane last night for Storefront Theatre’s presentation of Red Betty Theatre and the G Girls’ production of Radha S. Menon’s Ganga’s Ganja, directed by Jennie Esdale. Ganga’s Ganja headlines the Feminist Fuck It Festival (FFIF), a two-week curated festival of multidisciplinary women and non-binary-identifying artists presenting new, bold and entertaining works.

Set sometime in the not too distant future, sisters Mena (Pam Patel) and Ganga (Senjuti Aurora Sarker) have gone off the grid, living on a piece of land where Ganga grows and tends to medicinal marijuana to help ease Mena’s excruciating Multiple Sclerosis symptoms and give her some quality of life. Ever moving in and out of Mena’s consciousness is Kadru (Amanda DeFreitas), a black and gold snake that only Mena can see. Is Mena hallucinating or is Kadru her escort into the next life?

While Mena self-medicates with weed, deeply inhaling the smoke like oxygen, Ganga’s medicine is one-night stands that often keep her out all night, always returning to her caregiving in the morning. Mena is afraid of leaving Ganga alone, and Ganga is terrified of losing Mena. When their marijuana crop is stolen and they meet the fast-talking, charmer Nero (Jesse Horvath), a man with a shiny silver briefcase and a lot of ideas, the sisters’ world is turned upside down. In a world where non-prescription drugs have been criminalized, but big pharma is happy to use plants to create their products, who can they trust—and how will they find a way to let go of each other?

Political and theatrical, the themes of sex, death and alternative medicine combine with feminism, Hindu deities and sticking it to the man. Patel and Sarker have great chemistry as the sisters; and do a nice job layering their respective inner and outer conflicts. Patel’s Mena is cheerful and positive, despite her devastating diagnosis—this all masking her concern, which is more for her sister than for herself. Mena wants to die, to leave her suffering behind and start over in the next life, but she can’t bring herself to leave Ganga. As Ganga, Sarker is a combination of attentive caregiver and devil-may-care party girl; drowning her guilt and fear in random hook-ups, Ganga struggles with the harsh truth that Mena doesn’t have much time left. DeFreitas brings a sensual and fierce edge to Kadru; ever watchful and ever waiting, Kadru is not the menace she appears to be—and appears to represent the faith, tradition and ritual of the sisters’ Indian ancestors. Horvath’s Nero is the perfect picture of white, male entitlement; charming, mercurial and donning a bad boy rebel image, Nero is a 21st century snake oil salesman dealing in mainstream pharmaceuticals. He is the embodiment of Western right-wing conservative, corporate misogyny—all wrapped up in a pretty bleach blond, white linen package.

With shouts to the design team—Tony Sciara (set), Tula Tusox (costume) and Maddie Bautista (sound)—for their work in creating this evocative, otherworldly space that reflects both the South Asian culture of the sisters, and an intriguing environment that’s out of time and space.

Sex, death, snakes and the healing power of flowers and family in Red Betty Theatre and the G Girls’ political, theatrical Ganga’s Ganja.

Ganga’s Ganja continues at FFIF at Geary Lane (360 Geary Ave., Toronto) until April 22, every night (except Mondays) at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2:00 pm, followed by nightly programming at 9:00 pm and 10:30 pm. Get advanced tickets for Ganga’s Ganja online and check out the rest of the FFIF line-up.

Three generations of women navigate life, love & those feelings “down there” in TIP’s hilarious, poignant, intimate Little Gem

Top to bottom: Rebecca De La Cour, Barbara Taylor & Billie Jean Shannon. Photo by Sean Walsh.

The Toronto Irish Players (TIP) opened their production of Elaine Murphy’s Little Gem, directed by Cliona Kenny, on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage to a packed house last night.

Drawing from the old tradition of the Gaelic storyteller (the Seanachai), Little Gem’s commentator device uses a Trinitarian approach—in this case, the story is told from the perspectives of three women: a granddaughter, a mother and grandmother from the same family.

Set in present-day Dublin, we open on Amber’s (Billie Jean Shannon) tale of the fateful night of her Debs (a city-wide high school prom), and the complex emotional dance of relationships with her boyfriend Paul and school teach-like bff Jo. Then, there’s her mother Lorraine (Rebecca De La Cour), a single mom, husband Ray long gone to who knows where, who works in a department store. She’s been forced to go on leave and see a shrink after she loses it on an extremely annoying and vindictive regular customer. And there’s Kay, Lorraine’s ma (Barbara Taylor), a breast cancer survivor and 24/7 caregiver to her husband Gem, struggling with an itch of her own.

Lovely, compelling—and endearingly comical—work from these three actors; each bringing her own brand of outspoken cheek, feistiness and strength to these characters. Shannon gives us a youthful, impetuous, and keen sense of social awareness and observation to Amber. Mouthy and full of teen sass and mortification, Amber’s a master at projecting an image of giving zero fucks, but there’s a tender, loving heart there that also longs to be loved. De La Cour brings a desperate housewife, poignant sense of resiliency to Lorraine. An anxious, exhausted member of the sandwich generation, Lorraine struggles to communicate with her distant teenage daughter, and worries about the well-being of her aging mother and seriously ill father; and she finds that she can’t stress clean away her own sense of loneliness and lack of a definitive life of her own. Taylor is a laugh riot and a force to be reckoned with as the family matriarch. Now in the winter years of life, there’s heat in that tired 60-something body yet—and Kay’s stubborn sense of resolve overcomes any sense of pride or shame as she actively, and at times hilariously, seeks solutions to her problems. Eschewing spoilers, I’ll have to leave it at that—and you’ll have to go see for yourself.

Life goes on for these three women; and unexpected events change the course of the day-to-day, forcing challenging decisions, personal growth, and acts of strength and courage. And, in the process, the lives of these three women—living separately together—are brought together into new and closer bonds of family and womanhood.

Nicely staged, on an effective and minimalist set featuring beautifully rendered charcoal family portraits (set by Bernadette Hunt and Sean Treacy), each character has her own playing area, with each storyteller staying within her own space until these inextricably intertwined lives gradually come closer together during the final scenes.

Three generations of women navigate life, love and those feelings “down there” in TIP’s hilarious, poignant, intimate Little Gem.

Little Gem continues on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage until March 3; advance tickets available online or by calling 416-440-2888. The Irish Players are an extremely popular local community company, so advance booking strongly recommended.

And no worries about thinking this is a “chick play,” the men were laughing as hard as the women. Having said that, it also struck me that, even though Mother’s Day is some months away, this is the perfect girls’ night out for women, their moms and grandmothers.

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.