Questions of perception, assumption & expectation in the powerful, riveting, provocative Actually

Tony Ofori & Claire Renaud. Set design by Sean Mulcahy. Costume design by Alex Amini. Lighting design by Steve Lucas. Photo by Joanna Akyol.

 

The Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company, in association with Obsidian Theatre, opens its 13th season with Anna Ziegler’s Actually, directed by Philip Akin, assisted by Kanika Ambrose; and running in the Greenwin Theatre at the Meridian Arts Centre (formerly the Toronto Centre for the Arts). Two Ivey League freshmen, a Black male student and a Jewish female student, make a connection that becomes sexual in nature—and each has a very different experience and account of the night they spent together. Powerful, riveting and provocative—featuring compelling and genuine performances—this timely two-hander takes you on a see-saw ride of belief, empathy and understanding; highlighting perceptions, assumptions and expectations based on race, gender and class.

Excited, terrified and determined to do well, Amber (Claire Renaud) and Tom (Tony Ofori) arrive at Princeton for their first year of studies. She’s quirky and awkward, with romantic notions of sex and limited experience; he’s got swagger and game, with a sexually active lifestyle and a commitment to sowing his youthful wild oats. Opposites attract on common ground as the two make a connection; and attraction brings them together in Tom’s bed.

During their encounter, Amber finds that something changes for her; and their initially sexy fun times experience becomes uncomfortable and unwanted. She relates how she attempts to put a stop to it by getting off the bed, saying “Actually…” Tom believes she was into it, and later remembers nothing from her verbal communication or body language that would have suggested otherwise. Amber comments on the night to a friend, and the response prompts her to report the incident to the university, which launches a sexual misconduct investigation and hearing. Amber believes she was raped, and Tom is shocked and mortified by the allegation.

As their individual and collective stories unfold, the audience goes from being confidante—as we hear about their lived experiences with family, sex, desire, what inspires them—to university hearing panelist as they make their statements. Both had a lot to drink on the night in question. Both feel like outsiders with much to prove, anxiously navigating their first year at a prestigious school, along with raging 18-year-old hormones, and a culture of sex and partying. Not the best conditions for making good choices. Both live with body issues: Amber with the pressures of traditional feminine beauty standards; and Tom with the everyday racism and prejudice that accompany the colour of his skin. The seriousness of Amber’s rape charge lands particularly hard on Tom—a young Black man living in a world stewed in toxic, ongoing systemic racism. And Amber’s initial tacit consent that night, going to his room for the purposes of sex, combined with her behaviour earlier that evening, puts her credibility in question.

Compelling, genuine and nuanced performances from Renaud and Ofori in this vital, timely piece of theatre. Renaud brings a big spark of light, energy and pathos to the adorkable, hyper-talkative Amber; a young woman desperately treading water to stay afloat in a new world of classes, assignments, squash practice and obligatory partying. Amber finds herself wanting and not wanting at the same time; pressed forward by social media-driven peer pressure, she engages in activities and behaviour even when her heart isn’t really in it. Ofori’s Tom is a complex portrait of a confident, frank young man who wants to do his family proud; Tom is the first of his working class family to attend university, let alone at an Ivey League school. There’s a sensitive soul beneath the swagger, expressed through Tom’s love of classical music and piano playing—where he finds a space to be free.

It would be grossly simplistic to call this a “he said/she said” story. As you vacillate between believing and sympathizing with one, and then the other, in the end you may find yourself believing both of them. And if both are right, on which side of this 50/50 situation will the feather land in the final decision? In this age of #MeToo and #consent, and with all of these complex and intersectional variables to consider, audiences will no doubt come away with questions, conversations and reflections. This story is a prime example of why sex, sexuality and consent need to be taught in elementary and secondary schools.

Actually continues in the Greenwin Theatre at the Meridian Arts Centre (formerly the Toronto Centre for the Arts) until September 29. Advance tickets available online by clicking on the show page calendar.

ICYMI: Check out assistant director Kanika Ambrose’s Artist Perspective piece for Intermission Magazine.

SummerWorks: Pick-up artistry meets consent culture in the hilarious, disturbing, eye-opening Safe and Sorry

Lauren Gillis. Photo by Peter Demas.

 

Lester Trips Theatre presents a provocative multimedia workshop production of the hilarious, disturbing, eye-opening Safe and Sorry. Co-created and performed by Lauren Gillis and Alaine Hutton, co-performed and choreographed by Angela Blumberg, and directed by Chelsea Dab Hilke, we’re invited into the world of Keith Much, who leads workshops aimed at helping men with their dating and pick-up game. His process, a combination of pick-up artistry and consent culture, amasses a lot of fans; it also finds detractors—and Keith begins to see the darker side of male desire as he reads the comments on his message board. Safe and Sorry had its second performance in the Franco Boni Theatre at The Theatre Centre last night.

The audience becomes part of a Keith Much (Lauren Gillis) dating workshop, where our affable facilitator mixes up quick lecture bites with Q&A and one-on-one sessions on stage with a variety of participants (Alaine Hutton)—from overly enthusiastic bro’s like Mike to painfully shy dudes like Stu. His unorthodox methods make for hilarious, but instructive moments, as he teaches men about respectful approaches, consent, body language, verbal and non-verbal cues, personal hygiene and kissing.

Keith’s helpful and progressive teachings aim to make sure that both the man and woman are having good, safe, sexy fun times; but as his popularity grows and his message board gets more traffic, so too do the darker responses from the toxic masculinity side of the straight male spectrum. And he comes face to face with the dark side when an aggressive, frustrated participant disrupts a workshop Q&A, forcing him to call a break have a sit-down with the guy. This man wants to find a wife, settle down and have a family, but finds women only want to party and will dump a good guy like him for the next best thing. Angered and entitled, he believed that his excellent socioeconomic status would make a difference, but it isn’t; and he eventually identifies as incel. The toxic responses online begin to turn on Keith, as some of these men begin to question his credibility.

In between workshop scenes, we see a trailer for a movie (film design by Peter Demas, with lighting and video design by Wesley McKenzie, nicely supported by Steven Conway’s music arrangement/performance) in which four men (played by Gillis and Hutton), unknown to each other, have been abducted and chained up in a concrete bunker. As they try to figure out why they’ve been taken, they realize what they each have in common: they’ve all committed rape—and the psychological thriller scenario implies that a woman (or group of women) is out for revenge. And while the men in the trailer are forced to confront what they’ve done, women are placed in the position of being a threat, the enemy—this becomes a parallel of sorts to the dark side views that Keith sees emerging in his message board comments.

Excellent work from Gillis and Hutton in this multimedia, multi-layered trip into the male psyche from a consent culture perspective. Gillis is amiable, warm and confident as Keith; knowledgeable, professional and helpful, Keith creates a safe, supportive environment for men to share their issues, work out problems and improve their dating game. Hutton’s multi-tasking role as the various workshop participants ranges from the hilarious and goofy, to the extremely awkward and shy, to the everyday, to the angry, entitled and menacing. The movie trailer adds an interesting level to this exploration of male desire and toxic masculinity, but it’s the interaction between Keith and the men, especially the incel guy, that makes for the most powerful and compelling moments. Looking forward to seeing the evolution of this timely, thought-provoking piece; part two of Safe and Sorry is coming Spring 2020.

Safe & Sorry has one more performance in the Franco Boni Theatre at the Theatre Centre: August 16 at 5:00 p.m. Tickets available online or in person at the box office; it’s a very short three-show run, so advance booking or early arrival at the venue is recommended.

SummerWorks: Forgotten women’s voices emerge from the asylum in the remarkable, haunting Audible Songs from Rockwood

Simone Schmidt. Photo by Jeff Bierk.

 

Fiver brings a remarkable piece of musical storytelling to the stage with Audible Songs from Rockwood, written by Simone Schmidt, created by Schmidt, Shannon Lea Doyle and Frank Cox-O’Connell, and directed by Cox-O’Connell—running in the Franco Boni Theatre at The Theatre Centre. Based on the album of the same name, Schmidt has brought to life the voices of 10 women who were incarcerated at the Rockwood Asylum for the Criminally Insane between 1856 and 1881, taking us on a music accompanied history tour of these women’s lives and experiences at Rockwood—while drawing on issues of colonialism, patriarchy and mental health.

Staged as a piece of solo storytelling theatre, Schmidt shares her inspiration and research—of Rockwood and its inmates, and of Upper Canada law and general history of the time—in between songs, as she draws parallels between colonialism, and the system of white Protestant patriarchy that ruled the land and made property of wives and daughters. Inspired by the experiences of 10 women incarcerated at the Rockwood Asylum for the Criminally Insane, and incorporating two years of research from the case files and ledgers of the facility, Schmidt has created a series of song portraits. Put away by fathers, husbands or the authorities for out of wedlock sexual activity and being “man-obsessed”, melancholia, paranoia over land theft or spousal infidelity, or going incognito (one woman fabricated a life under an assumed name as a single woman from down south, when she was married to a local man), these women were subject to harsh conditions, initially housed in the stables of the former estate as the facility was under construction to house the overflow of mentally ill inmates from Kingston Penitentiary. Silenced and forgotten, some were left there for years after they were deemed fit to return home, their families inquiring about them but not bothering to make the journey to take them back.

Inmates were confined, forced into silence, and subjected to hard labour and cruel punishments for breaking the rules. Lack of funding for mental health shut down plans for more advanced, humane treatment at the facility; moral treatment, based on a Quaker model, whereby patients would have freedom to move about, and be given useful tasks to perform around the facility, like cleaning, cooking or gardening. Lack of funds also meant the facility had insufficient heating in winter, forcing inmates to huddle together for warmth as the contents of their chamber pots froze.

Haunting and mournful, lyrical yet matter of fact, the Appalachian folk-inspired music captures the essence of women whose lives were forever changed; silenced and policed in a harsh penal/mental health system—the stories in the facility documents were essentially told by the male doctors and police officers involved with each case. Schmidt’s vocals are earthy, deep and soulful; accompanied by Laura Bates on fiddle and Carlie Howell on double bass, in addition to back-up vocals/harmonies. Schmidt is well-aware of the possible issue of appropriation of voice here; and she wondered out loud if it’s right for her to tell these stories that aren’t really hers to tell. But if not for her songs—developed through respectful and painstaking research—who would be telling the stories of these troubled, silenced and forgotten women?

The “Audible” in the title may seem redundant, but Audible Songs from Rockwood are the songs of the hearts, souls and minds of women who otherwise would have had no voice.

Audible Songs from Rockwood continues, with three more performances, in the Franco Boni Theatre at the Theatre Centre until August 18; check the show page for exact dates/times. Tickets available online or in person at the box office.

Toronto Fringe: Summer camp like you’ve never seen before in the wacky fun, sex-positive, feminist Pack Animals

S.E. Grummett & Holly M. Brinkman. Photo by Brynne Carra Photography.

 

Scantily Glad Theatre presents summer camp like you’ve never seen before in its Toronto premiere of the wacky fun, sex-positive, feminist Pack Animals, created and performed by Holly M. Brinkman and S.E. Grummett, and running at the Randolph Theatre.

When a wilderness-wise Woodpecker (Brinkman) and a bush craft-challenged Beaver (Grummett) get lost in the woods, they have to work together and use what resources they have to find their way back to camp. Wacky fun times and hilarity ensue as the pair must make do when vital gear goes “missing,” a bear shows up, fairies join a (formerly) skeptical Woodpecker in their tent, and some random cowboy dude (Jon Blair, from the cast of The Resistance Improvised) keeps showing up to mansplain camping and even feminist comedy!

Hilariously sprinkled throughout the camping mishap shenanigans is a series of Hinterland Who’s Who bits (with puppets!), featuring various male creatures to be aware of in the dating scene—complete with theme music, courtesy of Brinkman’s recorder. And then there’s their kick-ass funny mansplaining song, featuring Grummett on ukulele.

Brinkman and Grummett make for the perfect odd couple pairing: Brinkman’s fastidious, experienced and enthusiastic camper, sporting a shit ton of badges on her Woodpecker sash; and Grummett’s rough and tumble bad-ass Beaver, who couldn’t care less about the wilderness or camping, with a half-assed interest in badges.

It’s bawdy good fun; it’s sex-positive; it’s LGBTQI+, non-binary and feminist. Brinkman and Grummett invite a different Guest Mansplainer for every performance—and by the end, I bet you’ll be singing along.

Pack Animals continues at the Randolph Theatre until July 13; check the show page for exact dates/times and advance tickets.

Toronto Fringe: Stepping into the mind of a Ulysses character in the playful, bawdy, theatrical Molly Bloom

Lena Maripuu, Jenna-Lee Hyde, Reanne Spitzer & Annie Tuma. Photo by Jocelyn Adema.

 

Forth Gorgon Theatre takes us into the mind of Molly Bloom in Jocelyn Adema’s playful, bawdy, theatrical adaptation of the final chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses in Molly Bloom, directed by Adema and running in the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse.

Four actors play various aspects of Molly’s psyche (Jenna-Lee Hyde, Lena Maripuu, Reanne Spitzer and Annie Tuma) as she tosses and turns, her brain electric with tumultuous thoughts and memories at 3 a.m. A sexually-charged being, married to Leopold for 16 years, Molly hasn’t had sex with her husband since the death of their son 11 years ago. The internal monologue is externalized through dialogue, monologue, synchronized and individual movement, and vocals in unison and harmony; the rapid-fire discussions and musings range from gossip, love, lovers, sex, birth, suspicion, infidelity and attraction. Memories of her new-found sexual power: the relishing of kisses, the union of bodies, her blossoming breasts, and the hard and soft dichotomy of the penis; and her afternoon lover Hugh. These contrasted with her disdain of and trash-talking about men’s sexual appetites and failings; and suspicions of Leopold’s infidelity.

The fabulous foursome ensemble is a delight. Performing with exuberance (and I saw a 10 p.m. show), playfulness and sharp wit—going from delicious gossip to suspicious rage and sensuous memory—all rounded with a sharp, sardonic, bawdy sense of humour and a slumber party atmosphere. Each actor highlights an aspect of Molly’s personality: Hyde’s ferocity, Maripuu’s pragmatism, Spitzer’s playfulness and Tuma’s sardonic edge—all played out with commitment, good humour, mischief and youthful energy. The action is nicely complemented by Beatriz Arevalo’s set and costume design; the sensuous quality of the bed, covered with a mountain of multi-coloured pillows, surrounded by light translucent curtains, contrast with the more chaste pajamas. And the pre-show thunderstorm soundtrack mirrors the torrential storm and power of Molly’s thoughts and feelings, a peek into the action to come.

Don’t worry if you haven’t read Ulysses (I haven’t); the program provides descriptions of the characters Molly references, along with a brief history of her life.

Molly Bloom continues at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse until July 13; check the show page for exact dates/times and advance tickets.

Power, politics & poison in the wickedly funny, sexy, irreverent Bella Donna

Françoise Balthazar, Paul Hopkins & Chelsea Russell. Photo by Tanja-Tiziana.

 

The Bella Donna Artists Collective opened a new, revised production of David Copelin’s Bella Donna, directed by Anita La Selva, to a sold out house at the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace last night. Examining the political intrigue during the latter part of Lucrezia Borgia’s life through a 21st century lens, the wicked funny, sexy and irreverent script features all the salacious intrigue and backroom power plays one would expect—focusing on how she, and other women of the day, wielded political and sexual power despite social, legal and religious limitations.

Like her father Rodrigo (Pope Alexander VI) before her, Lucrezia (Françoise Balthazar) is the subject of grudging select fear and respect, as well as derision and vicious gossip. She’s onto her third husband, Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrera (Paul Hopkins), who has taken his ward and goddaughter Contessa Angela Di Ghilini (Chelsea Russell) as his mistress. As with all of her marriages, this union was arranged by her father for political gain—in this case, d’Este’s army—and Lucrezia is aware of, and disinterested in, her husband’s extramarital dalliances.

Dewey Stewart & Françoise Balthazar. Set & costume design by Jan Venus. Lighting design by Waleed Ansari. Photo by Rene Stakenborg. 

When Alfonso receives word from Rome that Pope Julius II has excommunicated them, and by association all of Ferrera, over allegations of immoral and criminal acts (see rumours about Lucrezia), the house is thrown into a tizzy, prompting Lucrezia to travel to Rome to try to reverse the decision. It is there that she meets Giovanni (Dewey Stewart), a handsome young captain in the Pope’s elite guard. Both in disguise for a masked ball when they meet, Giovanni—who loathes the Borgias, out of duty to the current Pope and based on rumour—doesn’t believe she is who she says she is and the two embark on an affair. We also meet Lucrezia’s friend and confidante Sister Bibiana (Martha Chaves), who acts as an informant for Lucrezia and Alfonso.

Giovanni, on the heels of Lucrezia after she slips away from Rome, is captured and beaten by Alfonso’s henchman Carlo (Michael Giordano); Alfonso has learned of Lucrezia’s tryst with the young captain, and forces her to choose between throat slitting or poison for his execution. An expert with poison and antidotes, she chooses the latter, a decision that offers Giovanni not only the opportunity to live another day, but to meet the lovely young Angela. Like Giovanni, Angela’s derision of Lucrezia melts when she gets to actually know her—and she gets a quick tutorial on Lucrezia’s signature poison, the titular belladonna (deadly nightshade), mixed with snake venom, from Sister Bibiana.

Of course, since we’re talking about the Borgias and the cut-throat politics of that time and place, someone does die and there’s a question about the lineage of someone else—and you’ll have to go see for yourself to find out who. Death, sex, alliances and even devotion to the Catholic Church all hinge on expediency, convenience and political advantage; vengeance is swift and sure, and life such as it is carries on in spite of it all.  Oh—and there’s puppets!

Chelsea Russell & Dewey Stewart. Set & costume design by Jan Venus. Lighting design by Waleed Ansari. Photo by Rene Stakenborg. 

Balthazar gives a stellar performance as the sultry, cunning Lucrezia—a role that seems tailor-made for her, as it showcases her compelling presence and vocal strength. Although technically lower in rank than her husband, Lucrezia is Alfonso’s match in every way: politically savvy, highly intelligent and possessing of an unabashed sexual appetite. Where the two diverge is apparent in Alfonso’s pompous, cruel sense of entitlement, which Hopkins executes with charming yet vicious precision.

Russell is highly entertaining as the bored little rich girl Angela, whose shade-casting ways turn to respect when she actually gets to know Lucrezia; also shouts to her for the puppet show, a hilariously irreverent Punch and Judy-like faceoff between Pope Alexander VI and Pope Julius II (design and construction by Jan Venus). Stewart is a delight as the brash, lusty Giovanni; a one-time true believer of Lucrezia’s rumoured unsavoury reputation, he too becomes a convert when he gets to know her, both biblically and otherwise. Chaves is a treat as the impish, wily Sister Bibiana; like Lucrezia, there’s more than meets the eye to this little nun—and you don’t want to get on the wrong side of those expert snake-handling hands. And Giordano’s strong, mostly silent henchman Carlo adds a gangland-flavoured comic edge.

Poison is often dismissed, mainly by men, as a “woman’s weapon.” But as we see from Sister Bibiana’s chemistry lesson and Lucrezia Borgia’s mastery of it—it involves science, skill and subtlety. And while the use of a plant to kill is perhaps a more velvet glove approach compared to the brute force of cold steel, it gets the job done. After all, one must use what weapons one has at one’s disposal. Underestimate the power of such weapons, and those who wield them, at your peril. Misunderstood, maligned and underestimated, Lucrezia Borgia is a survivor turned thriver, evolving from political bargaining chip to political force in her own right. Just don’t tell the men that.

Bella Donna continues in the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace until June 1; performances run Tues-Sat at 8 pm, with matinées on Sundays at 2:30 pm. Get advance tickets online or at the door (PWYC rush tickets available on Tuesdays and Sundays).

 

Gender power dynamics get a table flip in the provocative, timely Beautiful Man

Foreground: Ashley Botting, Mayko Nguyen & Sofía Rodríguez. Background: Jess LaVercombe. Set design by Gillian Gallow. Costume design by Ming Wong. Lighting design by Jason Hand. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography.

 

Factory Theatre closes its 2018-19 season with Erin Shields’ Beautiful Man. Directed by long-time Shields collaborator Andrea Donaldson (now the new AD at Nightwood Theatre), assisted by Keshia Palm, Beautiful Man was first produced during SummerWorks in 2015—a few years before the #MeToo movement exploded into public consciousness. A hilariously sharp, satirical and thought-provoking turnabout of gender power dynamics, Shields has revised the original script to reflect the #MeToo landscape; and has added a section that provides a sense of everyday realism—in both cases, flipping gender power roles in surprising, provocative ways.

I first saw Beautiful Man at SummerWorks 2015—and loved it. Not for the feint-hearted when it comes to adult language, and discussions of graphic sex and violence, the razor-sharp, bawdy, no holds barred script and the playful, rapid fire performances turn the tables on who is marginalized and objectified. Three women—Jennifer (Ashley Botting), Sophie (Mayko Nguyen) and Pam (Sofía Rodríguez)—get into a passionate discussion about popular scripted media; all stories in which the female characters hold the power, and men are subject to objectification and violence. A movie about a world-weary, tough yet haunted female homicide detective on the hunt for a female serial killer who preys on beautiful men. Exhausted and zoning out in front of the TV, the detective watches a violent, graphically sexual Game of Thrones-esque fantasy fiction series featuring a powerful, cruel queen and her amazon warrior sister. Within the TV show, the queen watches a play with a plot that’s similar to Julius Caesar, but with women in the key roles; and within that play, a puppet show starring a lusty cave woman. Yep, it’s a puppet show within a play, within a TV series, within a movie—all within a play!

Throughout this first fantasy section of the play, the Beautiful Man (Jesse LaVercombe) is a peripheral character, always present in the background, with little to say as he gradually removes his clothing throughout. A sensitive, supportive but frustrated husband; a poignant murder/rape victim; a conquered sex slave. Valued only for his beauty and usefulness to the women in charge, his name is perpetually forgotten. In the epilogue, the shifted power dynamic continues, but in a markedly different way, as a woman relates personal anecdotes of navigating everyday corporate oppression, mansplaining, harassment, self-doubt and chastisement, and fear for her safety.

Outstanding performances from the entire cast in this thought-provoking, timely piece of theatre. Beyond mere fan girl involvement with the media they’re consuming and discussing, the three women engage on a deeply personal level with the movie, TV series, play and puppet show. Botting’s Jennifer displays wry wit and shameless enthusiasm; Nguyen’s Sophie brings an edge of precision and authority; and Rodríguez’s Pam relishes the sensual and forbidden. At times misremembering details in their reverie, these three  women find a titillating oasis in these stories of sex, violence and dominant female characters. And LaVercombe gives a sensitive and moving performance as the Beautiful Man. Viewed as eye candy, the “other half”, a sex object, a victim, and only subjectively and conditionally seen as useful—this is a man standing in places traditionally endured by women.

Despite the graphic sex and violence described during the first part of the play, not to mention the fact that these women are really getting off on it, the second part is perhaps the most provocative. What impact does it have on the conversations about these issues? Will the everyday oppression of women be better understood when told in this manner? Who gets the last word?

Beautiful Man continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until May 26; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416- 504-9971.

Check out this Intermission Spotlight piece on Shields and her work by Carly Maga, including chats with Shields, Donaldson and Maev Beaty. And Megan Robinson’s conversation with Shields and Donaldson in In the Greenroom.