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.

Women of wit & wisdom debate religion in the compelling, funny, thought-provoking Unholy

Nightwood Theatre continues its 2016-17 season of groundbreaking theatre with Diane Flacks’ Unholy, directed by Nightwood A.D. Kelly Thornton, opening at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre last night.

Given the upcoming presidential inauguration and the accompanying Women’s March events, as well as ongoing changing attitudes towards religion, its treatment of women and LGBTQ people, and its place in our world, Unholy is a timely piece. It asks the question: Should women abandon religion?

Inspired by the 1989 documentary Half the Kingdom, Unholy is set as a TV debate, with host/moderator Richard Morris (Blair Williams) and debate teams of two women. On the pro side of the question are atheist lesbian pundit Liz Feldman-Grant (Diane Flacks) and excommunicated nun Margaret Donaghue (Barbara Gordon); on the con side are Orthodox Jewish spiritual leader Yehudit Kalb (Niki Landau) and progressive Muslim lawyer Maryam Hashemi (Bahareh Yaraghi).

Each woman is allowed two minutes at the podium to present her argument, followed by discussion and debate. This is an unapologetic, gloves off affair as arguments cover religion’s culpability for violence against women, women’s physical separation from male congregants, the niqab, family, sex, LGBTQ and women’s reproductive rights, and justice for pedophile priests. It is a battle of scripture interpretation, points of religious and secular law, wit and conscience—conducted with sharp intelligence and humour.

Woven into the debate scenes are some revealing monologues and tender, intimate two-handers; through these, we get glimpses into the private lives of these four women. Liz rejected Judaism when her now deceased partner Stacey received a terminal diagnosis. Margaret, in her role as a nurse and administrator at a Catholic hospital, made a decision the Catholic Church couldn’t abide. The love of Yehudit’s life married someone else. Maryam found strength in family tragedy, and love and acceptance in her family’s new life in Canada. As private and public lives collide, and the debate heats up, of course all hell breaks loose.

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Diane Flacks & Barbara Gordon in Unholy – all photos by John Lauener

Flacks’ powerful script is matched by an equally strong cast that brings these fully drawn, complex women to life in this nicely staged, multi-media piece. As the atheist Liz, Flacks is a fierce, mercurial and determined debater; seeing the world of organized religion in black and white terms, Liz rejects the notion that religion can be a positive force in the world. Deeply wounded by the loss of her partner, out of her grief she became mad as hell at the state of organized religion and its impact on women—and chose her battle. Gordon brings a lovely, understated quietude to the soft-spoken ex-nun Margaret; beneath the surface, though, is a heart of strength, hope and courage. Not entirely convinced of her official debate argument, she is a disillusioned former soldier of the Catholic Church who disobeyed orders to follow her own conscience.

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Niki Landau & Bahareh Yaraghi in Unholy

As Yehudit, Landau is both comic and poignant; shifting from a willful young woman to dutiful adult, she serves her family and community with strength and stand-up comic good humour. Circumspect in her interpretations of her Orthodox Jewish faith, she sees room for growth and change; this includes space for women to play a significant leadership role. Yaraghi is sharp and passionate as Maryam, and an excellent foil for Flacks’ Liz. Like her debate partner Yehudit, Maryam is hopeful and believes in a progressive Islam as she strives to break the barriers of stereotype and ignorance in a post-9/11 world where extremists are continually making headlines.

Turnabout is fair play for the male moderator. As women are largely relegated to the sidelines in day-to-day life, especially religious life, it is he who stands off to the side as the studio is dominated by the four women. Williams does a nice job with the affable Morris; as the women take the podium, he rides the fine line of refereeing authentic discourse and the desire to create gripping television.

Each of the women is an archetype: the wounded Fighter, the Lover with a patched up heart, the heartbroken Mother and the haunted Healer. Although each is broken-hearted and struggling with a crisis of faith, each is passionate, strong, wise and loving as she strives to stay hopeful and work towards a better world.

Serious issues, but Unholy makes you laugh a lot—and it’s going to stay with you well after you leave the theatre. It may even change your mind.

Women of wit and wisdom debate religion in the compelling, funny, thought-provoking Unholy.

Due to popular demand, Unholy has extended its run at Buddies to February 5; you can book tix in advance online or by phone. The run also includes several scheduled talkbacks:

Friday, January 20 – Gretta Vosper: as an atheist and a minister with the United Church of Canada, Gretta’s self-proclaimed motto is “Irritating the church into the 21st century.” SOLD OUT

Monday, January 23* – Nightwood Theatre Young Innovator Michela Sisti hosts a panel discussion about women in religion as part of Brave New Theatre’s response to Unholy. Joining her will be playwright Diane Flacks, Raheel Raza (journalist and inter-faith consultant) and Andrea Budgey (Humphrys Chaplain, freelance writer and environmental activist).

*Please note: there are no performances of Unholy on Mondays. For more information on Brave New Theatre, please visit their Facebook page.

Wednesday, January 25 – Stay post-show for a Q & A with the stellar cast members of Unholy.

Friday, January 27 – Lynn Harrison: a Reverend with First Toronto Unitarian, an interfaith, non-denominational congregation with its roots in social justice and inclusion.

Thursday, February 2 – Due to popular demand, atheist minister Gretta Vosper will return to share her insights on women in religion and inclusive atheism.

You can keep up with Nightwood Theatre on Twitter and Facebook. In the meantime, check out the trailer for Unholy:

Sex, death & religion: Pondering life experiences & relationships in thoughtful, sassy, intense FAITH

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Lindsey Middleton & Ben Hayward in FAITH – photo by Mike Cameron

“It was the United Church so it was all like sing these songs, hold hands and get the fuck outta here.”

Theatre By Committee opened its production of Ben Hayward’s FAITH in the Chapel at St. Luke’s United Church (353 Sherbourne St., corner of Sherbourne/Carlton, Toronto – Carlton St. entrance). Directed by Brandon Gillespie, FAITH was the winner of the 2016 Hamilton Fringe Festival’s Best New Play Contest.

FAITH is told in the first person by a troubled teen named Faith (Lindsey Middleton), who regularly breaks the fourth wall to speak to the audience directly as the story unfolds with her scene partner, Grace United Church minister David (Ben Hayward). Part memory play, part coming of age story, we see Faith navigate complicated relationships with the men in her life: God, her father and David – her thoughts and experiences running the gamut from intellectual, emotional and sexual. One of the big questions she ponders: Are we just the sum of our experiences?

Really lovely work from Middleton and Hayward in this intimate two-hander. It would be easy to write Faith off as a cocky, shit-disturbing, attention-seeking brat – and she is that – but Middleton adeptly mines the layers of hurt, longing and confusion underneath this smart-ass, horny, potty-mouthed kid. Mercurial, sharp, and grasping for hope and meaning, Faith can be her own worst enemy. She’s taken her mother’s advice to kick life in the balls on a daily basis a bit too seriously, a choice that has serious consequences.

Hayward does a great job of finding the awkward, somewhat nerdy, older guy under David’s casual, approachable exterior; David is cool for a clergyman, though – and he genuinely wants to do good in his community. He’s a young husband and father to two young daughters – but, like Faith, there’s so much more to David than what we see in his present life. A kind and gentle soul, he too has a complex response to their relationship.

Throughout the play, multiple meanings of “faith” emerge: a young woman’s name, belief in God or some higher power, and trust in another human being.

With shouts to stage manager Hannah Jack and designer Kelly Anderson for making this production work in this small, non-theatre space.

Sex, death and religion. Pondering the meaning of life experiences and relationships in thoughtful, sassy, intense FAITH.

FAITH continues at St. Luke’s Chapel until Oct 30; seating is limited, so you might want to consider booking tix in advance online.

SummerWorks: Turnabout is fair play as women’s sex & violence fantasies take centre stage in Beautiful Man

BeautifulMan-400x320A puppet show within a play within a TV show within a movie. All very sexy. All very violent. All featuring powerful, strong women with beautiful men in the background.

Yep, you read that right. This is the multidimensional storytelling the audience experiences in Groundwater Production’s Beautiful Man, written by Erin Shields and directed by Groundwater co-Artistic Director Andrea Donaldson – now running at the Theatre Centre Mainspace as part of SummerWorks.

It all starts with three friends talking about a new cop movie featuring a female homicide detective on the hunt for a serial killer who’s preying on beautiful young men. After the cop’s nurse boyfriend gives up on their now cold anniversary dinner when she’s late getting home, she sits down to relax and watch TV: a sword and sorcery tale where women are the rulers and warriors, with men acting in the periphery as consorts or slaves. And so the nesting doll structure of storytelling begins – talking about the movie becomes a discussion about the TV show within the movie, then morphing into the play within the TV show and the puppet show within the play. Got it?

Fabulous work from the cast in this mercurial and visceral relating of each story, rife with detailed descriptions, sex and violence. Anusree Roy as the imperious and precise Sophie; Ava Markus as the playful and curious Pam; and Melissa D’Agostino as the straight-shooting, spunky Jennifer. All three women are passionate, assertive, sensual and deeply committed to these stories – so much so that they become fully immersed as they relate each gory, erotic detail. There’s a lot of penis talk. Like, a lot. And detailed too; this is a world where full frontal male nudity is commonplace, and erections (“semi” or full) aren’t just for porno any more. And most of the men seem to have sandy blond hair. Was someone thinking about Ryan Gosling? 😉

Oh, yeah, and Brett Donahue is the Beautiful Man. And he certainly is. Positioned in the background, upstage on a platform behind the three women, Donahue does a great job taking on the roles of each of the beautiful men in these stories – from the cop’s neglected boyfriend, to the queen’s consort, to a wounded soldier bound for his captor’s harem of men. You get the picture.

A reminder to never underestimate what turns women on – and that sex and violence have universal appeal. It’s very possible that the cop in that movie needs to be looking for a female serial killer. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that a bunch of unsolved real-life cases went cold because the cops weren’t looking for a female perpetrator.

With shouts to music and sound designer Richard Feren for the bang-on Game of Thrones-inspired soundtrack.

Turnabout is fair play as women, and their sex and violence fantasies, take centre stage in hilarious, insightful Beautiful Man.

Beautiful Man continues at the Theatre Centre Mainspace until Aug 16 – check here for the show’s full schedule. This is another very popular show, so advanced booking or early arrival at the box office is strongly recommended.

In the meantime, check out the teaser trailer:

SummerWorks: A young woman’s journey through confusing, crazy times toward empowerment & love in The Emancipation of Ms. Lovely

TheEmancipationofMs.Lovely-400x580“Today my heart broke,” said the seed, “it itched and ached, I was smashed to pieces.”
“Ahh,” said the burning sun, “you were growing, to blossom you have to break.” – Ngozi Paul

With today’s hand-held devices, and instant news and social media access, bad news travels even faster than before. The nature of the injustices we see – particularly those against marginalized and racialized people, and especially women and children – coupled with the sheer amount of information bombarding us every day, can be overwhelming and exhausting as we try to absorb and make sense of it all. All while we go about our own daily lives in search of growth, healing – and love.

It is this world that the heroine of The Emancipation of Ms. Lovely must navigate as she becomes herself and reaches out into the world for love. Written and performed by Ngozi Paul, directed by d’bi.young anitafrika, choreographed by Roger C. Jeffrey – and featuring music, performed on stage, by musicians/composers Waleed Abdulhamid and DJ L’Oqenz AKA Non – the play is an exciting offering of SummerWorks’ 2015 theatre series, running at the Factory Theatre Studio.

Lovely’s story is told through a series of a present day scenes of a sexual encounter and flashbacks to her youth. Growing up with her mother and grandmother, Lovely danced and sang to Jem and the Holograms, aspired to the strength of TV’s Wonder Woman, and adored Paula Abdul. Then came an interest in boys, and with it the pressure to “be cool,” and to behave and dress for them – something that Lovely struggles with, being the energetic girl that she is, and one who wears her heart on her sleeve. Then, the discovery of sex and intimate relationships – easily hurt with her heart out there like that – and the detachment of casual hook-ups and infidelity. Constantly getting the message – from family, friends, boyfriends and media – that her body and sexuality don’t belong to her, she loses sight of her true self, and judges herself and her body in the reflections of others. Until she has to ask herself: “What are you doing?”

Woven throughout Lovely’s story, in first person voice-over, is the story of Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman, a 19th century black woman who was paraded around Europe as a human zoo attraction, her large buttocks used as a selling point – a “specimen” of an exotic black female, hyper-sexualized and exploited. So much so that after her death, her bones and vagina were on display in France for 200 years. Of Baartman’s story and its inclusion in the play, Paul writes: “On a quest to understand how I learned to love, what I understand about my body, my life, a woman’s life and what a black woman’s life means in the 21st century, I was introduced to reflections of myself in the cellular memory of Sarah Baartman.”

Brilliant performance from Paul – and one that includes movement, dance and physical theatre. Her characterizations are engaging and truthful, with a lovely combination of comedy and poignancy – from her watchful and critical grandmother, who doesn’t want shame brought upon the family; to the contagious energy of their church preacher, who blames Eve for man’s falling out with God; to the men who try to seduce her and those who succeed. And the bright-eyed, open-hearted Lovely – excited about growing up, and full of desire and longing. Longing for more than just good sex, but for love. While Paul’s story includes aspects specific to women of colour, it resonates with all women.

The minimalist set is very effective for this production (something that director young anitafrika pushed for as an alternative to Paul’s vision of a more multimedia, high-tech set-up). The nine identical full-length mirrors that cup the playing area serve to reflect the action of Lovely’s story, allowing for viewing at multiple angles. And the way the mirrors are used throughout shifts from child’s fairytale fantasy props to silent reflections of judgment and negative thoughts about body image.

A young woman’s journey through complex, confusing and crazy times toward ownership of her body and sexuality on the way to finding love in the powerful, high-energy and inspirational The Emancipation of Ms. Lovely.

The Emancipation of Ms. Lovely continues at the Factory Theatre Studio until Aug 16 and includes a talkback after the show – check the show page for exact dates/times.

A heartbreaking, erotic & darkly funny journey of identity & intimacy in Aromas

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Andy Fraser – photo by Tim Leyes

“Sex is never just about sex, it’s about so much more.”

The Junes Company* production of Aromas, written and directed by Andrew Faiz, and starring Andy Fraser, opened at Red Sandcastle Theatre last night.

Shifting between time, space and – possibly – reality, Aromas is a one-woman show, featuring two main characters (ice dancer Katalin and professional escort Chanel) and two supporting characters (Katalin’s immigrant mother and former schoolmate Angela), among others. Katalin resides in the past, recounting stories of the people, places and parties she’s experienced on tour. A traumatic childhood encounter with Angela and an ecstatic first time seeing Swan Lake with her mother were defining moments for her, flipping on a switch inside, directing her future path. Chanel talks about her life in the present; straightforward and professionally detached, her body is a commodity and its commercial activity allows her the experience of physical intimacy without the underlying baggage that accompanies romantic relationships. A grown-up Angela, still dealing with ongoing anger management issues, sees Katalin’s life as exciting and glamourous – and can’t help but take credit for being a catalyst for it.

The question of identity arises: are Katalin and Chanel the same person? Is Chanel a fantasy for Katalin – or an evolution of spirit? Katalin wonders herself, who is she – is she merely a product of her experiences, set on certain paths by critical life events? One of the most touching – and telling – lines from the play comes from Chanel: “The Kama Sutra is a book of prayers you do with your body. Even a broken body wants to pray.” Here, this reference touches on the true physical intimacy – and spirituality – of being totally present, as well as making reference to a severely disabled young client – and possibly even regarding Katalin. In the end, we see that, while Katalin is damaged, she is not broken; drifting and in need of closure, but not without hope.

Fraser gives a stunning performance. As Katalin, she is vibrant, vulnerable, irreverently funny and flirtatiously sexy, seizing the day and acting on instinct and, in some cases, impulse. Chanel is wry-witted and sophisticated, approaching her work in a detached and professional manner – but not without sensuality, empathy and compassion. Or is that Katalin? The performance is compelling in its character and time shifts – and the storytelling is gut-wrenching and deeply poignant, with hints of edgy humour.

Brandon Kleiman’s set, with boxed rows of hotel room keys as a backdrop, provides an visually appealing and versatile playing area for this production, the story unfolding nowhere and anywhere, past and present; and his costuming both distinguishes and describes the characters. Ed Rosing’s lighting provided atmosphere for the action, most notably some warm, sensual ambers, as well as cues to the shifts in time and scene. Sound designer Richard Jones built a soundtrack around contemporary pop and snatches from Swan Lake, and original composition, from incidental to industrial synth, nicely underscoring the storytelling. The sense of smell, a highly evocative key to memory, and what it perceives – hence, the play’s title – while not physically present, is highlighted in the text.

All of this is held together and kept running by the production’s intrepid stage manager Margot “Mom” Devlin (a name that Alumnae Theatre Company fans will recognize from countless shows there), who was multitasking as sound and lighting operator, as well as box office for the opening performance.

Aromas is a heartbreaking, erotic and darkly funny journey of identity and intimacy, a moving piece of non-linear storytelling, compellingly told.

Aromas runs at Red Sandcastle until October 4. You can purchase advance tickets online or at the door (cash only). And you can follow Aromas on Facebook.

*The Junes Company is “a flexible collective of comprised of professional theatre/film/TV performers, creators and producers.” Past shows include A Damn Fine Nite of Actors, an evening of short plays written, directed and performed by the “Monday Niters.” The company will be mounting a production of The Lion in Winter at Alumnae Theatre next year, directed by David Ferry, and featuring Shawn Lawrence and Rosemary Dunsmore.