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.

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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.

Outrageously fun, horrific good times in Space Opera Zero!

Clockwise, from top left: Eric Woolfe, Lisa Norton & Mairi Babb. Set & costume design by Melanie McNeill, assisted by Emily Butters. Lighting design by Michael Brunet. Photo by producer Adrianna Prosser.

 

Eldritch Theatre returns with more outrageously fun, horrific good times with Space Opera Zero, written by Eric Woolfe and directed by Dylan Trowbridge. Based on Thomas Middleton’s Jacobean tragedy The Changeling, Space Opera Zero! is a space horror erotic macabredy that combines poetic language, a B-movie/pulp fiction sensibility, feats of prestidigitation, 30s slang, mask and puppetry, operatic tragedy and a lesbian/alien love triangle. Space Opera Zero! opened on Friday at Red Sandcastle Theatre; I caught it last night, in an enthusiastic, sold out house.

Our story begins in 1930s America, where intrepid lesbian pilot Emily Trueheart (Lisa Norton) and mad scientist Hjalmar Pomeranki (Eric Woolfe) set off—in a space ship Pomeranki designed—on a mission where no man has gone before. Forced off course, they land on a strange faraway planet, where Emily rescues Princess Jenora (Mairi Babb) from certain death in the jaws of a vicious alien creature—and the two fall instantly in love.

Things are peachy keen until the Princess’s father, the Emperor (puppet, Woolfe), orders her to marry a fearsome tentacled alien (Norton) for the sake and safety of their planet. And while the Princess makes an unsavoury deal with the Emperor’s servant Doggo the Mutant (Woolfe) to get out of the marriage so she can be with Emily, Pomeranki is hatching an apocalyptic plan of his own back at the space ship. Caught in a web of lies and deceit, things go from bad to worse for the Princess; desperate to have things go her way, she enlists the aid of her maid/sex robot Ro-Berta (puppet, Woolfe) to distract Emily.

Will true love find a way in this faraway universe—and will there be any universe left to make sweet nookie in?

Big-time LOLs, twists and turns, and surprises from this engaging, energetic, uber-talented cast. Norton’s Emily Trueheart is the definition of moxie, combined with old-fashioned romantic; taking names and no guff (especially from men), Emily is a pioneer and explorer with the guts of a warrior and the heart of a poet. Woolfe does a stand-out job, juggling multiple hilarious and poignant characters, utilizing mask and puppetry. Notably the verbose mad scientist Hjalmar Pomeranki, who seems a nice enough fellow but has a dark purpose in mind; the reviled, put-upon servant Doggo the Mutant; and the loyal, sex-curious robot Ro-Berta. Babb gives the lovely Princess Jenora a slinky, femme fatale edge; driven to extreme measures to achieve her heart’s—and loins’—desire, the Princess risks painting herself into a corner.

With shouts to the outstanding interstellar design team: Melanie McNeill, assisted by Emily Butters (set and costumes), Michael Brunet (lighting) and Christopher Stanton (sound). And to stage manager Sandi Becker, for keeping it all running smoothly and showing us how to navigate our way through the set to access the washroom.

Space Opera Zero! continues at Red Sandcastle Theatre until December 2; advance tickets available online. It’s an intimate space with limited seating, and a super popular company getting great buzz, so advance booking strongly recommended.

Check out the cool trailer:

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.

 

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.