Toronto Fringe: The devastating ripples of the Montreal massacre in the sensitive, intimate, heartbreaking The December Man (L’homme de Décembre)

Stephen Flett, Jonas Trottier & Kris Langille. Photo by Steven Nederveen.

 

Theatre@Eastminster closed its sensitive, intimate and heartbreaking production of Colleen Murphy’s The December Man (L’homme de Décembre), directed by Jennifer C.D. Thomson, yesterday afternoon at Eastminster United Church. As the narrative turns back time, we witness the devastating impact of the Montreal massacre on a working class family, whose son survived the tragedy.

Their lives shattered by their son’s suicide, Benoît (Stephen Flett) and Kathleen (Kris Langille) Fournier are taking drastic measures to deal with their pain. Loving, well-meaning parents, operating during a time and place where people didn’t have the awareness or resources to navigate the personal aftermath of a massive tragedy, they encourage their son to continue with his education as an engineer, to let go of those tragic events and move on with his life. How could they not have seen it coming? And what could they have done differently?

But Jean (Jonas Trottier) has been having nightmares, he’s been skipping classes—he can’t go back into that building—and his grades have been falling. Guilt-ridden and constantly second-guessing his actions that day, he takes karate classes so he won’t be so scared and powerless “the next time;” and won’t run away again. A natural reaction, to follow the instructions of an unstable man with a gun, then run like hell and call 911—but still, Jean can’t help but beat himself up over what he could’ve and should’ve done, reliving the horrific events over and over.

Beautiful, deeply poignant work from the cast in this powerful piece of how the devastating ripples of this national tragedy crash against this family. Lovely, tender, even humourous, performances from Flett and Langille as the amiable Benoît and devout Kathleen—in everyday household moments, and in their struggle to understand what their son is going through. In the days following Jean’s suicide, they fall into despair, with Benoît reaching for the bottle and Kathleen on extended leave from her housekeeping job, staying home to knit toques and scarves for a children’s charity. As Jean, Trottier digs deep to excavate the guilt, shame and self-blame of a survivor living with PTSD and paralyzing self-doubt; his dreams of becoming an engineer destroyed by the horrific memories of his female classmates’ deaths that he can’t get out of his head, and haunting fact that they’ll never get to build anything.

Heartbreaking in its realism and intimacy, you know events surrounding this story but you don’t necessarily know the stories of the aftermath: the survivors, friends and family left behind to cope with their loss and grief. A reminder that we need to be mindful and aware of the silent, deadly reverberations of senseless violence in our schools, shopping malls and on our streets.

With shouts to the cast of voice-over actors: Scott Bell, Eric Démoré, Sean Gorman, Samuel Magnan, Christian Martel and Susan Wakefield. To the design team for incredible use of the community (aka parlor) space at Eastminster United Church, including use of existing lighting: Ron McKay (set), Chris Bennett (lighting), Monica Sousa (sound), and Ann McIlwraith and Bev Falk (costume). And to the small army of stage managers, dressers and running crew, who kept all the moving parts running smoothly and efficiently during multiple scene changes—as we witness this family’s story in reverse.

Keep your eyes open for future Theatre@Eastminster productions.

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A family confronted with its own #MeToo secret in the complex, honest Lies and Consequences

You can’t change the past, but you can share it.

Rare Day Projects presents Carol Libman’s Lies and Consequences, directed by Jeanette Dagger and running this week only at Red Sandcastle Theatre. With the genesis of the play occurring well before the emergence of the #MeToo movement, playwright Libman was inspired to return to it and complete the script—and tell this story.

Lauded popular author Martha (Tara Baxendale) is under pressure to complete her next novel, inspired by Catherine the Great, as she juggles the scheduling nightmare that is her professional and personal life. Struggling with writer’s block, but looking forward to catching up with her sister Cathy (Martha Breen) at an upcoming weekend of celebration around her cousin/BFF Peter’s (Ryan Bannon) science award ceremony, she’s suddenly thrown back into the past when a drunken make-out session with her journalist boyfriend Andre (Derek Perks) goes from clumsily enthusiastic to overly aggressive, triggering the memory of a childhood incident of sexual assault.

Confiding in Cathy, Martha shares how their uncle John (Christopher Kelk)—Peter’s father and their deceased father’s brother—attempted to sexually assault her while they were alone at her home, retrieving chairs for a family picnic; she was 10 years old at the time. Peter’s wife Karen (Clara Matheson) has invited the whole family to a dinner in Peter’s honour—but Martha finds herself unable to attend, as she wishes to avoid all contact with John. She also doesn’t want to spoil Peter’s weekend by telling him what happened with John. Still wanting to see her cousin, she drops by his hotel room to congratulate him and decline the dinner invitation—where she bumps into John.

A confrontation between Martha and John in the hotel hallway grabs the attention of Karen and Peter, who invite them back into their room to learn what is amiss; they are soon joined by Cathy. Revelations, denial and gaslighting ensue, as the family divides into those who believe Martha and those who believe John’s version of the story—that Martha’s assertions are the result of childish misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

Lovely work from the cast on this timely, sensitive topic—covering the gamut of responses to a family incident of assault on a child. Baxendale does a nice job balancing Martha’s sharply intelligent and tightly wound adult side with the haunted, fearful child within. The past keeps rearing its ugly head, and Martha must find the courage to confront it if she’s going to have any peace. Kelk’s performance as John deftly combines the likeable with the deplorable; the supportive and trusted favourite uncle accused of having dark, secret desires—which John vehemently denies, spins and gaslights his way around. Classic victim-blaming and shaming, as the perpetrator makes himself out to be the wronged party as the survivor struggles with self-doubt and self-blame.

As Cathy, Breen brings a bubbly, positive, supportive light to the dark fog of Martha’s situation; open-minded, open-hearted and listening, Cathy is sharply contrasted by Matheson’s prim, controlling Karen—who seems to care more about avoiding disruption to her perfectly orchestrated celebration plans for Peter’s award. Bannon is adorakable as the brilliant but disorganized Peter, giving the performance an affable, absent-minded professor flavour. And Perks is both devilishly charming and sweetly supportive as Martha’s boyfriend Andre; not as woke as he might think, Andre’s willing to listen, learn and change his behaviour.

The ripples of sexual assault are far-reaching, impacting the survivor’s perceptions of time, space and intimacy—and, in this case, family dynamics. Internalized shame, self-blame, and the fear of not being believed or heard have silenced Martha, leaving her haunted and second-guessing herself. And it isn’t until she’s able to share her experience with Andre, who realizes he was in the wrong that drunken date night, that she’s able to fully communicate what was behind her reaction to his advances—and ultimately move on from the past.

Lies and Consequences continues at Red Sandcastle Theatre until May 5, with evening performances at 8 pm May 2-4; and matinées at 2 pm on May 4 and 5. Tickets ($25 general; $20 for students/seniors/arts workers) are available at the door (cash only), online or by calling 1-800-838-3006.

 

Nostalgia meets the ghosts of memory in the funny, poignant, authentically human New Magic Valley Fun Town

Caroline Gillis, Andrew Moodie, Daniel MacIvor & Stephanie MacDonald. Set design by Brian Perchaluk. Costume design by Brenda McLean. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Prairie Theatre Exchange and Tarragon Theatre join forces to present the Toronto premiere of Daniel MacIvor’s New Magic Valley Fun Town, directed by Richard Rose, assisted by Audrey Dwyer; opening last night in the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace. Equal parts funny and poignant, it’s an authentically human story of nostalgia and ghosts of the past as the kitchen party reunion between two childhood friends reveals some unwelcome memories.

In small-town Nova Scotia, cancer survivor Dougie (Daniel MacIvor) lives in a spotless double-wide trailer, separated from his wife Cheryl (Caroline Gillis), who’s stayed in their family home in town. Their young adult daughter Sandy (Stephanie MacDonald) is on a break from her English lit thesis to manage some mental health issues. Dougie is anxiously awaiting the arrival of Allen (Andrew Moodie), a friend from childhood and one of the few Black residents of the town back in the day, who moved on to become an English professor at U of T.

Dougie and Allen haven’t seen each other for 35 years, and their reunion—initially rife with awkward excitement, vintage music, drinking and dancing—takes a dark turn as painful, secret memories emerge. Dougie is dealing with his sense of mortality and Allen needs to get something off his chest; and lifelong feelings of deep-seated anger, shame and longing bubble to the surface.

Daniel-MacIvor-and-Andrew-Moodie-in-New-Magic-Valley-Fun-Town-photo-by-Cylla-von-Tiedemann-1024x690
Daniel MacIvor & Andrew Moodie. Set design by Brian Perchaluk. Costume design by Brenda McLean. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Beautiful performances from this ensemble, enacting a marathon of emotional experience and responses. MacIvor is a compelling, high-energy presence as the tightly wound Dougie; obsessively neat and wanting things to be perfect for Allen, Dougie appears to have channelled his nervous energy into preparations for the visit—but we learn that this behaviour pre-dates his cancer diagnosis, going back to adolescence. Moodie’s calm, introspective Allen is equally gripping; perfectly complementing the frenetic Dougie, the emotionally contained Allen is bursting with the buried feelings of distant, disturbing memories—memories that are excavated and brought to the surface during this fateful visit, and intersect with his experience of being Black in a small town.

Gillis is loveably quirky and as the cheerful, attentive Cheryl; a protective wife and mother who’s at a loss as to how to help her husband and daughter, her positive demeanour masks the pain within, and she finds solace and community in the local Catholic church. MacDonald gives a hilariously playful, irreverent and sweetly poignant performance as Sandy; a post-grad student with the heart of a poet, Sandy is navigating her own illness, even as she continues to reach out to connect with her ailing father.

The classic 70s vintage vibe of Brian Perchaluk’s set design and Don Benedictson’s original music and sound design (those of a certain age were singing along with the pre-show tunes) combine nicely with Brenda McLean’s modern-day costume design, and the realism and cathartic magic of Kim Purtell’s lighting.

Each of these characters is reaching out for connection from a place of profound aloneness. And, while the deeper meaning of the titular amusement park of childhood memory is revealed—not new, magic, a valley, fun or a town—there’s strength and resilience in the present, and hope for the future, as these characters move towards light and closure.

New Magic Valley Fun Town continues in the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace until March 31; get advance tickets online or contact the box office at 416-531-1827.

Neighbour vs. neighbour in the timely, poignant The Land Grabber

The Toronto Irish Players present the North American premiere of James Phelan and Edward F. Barrett’s The Land Grabber, directed by Kristin Chan and opening last night on the Alumnae Theatre mainstage. A farm in 1881 County Kerry becomes a microcosm of the social and political unrest in Ireland as The Land War between tenant farmers protesting landlords’ arbitrary rent increases and evictions erupts. Living in the shadow of The Great Famine and the more recent Little Famine, neighbour is pitted against neighbour when one farmer, bent on expanding local food production, purchases an evicted neighbour’s farm; all legal, but morally abhorrent—and resulting in far-reaching and tragic consequences.

The Land Grabber is a revised version of Barrett’s (Phelan’s maternal grandfather) The Grabber, which was produced at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in November 1918, following revisions suggested by W.B. Yeats. A teenaged Phelan found a hand-written draft of the play and, years later, set about reviving the play in 2013 with the assistance of dramaturge/co-producer Maureen Lukie.

Successful farmer Johnny Foley (Thomas O’Neill) has his eye on an adjacent property and aims to marry off his daughter Mary (Meghan de Chastelain) in order to secure it. Mary has other plans and refuses, supported by her mother Ellen (Kelly-Marie Murtha). A visit from Pat Walsh (Ted Powers), a struggling neighbour at risk of eviction—and an old flame of Ellen’s—prompts assistance from Johnny’s son Billy (Blake Canning), who sets aside his own farm chores to till Pat’s land while Pat heads to the local fair to sell livestock in an 11th hour attempt to save his farm.

Despite his best efforts and successful sale, Pat is too late—and even his wealthy widow sister Kitty (Donna O’Regan) is unable to help—and the Bailiff (Dermot Walsh) arrives to execute the eviction. When Pat refuses to leave his home and the battering ram begins its heart-stopping assault on his front door,* his neighbours come out to protest—all except Johnny—and Pat and his medical student son Bryan (Paul Micucci) are injured as their home comes crashing down around their ears. Unbeknownst to even his own family, Johnny has already made a deal to pay off what Pat owes in rent and take over the Walsh farm. Refusing to listen to the protests of his family or consider alternative political solutions from Pat, who belongs to the Irish National Land League, Johnny goes ahead with his plan to grab Pat’s land.

The Foley family is subsequently shunned and oppressed by their neighbours; and Johnny is oblivious to the pain and suffering his actions have brought on his wife and children. Mary, who had left home to take a governess position, returns to be with her family and has her own decision to make; despondent and at her wit’s end, Ellen becomes a virtual recluse, choosing to worship at home to avoid the stone throwing and spitting; and the spirited, fair-minded Billy stands up for what he feels is right, refusing to side with his father. Meanwhile, Pat has gone into politics to further the cause and is doing well. Unable to sell locally, Johnny is force to travel to other towns. Tragedy ensues, and events threaten Mary and Bryan’s plans to marry when local police (Emmet Leahy and Benjamin Phelan) consider Bryan a suspect in a recent attack on the family. Eventually, Johnny is compelled to reconsider his acquisition of the Walsh farm—but all too late.

O’Neill is a compelling presence as Johnny; arrogant, stubborn and heavy-handed, there’s a world of pain and shame beneath that harsh exterior. Deeply scarred by the Famine and obsessed with making sure no one starves to death again, Johnny is deaf to alternate solutions and blind to the suffering of his own family—who, ironically, he’s most concerned about protecting. Murtha gives a gentle and heartbreaking performance as the loyal, religiously devout Ellen; but even Ellen can only take so much as their world is destroyed by her husband’s short-sighted, selfish decisions. Powers is playfully charming and politically astute as the determined, forward-thinking Pat; committed to a political solution to his fellow tenants’ predicament, he turns lemons to lemonade as he translates his knowledge and experience of farming issues to the political sphere. O’Regan is a feisty treat as the lusty widow Kitty; with a head for business and an appreciation strapping young men, Kitty injects both keen pragmatism and irreverent humour to the proceedings.

It’s a timely production for GTA audiences, given the current climate of high rents, rescinded rent controls and low vacancy rates, combined with frozen wages and a job market that increasingly favours precarious part-time/contract work over more secure permanent full-time positions. Landlords execute suspect renovictions, claiming they or family members are moving in, or turf long-term tenants in favour of opening Airbnb spaces; and tenants fight back with protests, rent strikes and deputations to local government. Desperate times can push people to desperate, sometimes selfish, measures—and also to new, innovative solutions—and hard times bring out the best and the worst in us.

With shouts to the fine design team for their work on this historical drama: Sean Treacy, co-producer Geraldine Browne and Anne Lyons (set); Karlos Griffith (lighting); Dan Schaumann (sound); and Bernadette Hunt (costumes).

The Land Grabber continues on the Alumnae Theatre mainstage until March 2; advance tickets available online.

*The production poster at the top of this post features an archival photo of this kind of  eviction action.

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll sing along in your heart with the brilliant, hilarious & deeply poignant Stupidhead!

Katherine Cullen & Britta Johnson in Stupidhead!—photo by Michael Cooper

 

Better late than never to the party, as I finally got out to see Katherine Cullen and Britta Johnson’s SummerWorks hit Stupidhead! A Musical Comedy, directed by Aaron Willis—now in its final week in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Mainspace.

Written and performed by Cullen and Johnson, who also collaborated on the lyrics, with music by Johnson, Stupidhead! is a part musical, part stand-up, part personal storytelling journey of Cullen’s experience living with dyslexia.

Stupidhead! is Cullen’s childhood dream of being in a musical come true. And, despite her lack of training, experience and self-reported ability, she was determined to make it happen; and recruited her good friend Johnson to help her write the music. Johnson joins her onstage, accompanying her on piano and back-up vocals—reacting to Cullen’s performance throughout, sometimes cracking up along with the audience.

Pointing out that dyslexia affects people differently, Cullen has no trouble with reading and writing—and as a child enjoyed escaping into writing poetry, and stories about the adventures of a silly koala and rabbit. Diagnosed at a young age, Cullen relates her struggles with math, organizational skills and directions, finding herself mentally lost at school and physically lost in her own neighbourhood—and, above all, labelled. And that label put her in the position of having to deal with ignorance and lack of compassion from others, making her sense of otherness feel even more isolating and humiliating, and becoming a part of her identity.

Her anecdotes about trying to fit in are both hilarious and moving—from her grade three poetry contest nemesis (now a CFL football player), to being lost on her own street, to two weeks in a puppet camp in Vermont as a young adult and her love of Jesus Christ Superstar—all delivered with genuine feeling and gusto. While it’s a show about the “glamour of failure,” it’s also a show about throwing off the chains of shame and isolation. In the end, Cullen avoids tying it up neatly, but emerges from the darker moments of her experience into a place of hope and determination.

Stupidhead!
Katherine Cullen in Stupidhead!—photo by Michael Cooper

Cullen shines onstage. An engaging, genuine and charming performer, she’s gutsy and kick-ass, but also vulnerable and fragile. As she schools us on dyslexia, she gives us the straight goods about what it’s like to live inside her head. And she gives ‘er with the music, putting her all into performing the songs, from belted out numbers to gentle, heartfelt ballads. She and Johnson make a terrific duo. Johnson is pretty damn funny herself; and there’s a lovely tender moment of compassion and understanding between them that rings with friendship and love. And their anthem of “don’t give up!” brought tears to my eyes.

With big shouts to set designer Anahita Dehbonehie and lighting designer Jennifer Lennon for the cool and beautiful neurosciencey environment.

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll sing along in your heart with the brilliant, hilarious and deeply poignant Stupidhead!

Stupidhead! continues in the TPM Mainspace, closing on Apr 2; book in advance online or call 416-504-7529. Check out Hallie Seline’s interview with Cullen and Johnson for In the Greenroom.

And here’s the trailer: