Real-life ghost stories come out of the dark in the compelling, entertaining, thoughtful The Ghost Project

Karie Richards. Photo by Tanja-Tiziana.

 

Playwright/performer/producer Karie Richards opened the Toronto premiere of her documentary solo show The Ghost Project to a sold-out house in the BMO Incubator at The Theatre Centre last night. Originally directed by Jeff Culbert, The Ghost Project was a hit at the Fringe circuit, premiering at the Halifax Fringe 2018, and went on to the London Fringe and Winnipeg Fringe in 2019. Distilling 13 stories from 28 interviews with friends and family, Richards weaves a series of monologues, all told in the first person, from the storyteller’s point of view—capturing the gamut of emotional and rational responses; and exploring the thoughts, feelings and questions about what happens to us after we die. The result is a compelling, entertaining and thoughtful piece of verbatim storytelling.

Do you believe in ghosts? Have you ever encountered one? While Karie Richards isn’t sure what she thinks, she believes the stories told to her by friends and family—personal experiences with spiritual manifestations that defy explanation and everyday frame of reference; and that ultimately make us question the nature of the afterlife. Each real-life character reveals their story, be it from their university days, childhood or adulthood, or even an experience their child had while they were present. People reacting and responding in the moment; and, in some cases, wondering aloud what it all means. Are these the actual souls or spirits of the departed, or the energy traces they left behind? Or are these encounters a chance look through a thin veil of everyday reality, providing a glimpse of another time or plane of existence while the one experiencing it remains rooted in their own?

Encounters with, and messages from, deceased loved ones; former homeowners looking in on new residents/guests; and unexplained events at a haunted theatre space (Alumnae Theatre folk and fans will be familiar) all come into play—with manifestations ranging from malevolent to friendly, frightening to calming, everyday to ethereal. Experiences of shadowy figures blacker than the darkness, a floating blue girl, a surprising encounter during an Indigenous ceremony, the comfort of a nurturing parental energy, and the high-spirited insistence of a youthful presence that evoked profound responses for the storyteller emerge in Richards’ performance. Navigating myriad emotions, from paralyzing fear, to grief and loss, confusion, relief and joy, each character is vulnerable, curious, wonder-struck and thoughtful. Do these spirits want to be noticed and acknowledged? Are they relieving boredom with their spooky shenanigans? Do they have something to tell us?

Deftly shifting from character to character—signified by the collection and return of a single costume piece or prop from a wardrobe, and remarkable adjustments to voice, facial expression and posture—with a gentle calmness and the care of ceremony, Richards conjures up each storyteller for us, presenting with nuance and profound sensitivity the experiences, reactions and thoughts of each. And her carefully, finely-drawn embodiment of each storyteller makes for a compelling and entertaining performance that goes beyond the storytelling itself. In many cases, it’s the first time the storyteller has revealed their experience to anyone—requiring a high level of trust in, and comfort with, Richards during the interview process that preceded the creation of the piece. The results are eerie, funny, deeply moving and thought-provoking.

Richards’ performance is nicely supported by Glenn Davidson’s minimalist, effective production design, as well as John Sheard’s haunting composition, and atmospheric sound effects supplied by Peter Thillaye and Steve Munro.

Whatever you believe, The Ghost Project engages as much as it challenges the audience to open up and reach out into the unknown—and entertain the suggestion that death is not the end of our journey, but the beginning of a new one. If you have the opportunity, stick around for the post-show talkback, where audience members are invited to ask questions and share their own ghost stories.

The Ghost Project continues in the Incubator space at the Theatre Centre until January 26, with evening performances at 7:00 p.m., and matinées on Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are available online, in person at the box office, or by calling 416-538-0988. It’s a very short run and seating is limited, so advance booking or early arrival is strongly recommended; please note the 7:00 p.m. curtain time for evening performances.

 

 

December (pseudo) hiatus

Hey all—I can’t believe it’s December already!

That means it’s time for the cowbell blog’s annual December (pseudo) hiatus.

I say “pseudo” because, as usual, I’ll be seeing and reviewing a few holiday shows this month. In the spirit of holiday surprises, I won’t say what shows—but I will say there will be some holiday-themed/panto fun and shenanigans. So stay tuned later this month!

Happy holidays to you and yours—and all good things for 2020! It’ll be a brand new decade, with fresh opportunities and developments on the horizon.

 

FireWorks Festival: Real-life fame, fortune & fall in the entertaining, heart-felt Belle Darling Klondike Queen

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Lindsay Sutherland Boal. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Adriana DeAngelis. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Nicholas Porteous.

Alumnae Theatre Company (ATC) opens its annual FireWorks Festival of new works with Natalie Frijia’s Belle Darling Klondike Queen, directed by Lori Delorme, with music direction by Anita Beaty—running upstairs in the Studio. Part cabaret, part vaudeville, all heart—this highly entertaining and engaging piece of musical storytelling takes us on vaudeville star Klondike Kate’s (born Kathleen Rockwell) real-life journey of fame, fortune and fall, all set against the backdrop of fading days of the Klondike Gold Rush.

Put on your boots, leave your pick and sing along at the Portland Alaska Yukon Society’s 1931 Sourdough Reunion, featuring headliner—none other than the famous star of vaudeville stage—Klondike Kate (Lindsay Sutherland Boal)! Alumnae Theatre’s Studio Theatre has been transformed into a vaudeville music hall for this real-life tale of the highs and lows of Kate’s storied career in Canada’s North, and dreams of becoming a nation-wide vaudeville impressaria across the U.S.

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Sarah Kaufmann, Madeleine Keesmaat-Walsh, Roxhanne Norman & Lindsay Sutherland Boal. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Adriana DeAngelis. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Nicholas Porteous.

Accompanied by a fine ensemble of multi-talented, multi-tasking actors (Sarah Kaufmann, Roxhanne Norman and Madeleine Keesmaat-Walsh), with piano player Calvin Laveck tickling the ivories, Kate takes us on a whirlwind musical and storytelling tour of her life—from wayward Victorian Catholic schoolgirl (Kathleen), to vaudeville chorus girl (Kitty), to headliner Belle Darling Klondike Queen (Kate), and a near miss as Pantages theatre partner and impressaria.

Kate has no use for being a “lady” in the traditional Victorian sense of the word, and sets off on an adventure of her own making—breaking gender barriers and the rules as she goes. Taking us back to the “good ‘ol days” with song, story and satire, the God’s honest truth is that these meanderings of nostalgia can’t erase the personal and financial risk, danger and heartbreak of those who tried their luck—and put their strength and resolve to the test—searching for gold in those freezing cold Northern mountains. All for fame and fortune.

Sutherland Boal gives a powerhouse performance as the ambitious, fearless Klondike Kate—a role that amply showcases her considerable vocal chops as she belts out rousing music hall tunes and caresses melancholy ballads. Sassy, classy, gutsy and irreverent, Kate turns away from what’s expected of her as a “good Victorian lady” to carve out her own path and live on her own terms. And beneath the seasoned showmanship and razzmatazz of Kate’s vaudeville persona, Sutherland Boal digs deep to reveal the broken-hearted woman who reached for it all only to find her ultimate dream of business partnership taken away. Disappointed, but not discouraged, she soldiers on—the show must go on, after all.

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Sarah Kaufmann. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Adriana DeAngelis. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Nicholas Porteous.

She is well-supported by a stand-out ensemble; changing character on a dime in this fast-paced, alternately slapstick and poignant trip through music hall shenanigans both on and off the stage. Kaufmann is adorably Puck-like in her comic turns as the crafty entrepreneur Sophie, and a lusty young sourdough (a Yukon resident) on the make. Norman performs with a playful glint in her eye—and has an outstanding set of pipes herself—in her saucy turn as Kate’s pal and vaudeville partner Gertie; and the charming and irresistible, but false, Alexander Pantages. And Keesmaat-Walsh brings hilarity and swagger as Kate’s gruff boss Arizona Charlie and an awkward strong woman act, among others.

It’s a real-life adventure of fame, fortune and fall—told with song, story and heart. But you don’t have to believe me; check out the trailer (scroll down on the show page).

Belle Darling Klondike Queen continues in the Alumnae Studio Theatre until November 10; get advance tickets online or by calling 416-364-4170 (ext. 1), or pick up in-person at the box office one hour before curtain time (cash only). There will be a post-show talkback with the director, playwright and cast following the Saturday, November 9 matinée performance.

FireWorks continues its three-week run until November 24, presenting a new show each week: Crystal Wood’s Grief Circus, directed by Paige Foskett (Nov 13-17); and Genevieve Adam’s If the Shoe Fits, directed by Heather Keith (Nov 20-24).

 

 

Literary family snapshots told with unflinching candor & wry humour in Pamela Williams’ Evelyn’s Stories

Cover photo of Evelyn by Pamela Williams.

 

I had the pleasure of attending the launch of Pamela Williams’ new book Evelyn’s Stories at a reading to a packed room on Sunday at the Tranzac Club. Known mostly for her beautiful, haunting black and white photographs of cemetery sculpture, Williams has assembled a collection of brief stories, as told to her by her mother Evelyn—and some handed down to Evelyn by her mother—in a series of short vignettes. Evelyn’s Stories are literary snapshots of family across time and space, ranging from 1900s Glasgow, to 1930s Thornbury and into the 1970s and beyond.

Told with unflinching candor, sharp detail and wry humour, Evelyn’s Stories is a window on moments of personal history and experience; inviting us for brief peeks (the stories are postcard-sized or slightly longer) inside the world of Williams’ family, as told to her by her mother, and to her mother by her grandmother.

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Pamela Williams reads at the launch of Evelyn’s Stories

It’s family biography as comedy and drama, with eyebrow-raising tales of marriage and infidelity (“When Hector Married Stella” and “Keep Toby Out, England, 1907”); charming and funny childhood shenanigans and observations (“Bathtub Visitor” and “Divorce”); memories of brutal and sweet elementary school teachers (“Mrs. Pinch” and “Miss Chalk’s Replacement”); tragic loss (“New Spectacles, Glasgow, 1906”); hilarious social interactions (“That’s Why I Asked You” and “At the Cinema”); and harrowing but comical senior driving mishaps (“Two Motorcycles” and “A Ride on the Wild Side”).

As the family tales shift from poignant, to comic, to tragic, to saucy, Evelyn’s Stories captures the heart, lives, loves and experiences of generations of family who crossed the ocean from Glasgow, Scotland to settle in rural/small-town Ontario, Canada.

Check out Williams’ book collection online, including her photography books; order via email.

 

 

Getting real at the movies in the intimate, entertaining, immersive The Flick

Durae McFarlane & Amy Keating. Set & lighting design by Nick Blais. Projection design by Nick Bottomley. Costume & lobby design by Anahita Dehbonehie. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Outside the March and Crow’s Theatre join forces to present Annie Baker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning love letter to the 35mm movie theatre in The Flick, directed by Mitchell Cushman, assisted by Katherine Cullen and Rebecca Ballarin, and running in the Guloien Theatre at Streetcar Crowsnest. Intimate, entertaining and immersive, workplace shenanigans, friendship, loyalty and personal demons emerge in the world of a run-down dive of a neglected movie house and the lives of three people who work there for minimum wage.

When you enter the Guloien Theatre, the audience seating faces rows of empty movie theatre seating, with a raised projection booth up centre. As the lights go down, the projector comes to life in the booth (projection design by Nick Bottomley), accompanied by Richard Feren’s sound design, giving you the full movie theatre experience—from a different perspective from the one we’re used to experiencing—including production company theme music and movie soundtrack snippets that play along with the light show.

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Durae McFarlane & Colin Doyle. Set & lighting design by Nick Blais. Projection design by Nick Bottomley. Costume & lobby design by Anahita Dehbonehie. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

It’s Avery’s (Durae McFarlane) first day on the job at The Flick Cinema, a run-down endangered species of a 35mm movie house in Massachusetts run by absentee owner/manager Steve (who we never meet). Veteran usher Sam (Colin Doyle) shows him the ropes of the walk-through—sweeping up and collecting trash in between screenings (and even waking up the occasional sleeper: Brendan McMurtry-Howlett). Rose the projectionist (Amy Keating) is working up in the booth; and despite Sam’s enthusiastic attempts to catch her attention, she’s not having it.

Avery is a college student, working there as a summer job; and he’s a big-time movie nerd and six degrees of separation savant, as Sam soon learns, much to his amazement. Sam’s broad tastes in movies include more popular, mass appeal films; and Avery is a serious film snob. And while Sam pursues the attentions of Rose, Rose seems to be interested in getting to know the new guy Avery.

As the relationship and workplace dynamics unfold, the three gradually and selectively reveal themselves to each other—and to us. Avery is dealing with some heavy psychological and emotional shit, including family issues. Sam is resentful that younger, less experienced staff are being promoted over him; and he keeps his family life close to the chest. Serial monogamist party girl Rose thinks there’s something wrong with her. And rumour has it that Steve may be selling The Flick; and in an age where 35mm is being replaced with digital, this means it will likely be updated with a digital projector—something that film buff Avery can’t abide. Various levels of privilege are highlighted; while Avery is Black, and having a professor father means a free ride to college, he’s the most likely to get blamed (by their racist boss) for screw-ups at work. Sam and Rose enjoy white privilege, but their familial and financial circumstances mean heavy student debt or no college at all, and a struggle to survive with minimum wage jobs. In the end, friendship and loyalty are put to the test as revelations and consequences emerge.

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Foreground: Amy Keating. Background: Colin Doyle & Durae McFarlane. Set & lighting design by Nick Blais. Projection design by Nick Bottomley. Costume & lobby design by Anahita Dehbonehie. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Remarkable work from this outstanding cast, each creating a sharply-drawn, authentic and flawed character that we all end up rooting for; and like in real life, they’re all putting on a show of sorts, wearing the public masks we all don on a daily basis—and occasionally, the masks are lifted and things get real. Doyle is endearing and entertaining as Sam; there’s a combination of grumpy old man and chill young dude that masks Sam’s discouragement at being personally and professionally rejected. He’s in love, but can he bring himself to say so? McFarlane is an adorkable delight as Avery; highly intelligent, socially awkward and longing for a friend, there’s a lost little boy quality about Avery that hints at a deeper internal conflict. Keating brings a lovely combination of fire and vulnerability to the high-octane, free spirit Rose; as much of an extrovert as Avery is an introvert, Rose is a free spirit whose desires are expressed in brief and intense sexual relationships. Even though Rose does what she likes and likes what she does, she wonders about the long term—and if something is really wrong with her.

All the world’s a stage—or in this case, a movie screen—and we’re all merely players. Real life isn’t like it is in the movies, but sometimes we can hit some of those sweet spots. And we all have opportunities to choose to get real and drop the stereotype mask for a moment, or not.

The Flick continues at Streetcar Crowsnest, extended by popular demand to November 2; advance tickets available online. Advance booking recommended; this is a really popular show.

See for yourself in the trailer: