The incendiary impact of one man’s struggle in the ring in the electric, gut-punching The Royale

Dion Johnstone. Set & costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by Michelle Ramsey. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper transports us to 1905, where an African-American boxer tests his mettle against the formerly retired white heavyweight champion, with incendiary results that reach far beyond the two men in the ring. This is the electric, gut-punching Canadian premiere of Marco Ramirez’s The Royale, inspired by the true story of Jack Johnson, directed by Guillermo Verdecchia and running at the Young Centre.

Determined to better his personal best of being crowned African-American Heavyweight Champion, boxer Jay “The Sport” Jackson sets his sights on being heavyweight champion of the world, convincing fight promoter Max (Diego Matamoros) to arrange a contest between him and retired Champ Bixby; a tall order, as the sport is segregated and a Black fighter has never faced a white fighter in the ring. As Jackson trains for the historic match with his manager Wynton (Alexander Thomas) and new sparring partner Fish (Christef Desir), a visit from his sister Nina (Sabryn Rock) forces him to consider the sociopolitical and personal impacts of this match—especially if he wins.

While insisting that the focus of his lonely ambition and sacrifice is about personal excellence and universal recognition as heavyweight champ, Jay gradually finds himself unable to continue shrugging off the racial and political—and personal—implications of his endeavour. And it’s not until the final charged scene in the ring with the Champ that we realize the great personal stakes driving him—and where he struggles with himself and against a long, violent history of systemic racism and oppression.

Incorporating hip hop-inspired beats and rhythms (composer and sound designer Thomas Ryder Payne), and fight choreography (Simon Fon) that focuses on both the physicality and mental state of the fighter—The Royale creates the music in the boxing ring (set and costumes by Ken MacKenzie) with movement, sound and dialogue that reflects the voice inside the fighter’s head with present, primal ferocity and cocky self-assuredness. All of this in 90 minutes and six compelling rounds of storytelling—and while there are no actual physical blows exchanged, the result is both mind-blowing and gut-wrenching—punctuated by the rhythmic soundscape and startling, atmospheric lighting design (Michelle Ramsey).

Breath-taking work from the ensemble in this intense, profoundly human story. Johnstone gives a charismatic and intensely focused performance as the ambitious, hard-working Jackson; confident, flirtatious and driven, while Jackson’s deflection of personal questions appears to be a shrewd PR move to drive public curiosity, we learn he has a far more urgent reason for protecting his privacy. Johnstone’s Jackson is nicely matched by Desir’s youthful, hungry Fish; an up and coming young fighter who’s impressed Jackson in the ring, Fish is grateful for the opportunity to quit his day job, and becomes a loyal and generous supporter and colleague on the road to Jackson’s life-changing match.

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Dion Johnstone & Sabryn Rock. Set & costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by Michelle Ramsey. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Thomas exudes warmth, wisdom and pragmatic good humour as Wynton; more than just Jackson’s manager and trainer, Wynton is a friend and mentor—and the play’s title comes from his story as a young fighter, at a place where a young Black man could make one to two weeks’ wages in an unusual fight match where the winner takes all. Rock is a force to be reckoned with as Jackson’s sister Nina; fiercely protective of her family and acutely aware of the implications of Jackson’s ambitions, Nina sees what he cannot—that this fight goes way beyond a single boxing match. Her words haunt Jackson during the fight, driving home the terrible truth of her words. And Matamoros gives an entertaining turn as the sharp, skeptical promoter Max; while he’s likeable enough through the gruff worldliness, you know Max isn’t entirely on the up and up.

The Royale shows us how one human being’s solitary sacrifice and actions can ripple out, becoming a tidal wave of universal response—and, win or lose, ambition and change both come at a price.

The Royale continues at the Young Centre until November 11. Get advance tickets online or call the box office: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

Check out the production teaser:

 

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Family, blood & sins of the father in the compelling, darkly funny Tough Jews

Maaor Ziv, Blue Bigwood-Mallin, Luis Fernandes, Theresa Tova, Anne van Leeuwen, G. Kyle Shields & Stephen Joffe in Tough Jews—photo by John Gundy

Leave the gun. Take the kugel.

Storefront Theatre is back, this time partnering with The Spadina Avenue Gang to mount the world premiere of Michael Ross Albert’s Tough Jews, directed by Storefront founder/co-artistic director Benjamin Blais and running at Kensington Hall in Toronto’s Kensington Market.

Tough Jews was Albert’s graduate project about a family of Toronto Jewish gangsters; and, although it’s set in the late 20s and early 30s, the play speaks to issues of anti-Semitic and anti-immigration/refugee sentiments that are relevant today, especially given the influence of the current administration to the south, and the rise in hate crimes targeting Jews and Muslims on both sides of the border.

Set in the basement speakeasy, downstairs from the family’s shop and home in Kensington Market, Act one opens in 1929 on Yom Kippur, 10 days before the stock market crash. Overseen by the widowed family matriarch Ida (Theresa Tova), brothers Joe (Luis Fernandes) and Ben (Blue Bigwood-Mallin) take care of the family business running booze downstairs, while Teddy (G. Kyle Shields) runs the legit business upstairs. Kid sister Rose (Maaor Ziv) and Ben’s American fiancée Marge (Anne van Leeuwen) watch from the sidelines. Downstairs business with Detroit’s Purple Gang goes south when hothead cousin Ziggie (Stephen Joffe) interrupts negotiations. This prompts Ben to come up with an idea to get Rose’s dope-dealing boyfriend Harry (who we never see), to get in on the action; despite the family’s disapproval of Harry, Ben hopes to placate the Purple Gang with new, hard-to-get product.

Act two jumps ahead four years to 1933, a couple of months after Hitler becomes Chancellor of Germany and shortly after the Christie Pits riot. Joe and Marge have been living in Florida, but his business was hit hard by the Depression, and he’s returned home to Toronto. Ben has also just come home, just released from jail; and Rose has a three-year-old and some serious domestic issues at her house. Teddy has taken over the speakeasy in the interim, but is now using it as a hide-out after his involvement in the Christie Pits riot.

Family secrets emerge throughout; and serious, changing situations prompt some equally drastic decision-making and choices. How far will a marginalized, oppressed and desperate people go in order to survive?

Stellar work from the entire cast in this immersive theatrical experience where the audience has a fly-on-the-wall view of the proceedings. Tova is hard as nails, hilarious and heartbreaking as Ida, who recalls in sharp, painful detail the oppression of her homeland and the hardship of an ocean crossing. The dreams of a better life destroyed by hate and oppression in a new country, Ida takes charge with pragmatism, grit and wry wit; and with a laser focus on turning the family’s fortunes around. Fernandes gives oldest brother Joe a nice balance of calculating professional and protective man of the house. Dog tired and struggling to keep the family business afloat, Joe must also manage the less than friendly relationship between Marge and his family.

Bigwood-Mallin brings a great sense of spark and ambition to Ben; the only one who really wants to be a gangster, Ben is genuinely excited to expand the business, make connections in the U.S. and make more money. Shields does a marvelous job with Teddy’s arc; as the bookish, observant kid brother, Teddy is torn between being a good man and seeing their legitimate family business survive, and the struggle to survive in a harsh, unfair world that leaves his family few options. By Act Two, he’s grown up a lot in those four years; a changed man, he sees what’s going on in Germany—and how prejudice and hate know no boundaries—and it sickens him.

Ziv’s Rose is an irreverent spitfire; an independent-minded and often neglected member of the family, Rose does her best to make a life for herself, but finds new challenges outside the safety of the family nest. Van Leeuwen brings a regal edge to the platinum blond, leggy Marge; a dancer when Joe first met her, she’s now set on becoming a respectable wife and looking forward to enjoying the good things in life. Unable to stomach Joe’s family business, however, she retaliates by putting on airs. Joffe gives Ziggie a menacing, lost boy edge. Taken in by his aunt Ida as a child, Ziggie’s grown up into a dangerous punk with some serious anger and impulse control issues; and his choices make him a liability to the family.

With big shouts to the design team Adam Belanger (set), Melissa Joakim (lighting), Lindsay Dagger Junkin (costumes), Angela McQueen (makeup) and Miquelon Rodriguez (sound) for their work on the evocative, immersive environment; and to fight director Simon Fon, and co-stage managers Justine Cargo and Andrea Miller. Throughout the production, corpses will be played by Kyle Bailey, Daniel Briere, Gabriel Hamilton and David Lapsley. The bartender makes a mean Manhattan, with the good Jack Daniels.

Family, blood and sins of the father in the compelling, darkly funny Tough Jews.

Tough Jews continues at Kensington Hall till April 16 (enter through the back alley—follow the sandwich board sign); full schedule and advance tix available online]. Book in advance for this one, folks; it’s a popular company and there’s a lot of well-deserved buzz about this show—not to mention the intimate venue. Warning: Show contains gun shots and smoking (herbal cigarettes).

In the meantime, check out Brittany Kay’s In the Greenroom blog interview with playwright Michael Ross Albert and actor G. Kyle Shields, with director Benjamin Blais dropping by.

Betrayal & ruin to forgiveness & reunion, with witty, rollicking good times in As You Like It

Photo by Daniela Mason: George Brown Theatre School class of 2017

The George Brown Theatre School class of 2017 takes us back to a time of rum-running gangsters in their production of As You Like It (directed by Geoffrey Pounsett), currently running in rep with A Midsummer Night’s Dream (directed by alum Aaron Willis) in the Tank House Theatre at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, located in Toronto’s Distillery District. I dropped by the Young Centre for As You Like It yesterday afternoon.

We learn via a remarkably staged prologue, set as a silent film reel delightfully set up by the Fool Touchstone (Thomas Nyhuus), how Duke Senior (Chase Jeffels) was betrayed by his brother Frederick (Jake Runeckles) and banished, his organization taken over by the traitorous Frederick, who becomes the new Duke. Duke Frederick allows his niece Rosalind (Justine Christensen) to stay as a companion for his daughter Celia (Geneviéve DeGraves), who is very fond of her bff cousin.

In a parallel tale of sibling betrayal, Orlando (Seamus Dillon-Easton) has endured a life of abuse and neglect at the hand of his older sister Olivia (Lucy Meanwell), who has betrayed their father Sir Rowland’s charge to look after her younger brother after his death. When Orlando goes to test his mettle in a wrestling match with Charles (Jeffels), a favourite of the new Duke, he crosses paths with Rosalind and the two are mutually smitten. Winning the match, Orlando also wins a new enemy in the Duke, and returns home to learn from the faithful family servant Adam (Patrick Horan) that his sister is plotting to kill him—prompting him to flee, with Adam accompanying him.

Displeased at Rosalind’s popularity with a sympathetic public, and wary that this will reflect badly on his daughter, the Duke banishes Rosalind. In an ultimate act of friendship and loyalty, Celia elects to go with her; and the two concoct disguises so they may travel in safety, with Rosalind dressing as a man called Ganymede and Celia as his sister Aliena. Enlisting the Touchstone as their travelling companion, they too flee their home.

Meanwhile, Orlando and Adam have made their way to the forest of Arden, where they come upon Duke Senior and a group of loyal followers, who are living a merry rustic life in the woods. Merry, except for sad sack Jaques (Parmida Vand), who perceives all on the darker, melancholy side. Now living in the forest and pining for Rosalind, Orlando takes to praising her dear name in poetry and posting it on the trees.

Rosalind, Celia and Touchstone find themselves a cottage in the forest; and Rosalind discovers Orlando’s poetry on the trees. To test his love, she (as Ganymede) tells Orlando she can cure his love sickness if he comes to woo him as if he were Rosalind. Meanwhile lovesick neighbouring shepherd Silvius (Evan MacKenzie) is pursuing the uninterested Phebe (Gabriella Albino), who becomes love struck when she meets Ganymede/Rosalind. Even Touchstone finds a sweetheart: the lovely, simple shepherdess Audrey (Jocelyn Feltham).

Orlando’s sister Olivia arrives on the scene after getting a taste of her own medicine from the Duke, forcing her to flee to the forest. She comes to Ganymede/Rosalind and Aliena/Celia with news of Orlando, who has been seriously wounded by a lioness while saving her. Contrite and seeking redemption for her wrong-doing, she has joined Duke Senior, who was a good friend to her father. And, not to leave Celia out of the romance, she and Olivia are obviously and immediately taken with each other. Realizing she truly loves Orlando—and left with two love knots to untangle—Rosalind plans a wedding in the woods, promising to sort everything out, including the plight of lovesick shepherd Silvius and the callous Phebe.

And all is revealed at the wedding, with much merriment, music and dancing—and Rosalind reunited with her father, who is restored to his office in yet another fortuitous twist of Shakespearean fate.

Excellent work from the ensemble, who get ample opportunity to showcase their considerable music and vocal chops with a number of delightful songs and musical numbers—led by music directors/composers/classmates Lucas Penner and Jake Runeckles.

Stand-out performances include Christensen, who is luminous as the brave, witty and resourceful Rosalind; great chemistry with Dillon-Easton’s Orlando, who goes from courageous risk-taker in endeavor to bashful mute in the face of love. Both become adorably moonstruck silly in love.

DeGraves gives Celia a feisty and fiery spark; deeply loyal to the point of defying her cruel father, Celia leaves her lush city life behind to find herself, hilariously, a fish out of water in the country. Meanwell does a nice job with Olivia’s salvation; going from snake-like cruelty to kind repentance, and finding herself shot with Cupid’s arrow when she meets Celia (lovely chemistry there as well).

Nyhuus is a treat as the saucy Touchstone; cocky and always up for a debate, like Celia he’s not thrilled to be away from the comforts of home, but valiantly makes the best of it as he diverts himself with lusty pursuits of his own. And Vand gives us an engaging and entertaining Jaques; a melancholy loner who takes cheer in Touchstone’s shenanigans, her pessimism rings with the air of a realist resigned to the true nature of the world, which can often be a cruel joke.

With big shouts to the design team for their work on creating this magical, industrial meets pastoral world: Ken MacKenzie (set), Shannon Lea Doyle (costumes) and Michelle Ramsay (lighting); and to Simon Fon (fight choreography) and Robert McCollum (dance choreography).

Betrayal and ruin to forgiveness and reunion, with witty, rollicking good times in As You Like It.

As You Like It continues at the Young Centre in the Tank House Theatre until Feb 18; A Midsummer Night’s Dream also runs until Feb 18; click here for ticket and pass info or book by calling the box office at 416-866-8666. It’s a great chance to see emerging acting talent before they head out into their careers.

You can also keep up with George Brown Theatre’s class of 2017 on Twitter and Facebook.