Mothers, daughters & the nature of power & leadership in the electric, razor-sharp Mother’s Daughter

Shannon Taylor & Fiona Byrne. Set & costume design by Lorenzo Savoini. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Soulpepper brings the Stratford Festival production of the final installment of Kate Hennig’s remarkable trilogy—exploring the Tudor period from the perspectives of its most famous and powerful women—to the Young Centre with the electric, razor-sharp Mother’s Daughter, directed by Alan Dilworth. Mary Tudor (aka Bloody Mary), who become the first female monarch of England, struggles with both inner and outer conflict—living in the shadow of her formidable, beloved mother Catalina (Catherine of Aragon), and up against her popular, cunning sister Bess (Elizabeth I) and young, naive cousin Lady Jane Grey to gain and maintain the crown during a great period of upheaval and uncertainty following her brother Edward’s death. Exploring mother/daughter relationships, and the nature of leadership and power, it’s an intensely compelling portrait of trust, alliance, betrayal and grit.

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Shannon Taylor & Andrea Rankin. Set & costume design by Lorenzo Savoini. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Teenaged King Edward VI has died, and has disinherited his sisters Mary (Shannon Taylor) and Bess (Jessica B. Hill), and—guided by John Dudley—named their 16-year-old cousin Lady Jane Grey (Andrea Rankin) as his successor; Jane just happens to be Dudley’s daughter-in-law and claims to have no desire for the crown. Bess and Mary are having none of it, and a three-way battle for the throne ensues, with nobles and common folk alike taking sides and declaring loyalties. Initially refusing to use violent means to get what she wants, Mary chooses to use her voice and the power of reason as a means to appeal to and win over her adversaries.

With early confrontations going her way, Mary wins the crown—and begins the hard work of strategizing her reign with the assistance of personal advisors Bassett (Beryl Bain) and Susan (Maria Vacratsis), with diplomat Simon (Gordon Patrick White) guiding her through protocol and procedure. Also in Mary’s corner is her deceased mother Catalina (Fiona Byrne), who—through Mary’s memory and inner voice—appears, urging a decisive, iron grip approach, particularly when it comes to dealing with adversaries and restoring the Catholic faith to England. Added to the mix in Mary’s deliberations is Catalina’s nemesis Anne Boleyn (Hill), Bess’s mother, who wielded power in her own visceral way, in direct opposition to Catalina (and Mary’s) more cerebral approach. And throughout all the fireworks and debates between her various advisors, Mary grapples with her own sense of self-doubt and confidence as she strives to come to terms with her newly acquired power and responsibility. All the while, dealing with physical pain, Mary clutches her lower abdomen throughout—highlighting the pressures of producing an heir in her late 30s, and foreshadowing the (likely) ovarian or uterine cancer that contributed to her death at 42 during a flu epidemic.

Stunning performances from this largely female cast. Taylor does an outstanding job with Mary’s complexity and inner conflict; gutsy, determined and ambitious, Mary wants to be a moderate ruler, but finds she must steal herself to best confront personal and national threats. Living in the shadow of her mother Catalina, Mary is also both haunted and dogged by an extremely complicated mother/daughter relationship; both longing for love and approval while fighting Catalina’s harsh judgment, and determined to do things her own way even as she navigates her own second guessing and conflicting advice from counsellors. Byrne is an imposing, regal presence as the imperious Catalina; constantly pushing Mary to be the best monarch she can be, Catalina is laser-focused and brutally honest—holding no punches as she advises her daughter.

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Shannon Taylor & Jessica B. Hill (as Anne). Set & costume design by Lorenzo Savoini. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Hill’s Bess exudes a cock-sure confidence and comfort in her own skin that Mary struggles to possess; exceedingly cunning and at ease with her power, Bess knows without a shadow of a doubt that she was meant to rule. Hill brings a fierce sensuality to the self-possessed Anne, making it easy to see the source of Bess’s passion and fire. Rankin’s sweet, naïve Jane stands in stark contrast to the ambitious Mary and Bess; a seeming innocent who professes no desire for the crown, Jane has been groomed for the throne—by a third mother figure who we don’t see here—and finds she must admit that maybe she does really want it after all.

Bain’s edgy, young spin master Bassett and Vacratsis’ measured, cautious veteran advisor Susan serve as perfect foils for each other—with Bassett representing Mary’s fight response and Susan the flight response. Rounding out Mary’s official council is the prim and proper diplomat Simon, who White infuses with a deadpan, stern schoolteacher-like countenance; the result is sometimes comic, but Simon also stands in for the male perspective here. Downplaying Mary, Bassett and Susan’s debates as “woman’s chatter”, Simon is a most reluctant and skeptical member of Mary’s inner circle. There is no precedent for a female monarch—and, like many men and even some women, Simon highly doubts that a woman is fit to rule.

The action is nicely supported by Lorenzo Savoini’s sharp, minimalistic set and stunning costumes, which combine a sense of the period with that of the 21st century; and complemented by Kimberly Purtell’s startling, edgy lighting design.

Winning hearts and minds, and reconciling the inner struggle between the kind of ruler one wants to be and the kind of ruler one needs to be. Difficult times require difficult decisions—and those in power must also do battle within themselves, even going against their own nature, to be the kind of leader they are required to be.

Mother’s Daughter continues at the Young Centre and must close on February 9; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188. Get on those advance bookings to avoid disappointment.

In the meantime, check out the trailer:

 

 

FireWorks Festival: Navigating the media circus in the face of profound loss in the moving, razor-sharp, thought-provoking Grief Circus

Bronson Lake & Alison Dickson. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Paige Foskett. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Bruce Peters.

 

Alumnae Theatre opened its second week of the FireWorks Festival last night, with Crystal Wood’s Grief Circus, directed by Paige Foskett. As moving as it is razor-sharp, this timely multimedia piece holds up a mirror to society’s morbid fascination, involvement and sharing in the death of strangers. A family has lost a beloved daughter and sister, an event that becomes fresh meat for the news and social media feeding frenzy. As they navigate the media circus that follows, mother and sister take very different paths to work through their grief.

Leah (Alison Dickson) speaks to us directly, our host and narrator as we witness scenes—sometimes in flashback—around the events of her older sister Jesse’s (Claire MacMaster) disappearance. Jesse’s body was later found in a ravine, and both Leah and her mother Carol (Bernadette Medhurst) find themselves in the spotlight of an often intrusive, uncaring news media—even confronted by a photographer (Jack Everett) on the steps of their small-town church when they attend Jesse’s funeral. In the aftermath, while Leah finds herself slogging through a callous, click bait world of modern news and social media, bombarded with ignorance and cruelty as she struggles to work through grief and loss, she is appalled to find her mother joining in—writing a book about the experience of losing her daughter, and working with PR folks to book interviews.

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Alison Dickson & Claire MacMaster. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Paige Foskett. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Bruce Peters.

Alternating between past and present, we see a 15-year-old Leah interacting with Jesse, who is her best friend, advisor, confidante and go-to source of info on the state of their parents’ shaky marriage; then a few years later being invited to a party with Jesse and her friends in Toronto, where Jesse disappears after leaving on her own. We see Leah go head to head with Carol over Carol’s making an industry of Jesse’s death; and the battle for Leah’s participation in a television interview, taking place the same day as her first day at university. And Leah has a meet cute with Charlie (Bronson Lake), an awkward but sweet university student; they go on a sort of date, but his motives are called into question when an altered recording of a chat he had with their server (Everett) turns up on the news, showing Leah in the worst possible light as the troubled sister of a famous dead girl.

Lovely work from the cast in this timely, moving and razor-sharp exploration of how news and social media can intrude upon and dishonour the departed, and have a profound impact on their loved ones. Dickson gives a stand-out performance as the whip-smart, introverted, wry-witted Leah; precocious, irreverent and wise beyond her years, Leah can be her own worst enemy as she keeps herself informed about world events—events that spark deep anxiety over the possibility of catastrophe. Conflicted about engaging with the Internet following Jesse’s death, what she finds there only serves to make her journey through grief more difficult.

MacMaster gives an energetic, luminous performance as the bubbly extrovert Jesse; the best big sister Leah could have, she’s super supportive and encouraging—balancing a respect for Leah’s boundaries with gentle pushes outside her comfort zone. Medhurst does a nice job with the conflicted Carol; a mother who’s lost her daughter, she deals with her grief the only way she knows how—honour Jesse’s memory so she won’t be forgotten. Lake gives an adorably awkward performance as the bashful Charlie; somewhat of an introvert himself, Charlie is interested in Leah, but unfortunately not very media-savvy. And Everett offers a great range of news media folk, from the intrusive jerk photographer at the funeral, to serious CTV reporter, to sleazy “journalist”.

Timely, moving and sharply funny, Grief Circus incorporates video and projected social media messaging (video design by director Foskett) to illustrate the scope of the family’s loss of a wonderful, energetic young woman—and the inappropriate, at times heartless, thoughtless and intrusive, response of the public. Strangers turning up at the funeral, or making comments in person or online; and, worst of all, the anonymous social media posters who cast negative, clueless aspersions about Jesse’s character—especially the trolls who say that Jesse had it coming.

Grief Circus continues in the Alumnae Studio Theatre until November 17; get tickets online, by calling 416-364-4170 (ext. 1) or 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 16 matinée performance.

FireWorks continues its three-week run until November 24, presenting a new show each week. The festival closes with Genevieve Adam’s If the Shoe Fits, directed by Heather Keith (Nov 20-24).

 

The Real Housewives meets Molière in GBTS’s hilariously delightful The Learned Ladies

Ensemble. Set & costume design by Brandon Kleiman. Lighting design by Siobhan Sleath. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

The George Brown Theatre School (GBTS) graduating class opened its 2019-20 season at the Young Centre this week with a hilariously delightful take on Molière’s The Learned Ladies, translated by Richard Wilbur, directed by Sue Miner and choreographed by Bob McCollum. It’s The Real Housewives of Paris meets Molière as the translated text combines with a contemporary backdrop in a razor-sharp send-up of attention-seeking celebrity rich people and the famous poseur artists they fawn over. Plus ça change…

We are introduced to the characters in etalk red carpet style, complete with director (a hyper-efficient, clipboard-bearing Amelia Ryan), and self-involved celebrity hosts Joshua (sunglasses-wearing cock of the walk Jack Copland) and Salique (Siobhan Johnson, with runway model fetching fierceness). The parade of artifice and authenticity gives us a glimpse at the nature of the people we’re about to meet as they walk, stroll and pose across Brandon Kleiman’s colourful pink explosion of a set (think Barbie meets Dr. Seuss).

Left behind the glamourous clamour is the bespectacled, introverted Clitandre (an adorkably sweet turn from Barry McCluskey), trying to catch up with his sweetheart and intended bride Henriette (played with vulnerable resilience and independence by Cait MacMullin). When Henriette meets with her more popular older sister Armande (a hilariously vain and self-absorbed performance from Hannah Forest Briand) in a café, we learn that Clitandre was once smitten with Armande, who has sworn off traditional relationships like marriage in the interests of academic and artistic learning, and rejected his love.

Of course, the young intended couple have barriers to overcome, chiefly Henriette’s overbearing, judgmental mother Philaminte (a domineering Kardashian-esque philosopher turn from Jessica Pellicciotta), who boasts a small army of “learned ladies” in a self-directed academy of their own making: Arganiette (wacky, woo bottle carrying Ilona Gal), expert in Health and Health Trends; Violette (an imperious, verbally agile Renisha Henry), expert in Government and Justice; Dorimene (a fastidious, unforgiving librarian-esqe Amy Leis); and Lucillia (a spacy, star-gazing Lauren Merotto), expert in Stars and Other Worldly. They are joined by Philaminte’s sister-in-law (her husband Chrysale’s sister), self-proclaimed heart-breaker Aunt Belise (played with outrageously funny, delusional panache by Jane Neumier).

On Henriette and Clitandre’s side are her brow-beaten father Chrysale (played with goofy cowardly lion kindness by Kareem Mark Vaude) and his other sister, lawyer Aunt Ariste (Nastasia Pappas-Kemps, with brilliant, level-headed good sense and wide-eyed energy). Rounding out the group are Chrysale and Philaminte’s household servants: Martine the maid (a cheeky, forthright and irreverent Iris Hallman) and Butler Lepine (Ian Williams, with a combination of uptight decorum and the enthusiasm of one who’s swallowed the poseur Kool-Aid).

Philaminte has other plans for Henriette, choosing celebrity boy wonder poet Trissotin (a hysterically classic, physical poseur artist turn from Brian Le) as husband for her youngest daughter. Trissotin has his eye on someone else; and problems of his own, when his talent and reputation are challenged by poetry performance power couple, lovers Vadius (Sansom Marchand, in a proud, haughty cypher turn) and Mademoiselle Fosina (an intimidating, sensual turn from Jacqueline JD Plante). Adding insult to injury, Philaminte gives her blessing when the jealous, attention-seeking Armande decides she wants Clitandre back!

Finally finding the gumption to stand up to his bossy wife, Chrysale hatches a plan with his sister Ariste to make it right for Henriette and Clitandre. And, as this is Molière, things have a way of working out—in some unexpected, surprising and wacky ways.

The Learned Ladies, George Brown
Ensemble. Set & costume design by Brandon Kleiman. Lighting design by Siobhan Sleath. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

The razor-sharp satire pokes great fun at the fond and foolish rich people who become celebrities for no apparent reason other than for their over-the-top antics and ridiculous wealth; and those among the art and media glitterati who achieve fame with their mannequin good looks and artiste du jour popularity. And it rips into those who are slavishly and superficially dedicated to learning, their noses stuck in books and their heads up their asses—intolerant of and excluding those who don’t meet their unforgiving, idiotic standards. Through the red carpet galas; spa days; poetry tableaux; and yoga classes that are part yoga, part Tai Chi, part voguing—we see how artificial and disingenuous these idle rich folk are. Thankfully, authenticity, acceptance and inclusion win the day.

The Learned Ladies continues at the Young Centre until November 16; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

Check out GBTS’s 2019-20 season, and keep up with this year’s graduating class on Facebook.

 

Classic Canadian Gothic comes home in the quirky, magical, lyrical Trout Stanley

Natasha Mumba, Stephen Jackman-Torkoff & Shakura Dickson. Set & costume design by Shannon Lea Doyle. Lighting design by Raha Javanfar. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography.

 

Claudia Dey’s Canadian Gothic classic Trout Stanley comes home to Factory Theatre for a new production, cast through an African Canadian immigrant lens, directed by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, assisted by Coleen MacPherson—opening last night in the Mainspace. Quirky, magical and lyrical, twin sisters celebrating their 30th birthday—the same day their parents died 10 years ago—find an unexpected guest in their secluded house in the woods. Love, family and devotion are assessed and put to the test as relationship dynamics evolve in hilarious and poignant ways.

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Shakura Dickson & Natasha Mumba. Set & costume design by Shannon Lea Doyle. Lighting design by Raha Javanfar. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography.

Set in 1990s rural B.C., twin sisters Sugar (Shakura Dickson) and Grace (Natasha Mumba) Ducharme have only had each other since their parents died on their birthday 10 years ago. The introverted Sugar hasn’t left the house since, and refuses to stop wearing their mother’s track suit; while extrovert Grace dons a stylin’ mauve jumpsuit and goes to work at the town dump every day, scoring the occasional print modelling gig—including a recent billboard ad. It’s their 30th birthday; and along with the tragic memory of their parents’ deaths, the date seems to be extra cursed. Every year since they were orphaned, a woman in the area who shares their birthday has gone missing and turned up dead, found by Grace. And this year, the Scrabble Champ stripper has disappeared on her way home from work.

Things get even stranger when an unexpected guest on a mission turns up at the twins’ secluded house in the woods: a young, handsome-ish man with the unlikely name Trout Stanley, who we soon learn has much in common with the sisters—and who is immediately and inexplicably drawn to Sugar. Like the twins, he was orphaned and has set out on foot, searching for the lake where his parents drowned—and now he’s lost. But, with a possible murderer on the loose, can Sugar and Grace trust him?

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Stephen Jackman-Torkoff. Set & costume design by Shannon Lea Doyle. Lighting design by Raha Javanfar. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography.

Outstanding work from the cast in this captivating, mercurial, lyrical three-hander; playing characters that are all both feral and fragile in their own way. Dickson brings an adorable child-like sweetness to the soft-spoken, broken-hearted Sugar; singing snatches of made-up songs, and singing and dancing to her mother’s old Heart record, Sugar lives in a world of her own, surrounded by dozens of the tragic biographic figurines she used to make (shouts to set designer Shannon Lea Doyle for the beautiful, detailed set of the Ducharme home). Mumba brings a self-confident swagger and fierceness to Grace; entertainingly vain and ferociously protective of Sugar—her polar opposite and perfect complement—Grace more than lives up to her nickname of Lion Queen. The world the sisters have created together is a poignant and unique combination of tender personal rituals and pragmatic harsh realities. For Sugar, the world is full of nostalgia, music and magic; drawn to the macabre, it’s the everyday moments that overwhelm her. Grace sees and smells the hardness of the world every day, but still manages to find wonder and beauty—even at the dump. Jackman-Torkoff is a playful, puckish delight as Trout Stanley; mercurial and impish, Trout is part wild man, part philosopher, part poet. He has big feelings and huge dreams; unflinching in his cause, his encounter with the sisters changes him too. As unexpected as his lost boy arrival is for the twins, what he finds is both new and surprising.

This fairy tale-like adventure plays out with memory, heart and singular individuality as all three characters reveal their secrets and find a way to move on with their lives.

Trout Stanley continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until November 10; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416- 504-9971.

In the meantime, check out Phil Rickaby’s Stageworthy Podcast interview with actor Shakura Dickson.

 

 

Toronto Fringe: Madcap comedy & love a winning combination in the playful, mercurial The Taming of the Shrew

Chris Coculuzzi & Alexandra Milne. Photo by Kathy Plamondon.

 

Aquarius Players bring Shakespeare to the Fringe stage with their madcap, playful production of The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Nicole Arends and running in the St. George the Martyr Courtyard.

Baptista (Scott Moore) has two daughters: the wild Katherine (Alexandra Milne) and the sweet Bianca (Greta Whipple). Bianca has a few suitors on the scene: older locals Hortensio (Chris Irving) and Gremio (Daryn DeWalt); and a new face in town, the young Lucentio (Michael Pearson), who is smitten on sight. Problem is, Baptista is determined to marry Katherine off first—but no one will have her.

Enter Petruchio (Chris Coculuzzi), who has recently inherited his father’s estate and is out in the world looking for adventure. Hortensio and Gremio convince him to woo Katherine—exulting her great dowry and father’s wealth—so they may continue their suits with Bianca. Meanwhile, Lucentio has hatched a plan of his own, switching places with his servant Tranio (Paige Madsen), who will run interference with the other suitors and press his suit to Bianca while he inserts himself into Baptista’s home as a tutor. Here, he winds up in hilarious competition with Hortensio, also in disguise as a tutor.

Petruchio marries Katherine and takes her to his home, assuming extreme, erratic and bizarre behaviour himself to gradually calm her and get her rage under control. His servants Grumio (Elaine O’Neal) and Curtis (Christina Leonard, who also plays Lucentio’s sax-playing servant Biondello, who leads us around the courtyard as the scenes change) are both in on and puzzled by all of this. It all becomes a crazy game of ‘Petruchio says,’ and he and Katherine fall in love as her cold, hardened heart melts.

Lucentio and Tranio have a few more tricks up their sleeves, including disguising a wandering Pedant (Irving) as Lucentio’s father Vincentio, who will vouch for Lucentio’s character and station to Baptista—a decision that blows their cover when the real Vincentio (DeWalt) shows up. By then, Lucentio and Bianca are already married; and their agreeable fathers forgive them as they host a wedding feast for friends and family. And, with the mad cap craziness of the Petruchio/Katherine dynamic, Katherine’s final speech advising wives to follow their husbands’ lead—though still challenging by today’s standards—becomes an argument for wives to take the lead on maintaining peace and serenity in the household.

The cast is an entertaining delight in this lively 90-minute outdoor Shakespearean romp of love, disguise, competition and well-meaning manipulation. Coculuzzi and Milne are nicely matched as the patient, meticulous rogue Petruchio and the enraged, neglected wildcat Katherine; her extreme internal rage boiling over to the surface, she behaves like a wild animal—and he applies a remedy appropriate to taming a wild creature, with great care and calculation. They are nicely supported by the ensemble, especially Whipple’s bratty favourite daughter Bianca; Pearson’s lusty, love-struck Lucentio; Madsen as the puckish wise servant Tranio; and Leonard’s awkward child-like Biondello. And Irving and DeWalt give great comic turns as Bianca’s thwarted suitors, with Irving doing hilarious double duty as the saucy, likely drunken, Pedant.

With the mercurial word play, and imaginative physicality and comedy, this Shrew is a mad world of rage and love—with wacky desperate situations requiring equally wacky desperate measures—and love wins in the end.

The Taming of the Shrew continues in the St. George the Martyr Courtyard, with two more performances: today (July 13) and July 14 at 2:00; check the show page for advance tickets. Chairs are available in and around the courtyard for those who need them; otherwise, there are blankets to sit on.

Missed a show or want to see it again? Check out the latest Fringe announcements: Fringe Awards & Patron’s Picks and Best of the Fringe.

Preview: Survival, resilience & resistance in the powerful, raw, timely Four Sisters

Bea Pizano & Company. Production design by Kaitlin Hickey in collaboration with Susanna Fournier. Wardrobe and props design by Patrick Peachey Higdon. Video design by Steph Raposo. Photo by Bernie Fournier.

 

Four Sisters is the final installment of Susanna Fournier’s Empire trilogy; produced by Paradigm Productions and commissioned by Luminato, and running this week at the Theatre Centre. Directed by Fournier and choreographed by Amanda Acorn, this powerful, raw and timely tale takes us to the Empire 259 years after the events of The Scavenger’s Daughter; into a world of plague and social cast-offs, where a 279-year old former madam raises the orphaned children of women who worked for her. A doctor arrives, promising to help as she works to come up with an inexpensive cure for marginalized, low-income populations; and she needs to experiment on the children.

We are in the Skirts, an outlying neighbourhood on the outskirts of the city where society’s marginalized and cast-off people dwell—the poor, mostly women and sex workers. And because this is the Empire, this is a world where only those with money, power and connections can afford to survive and thrive in the toxic, disease-ridden mess left behind after centuries of greed, violence, war and cut-throat capitalism. Former madam Sarah (Bea Pizano) has managed to cheat Death and now finds herself being mother to Abby (Chala Hunter, Krystina Bojanowski, Yolanda Bonnell), Beah (Aria Evans, Ximena Huizi, Jennifer Dahl), Cassie (Claudia Moore) and Dee (Virgilia Griffith)—children of women who worked for her, who all died of plague. When a Doctor (Krystina Bojanowski, Yolanda Bonnell), driven by the desire to find an inexpensive cure that can be used on the low-income population, arrives from the city with the promise of medical help, Sarah must decide if she’s willing to let her girls be Guinea pigs or die of plague.

The story plays out both within and without time and space—on a bare stage, sculpted with light and punctuated with video on a solitary TV screen (designed by Steph Raposo), the chilling atmosphere hauntingly complemented by Christopher Ross-Ewart’s sound design. Time folds and bends in on itself, with the multiple casting for Abby and Beah allowing for both younger and inner selves to speak to these characters, with shades of things to come for an older Beah. And the ongoing role swapping between the actors playing Abby and the Doctor (Bojanowski and Bonnell) shines a light on the choices health care practitioners have when it comes to their practice: to play a role in the male-dominated arenas of capitalism and Big Pharma, promising low-cost health benefits at unknown personal and societal cost, or working on the front lines of health care among those who society has discarded.

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Krystina Bojanowski & Company. Production design by Kaitlin Hickey in collaboration with Susanna Fournier. Wardrobe and props design by Patrick Peachey Higdon. Video design by Steph Raposo. Photo by Bernie Fournier.

Compelling work from this remarkable cast, as the staging incorporates movement, video and voice-over to tell a story that, like the earlier parts of this trilogy, is both visceral and cerebral, past and present, present and future. Pizano nicely balances Sarah’s wry-witted madam pragmatism with the tender-hearted, concern of a good mother. Bojanowski and Bonnell mine the Doctor’s clinical detachment and sense of social responsibility to great effect. Are the Doctor’s later efforts a move toward redemption—or too little, too late?

The four girls grow before our eyes, from children playing in Sarah’s kitchen into conflicted adults struggling to choose a path in a world where paths are being cut off and replaced with walls—literally and figuratively. Hunter, Bojanowski and Bonnell bring sharp focus and inner conflict to Abby, who becomes an apprentice to the Doctor even as she longs to be a mother—and in the painful light of her new-found medical knowledge and expertise. Evans, Huizi and Dahl are loveable and heartbreaking as the energetic, resilient Beah; the dancer sister who longs to study at the academy—her exhausted, battered feet continuing to create despite the unexpected turns her life takes. Griffith brings both profound vulnerability and power to the deeply wounded, angry Dee; self-medicating in an effort to deal with troubling visions, Dee becomes an addict and an outcast among her own marginalized family, setting her on the path toward a surprising evolution. And Moore’s Cassie is adorable and wise; ever a child, Cassie sees and responds to unfolding events with innocent honesty.

Operating both in and out of time and space, we witness what the Empire has come to following centuries of war and social disintegration—leaving us wondering what, if anything, will rise from the ashes. (During intermission, you can view artifacts in the National Museum of the Empire installation in the upper lobby, outside the theatre.) In the end, through pain, grief and loss, there is resilience and resistance. It is apocalypse with a glimmer of hope. And all with the recognition—both disturbing and reassuring—of our own time and place.

Four Sisters continues in the Franco Boni Theatre space at the Theatre Centre until June 16. Post-show talk backs with the artists are scheduled to follow the 8 pm performance on Fri, June 14 (hosted by Ted Witzel); and the 2 pm performance on Sat, June 15 (hosted by Maria Vamvalis). Advance tickets available online; it was a full house at last night’s final preview performance, so advance booking or early arrival is strongly recommended.

If you’re like me and missed the first two installments of the Empire trilogy, or want a refresh before seeing Four Sisters, you can catch up and listen to the podcasts of The Philosopher’s Wife and The Scavenger’s Daughter on The Empire website, co-produced with Expect Theatre’s PlayMe Podcast.

The Sad Blisters: Wrap-up

Seated: Bonnie Gray & Esther Thibault. Standing: Cate McKim, Andrea Lyons & Anne McDougall. Set design by Alexis Chubb. Lighting design by Liz Currie. Photo by Victoria Shepherd.

 

And that’s a wrap! The Sad Blisters took its final bow at The Commons Space on Saturday night. Huge thanks to everyone who came out and/or supported us through shout-outs on social media/word of mouth!

This is my favourite photo of the Blister sisters, taken by director Victoria Shepherd to post on National Siblings Day.

Big love and shouts to Debbie Batten and Victoria Shepherd for trusting us with Andrew Batten’s words; to Tina McCulloch for stepping in to multi-task with co-producing, marketing/promo, ticket sales and box office; Liz Currie and Jamie Fairfoull for their work and watchful eyes throughout rehearsals and in the booth; Alexis Chubb, John Stuart Campbell and Livia Pravato for their design excellence; Ryan Armstrong for getting us into fighting form; and to Brent Shepherd and Gord Thibault for helping to put it all together.

And to my Blister sisters Bonnie Gray, Andrea Lyons, Anne McDougall and Esther Thibault — so happy to have had the chance to work with you and get to know you. xo

It was a bittersweet pleasure and an honour to bring Andrew’s story, lovingly based on his beloved Debbie’s family, to life. Blister!

 

Women’s stories across the ages in the sharp-witted, illuminating & timely Top Girls

Jordi O’Dael (Gret), Jennifer Fahy (Patient Griselda), Charlotte Ferrarei (Pope Joan), Alison Dowling (Marlene), Lisa Lenihan (Isabella Bird), Tea Nguyen (Lady Nijo). Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Bec Brownstone. Lighting design by Jay Hines. Projection design by Madison Madhu. Photo by Bruce Peters.

 

Alumnae Theatre Company opened its timely, updated production of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls last night, directed by Alysa Golden, assisted by DJ Elektra. Sharp-witted, illuminating and theatrical, Top Girls is a both an observation and commentary of women’s lived experiences across the ages. Written in 1982 and given a contemporary framing in this production, it’s both funny and sad how little has changed for women in terms of opportunity, oppression, and the expectations of the spaces they occupy and the roles they play—a timely undertaking in the age of #MeToo and #timesup.

We open on a fantasy dinner party, hosted by Marlene (Alison Dowling), who is celebrating her promotion at the Top Girls employment agency. Her guests include the fastidious Victorian world traveller Isabella Bird (Lisa Lenihan); 13th century Japanese concubine and material girl Lady Nijo (Tea Nguyen); Gret, the coarse, lusty subject of Breughel painting “Dulle Griet” (Jordi O’Dael); the esoteric, philosophical Pope Joan (Charlotte Ferrarei); and the unquestioningly obedient Griselda, from Chaucer’s “The Clerk’s Tale” (Jennifer Fahy). The women share stories of love, marriage, motherhood, travel, oppression and hardship as they eat, drink and descend into drunken stupor.

Shifting into present day, we meet Marlene’s niece Angie (Rebekah Reuben), who lives in the country with her mother, Marlene’s sister Joyce (Nyiri Karakas), and spends most of her time with best friend Kit (Naomi Koven), who is several years younger. More than just a handful of a teenager, Angie is troubled, young for her age, and adrift in her life; mistrusting and disrespecting of her mother, she dreams of getting away and learning the truth about herself.

We get a glimpse of the Top Girls employment agency, populated by female recruiters, the office abuzz with Marlene’s upcoming move to her own office and greater things. Not everyone is thrilled, however, and a male colleague’s wife Mrs. Kidd (Lenihan) pays a visit to protest his being passed over. Marlene’s colleagues Win (Claire Keating) and Nell (Grace Thompson) interview prospective recruits— including a couple of ambitious, vague 20-somethings (April Rebecca) and an overlooked, undervalued 40-something (Peta Mary Bailey). Angie arrives on the scene, having gone AWOL from home and inviting herself to stay at Marlene’s.

Jumping a year into the past, Marlene visits Joyce and Angie—tricked by Angie with an invitation that supposedly came from Joyce. The family dynamic of estrangement between the estranged sisters comes into focus, as does a life-changing family secret.

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Naomi Koven (Kit), Nyiri Karakas (Joyce). Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Bec Brownstone. Lighting design by Jay Hines. Projection design by Madison Madhu. Photo by Bruce Peters.

Lovely work all around from this considerable, all-female cast, with several actors playing multiple characters. Stand-outs include Dowling as the sharp, bold and unapologetic Marlene, who’s executed some major shifts in her life to get where she is, in spite of the naysaying and resentment from family and male colleagues. Reuben is both exasperating and poignant as the immature, lost Angie; like her mother, we come to worry for her future—she can’t hide out and play in the backyard with her little friend Kit (played with sweet, wise child energy by Koven) forever. Karakas brings a home-spun rural edge to the gruff, worn-out Joyce; unlike Marlene, who couldn’t get out of town fast enough, Joyce stayed in their hometown to raise Angie.

Keating and Thompson make a great pair as the gossipy, snippy and ambitious Top Girls recruiters, interviewing their respective prospects with the impervious attitude of entitled gate keepers. And O’Dael brings both great comedy and drama as Gret, with her hearty appetite, lust for life and hair-raising tale of her campaign against the demons of Hell.

Golden’s theatrical, multimedia staging is both technically effective and dramatically compelling, as scenes shift from fantasy to reality, and present to past—Teodoro Dragonieri’s set largely constructed from doors, an apt image for the production. Scene changes feature a spritely young Dancer (a confident, mischievous and willowy Estella Haensel); and Viv Moore’s elegant, expressive choreography is playfully and tenderly accompanied by Richard Campbell’s sound design. Projected backgrounds (projection design by Madison Madhu) mark the change of space and passage of time, form urban to rural, and light to dark.

While the lives, times and stories of these women vary dramatically, crossing a broad range of lived experience, the themes of class, female identity and male entitlement emerge as common threads. The more things change, the more they stay the same. It is comic in its tragedy that, in 2019, half of the world’s population is still held back, to varying—and sometimes violent and criminal—degrees, from achieving its full potential. On the upside, we see these women persevere and push back—breaking rules and shattering expectations to thrive and live their dreams.

Top Girls continues this weekend on the Alumnae mainstage until February 2; get tickets online, by calling 416-364-4170 (ext. 1) or in-person at the box office one hour before curtain time (cash only).

The run includes a pre-show Panel “Women, Power and Success in the Age of Me Too” on January 24 at 6:30 pm; and a post-show talkback with the director and cast on January 27.

Check out the trailer by Nicholas Porteous:

 

Department of corrections: The original post misnamed the lighting designer as Jan Hines in the two photo credits; it’s actually Jay Hines. This has been corrected.

The incendiary aftermath of lives in distress in the powerful, theatrical After the Fire

Louise Lambert, Jesse Gervais, Sheldon Elter & Kaitlyn Riordan. Set & costume design by Alison Yanota. Lighting design by Kaileigh Krysztofiak. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Punctuate! Theatre and Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts, in association with Native Earth Performing Arts and The Theatre Centre, opened the world premiere of Matthew MacKenzie’s powerful, theatrical After the Fire at The Theatre Centre last night. Directed by Brendan McMurtry-Howlett, assisted by Theresa Cutknife, the play follows two couples in the aftermath of the Fort McMurray fire—the personal, environmental and economic devastation of the disaster sparking volatile dynamics and personal revelations within the group. And a stark reminder of how precious and fragile our environment is—and how we need to examine our relationship with the land and water.

The pleasant, transporting scent of sage, sweet grass and tobacco wafts over us as we sit, in the round (rectangle, actually), a recognition of the four corners—North, South, East and West—and an Elder’s opening night prayer and reminder to respect, protect and hold sacred the water and the land. Mother Earth’s gifts have been razed by flames in Fort McMurray; the set (designed by Alison Yanota) a post-apocalyptic wasteland, a large pile of wood chips and ash dominating centre stage, with a menacing tentacle-like structure hovering above. Like a dead tree dripping crude oil, its shadow resembling a dinosaur skeleton in the red light (lighting design by Kaileigh Krysztofiak). And a touch of normalcy and Canadiana:  a box of Timbits and Timmies coffee cups sit atop the ash pile.

Laura (Kaitlyn Riordan) and Barry (Sheldon Elter) lost their home in the Fort McMurray fire; and they and their daughter are currently living with Laura’s younger sister Carmell (Louise Lambert), who has recently split up with her husband Ty (Jesse Gervais), and her two kids. Carmell is a local girls’ hockey team coach and Laura is their trainer; both have daughters on the team, bff cousins. Still reeling from the personal and community disaster of the fire, they’re on a mission tonight after the hockey game: the men are digging a hole out in the scorched forest and the women are en route to the tailings pond to dispose of something.

Riordan does an excellent job of driving the urgency of their situation, quashing Laura’s distress with determination and comic observation; tightly wound, fastidious and prim—the “responsible” older sister. A perfect foil as Laura’s “wild” younger sister, Lambert brings a world-wise, no-fucks-given edge; Carmell has dealt with some serious shit in her life, including her addict ex. And although the two are polar opposites and drive each other crazy, there’s a solid bond of sisterhood despite their differences. As the men take turns digging the hole, we see another pair of opposites emerge. Elter gives a solid, compelling performance as Barry; silent and pensive, and seething underneath it all, Barry’s found himself in a place of deep reflection. Re-examining his relationship with his Indigenous heritage and to the land since the fire, he’s particularly sensitive to the condition of the local flora and fauna. Gervais’ energetic, chatty man child Ty is a bundle of nervous recovering addict energy; unashamedly unapologetic for working in the oil industry, there’s more than meets the eye. Ty also demonstrates heart-felt honesty and care, and go-to resilience—a result of his inward exploration and recovery process.

Trying to keep it all together in the face of a dire situation, hot on the heels of their world actually on fire, each character is forced to deal with the fire burning out of control in his/her life. The Fort McMurray fire, possibly caused by humans, tripped off a series of responses and actions beyond the disaster itself, and renewed reflection and debate on environmental protection vs. economic benefits. As these characters take stock of their place in and personal impact on the world—on both a small and large scale—we’re reminded how a small spark on an individual level can create huge, far-reaching consequences that impact many.

After the Fire continues at the Theatre Centre to January 19; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416-538-0988. It’s a short run, so get on it.

Love, sacrifice & the heartbeat of time in the delightful, poignant Sisters

Laura Condlln & Nicole Power. Set design by Michelle Tracey. Costume design by Erika Connor. Lighting design by Kimberley Purtell. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper opened its striking world premiere of Rosamund Small’s delightful, poignant Sisters—a story of love, family, sacrifices and the march of time—to an enthusiastic full house last night. Inspired by Edith Wharton’s novella Bunner Sisters and directed by Peter Pasyk, Sisters is running in the Michael Young Theatre at the Young Centre.

It’s the turn of the century in New York City, and sisters Ann (Laura Condlln) and Evelina (Nicole Power) live quiet, regular lives, working and living in a small shop, selling notions and jams, and providing sewing services. Both are single at an age that would label them as spinsters; and their small, humdrum workaday lives get a spark of excitement when Ann buys a clock for Evelina’s birthday—and both become enamoured with the quiet, charming clockmaker Ramy (Kevin Bundy). Adding to the fun is their observant friend and neighbour, Mrs. Mellins (Karen Robinson), a widowed dressmaker who lives upstairs.

Torn between her feelings for Ramy and love for her sister, Ann steps aside to make room for a match between Ramy and Evelina—a decision made all the more heart-wrenching when Ramy takes a job in St. Louis, taking his new wife with him and leaving Ann to run the shop alone. Dependant on return customers and referrals from more privileged ladies—like the affable Lady with the Puffy Sleeves (Ellora Patnaik) and the wealthy, entitled Customer (Raquel Duffy)—Ann and Mrs. Mellins are also facing a new wave of industrialization; one in which much of the textile industry will be mechanized, with factories churning out large amounts of pre-made, less expensive off-the-rack goods. Dealing with the separation as best as she can, when Evelina’s letters stop coming and her letters come back return-to-sender, Ann sets on a search for Evelina’s whereabouts; and with the help of Mrs. Mellins, gathers some troubling information about Ramy in the process.

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Karen Robinson, Laura Condlln & Nicole Power. Set design by Michelle Tracey. Costume design by Erika Connor. Lighting design by Kimberley Purtell. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Lovely work from the cast in this tale of everyday heroism and perseverance in the face of longing, heartbreak and loyalty. Condlln is heartbreaking and inspiring as the older sister Ann; practical and better with the accounts than she is with the creative side of the business, Ann puts her own desire for romance aside to make her sister happy. Power (who Kim’s Convenience fans will recognize as Jung’s quirky boss Shannon) is a day-dreamy spitfire as younger sister Evelina; bored and skeptical that things will get better, Evelina is more pessimistic than her sister—but is able to see colours in music and match the perfect accessories to a dress. Robinson (who Schitt’s Creek fans will recognize as Ronnie Lee) is a treat as Mrs. Mellins, performing with gusto and impeccable comic timing; while she has a morbid fascination in the seedier side of the city, Mrs. Mellins’ penny dreadful notions of life outside the shop make way for sage advice and motherly watchfulness over the sisters. And Bundy seduces as the reserved, gallant German clockmaker; shy, sickly and precise, Ramy is a mystery man of changeable temperament—which perhaps makes him all the more attractive.

The perspectival, display case-like set with a raked floor (Michelle Tracey), atmospheric lighting (Kimberly Purtell), stunning period costumes (Erika Connor) and haunting music box music (Richard Feren) make for an aesthetically pleasing, finely honed view of this world.

Sisters reminds us of the precarity of life for working women; reliant on men and those who are better off in general to make something of their lives. And of the saving grace of love, hope, faith and determination—with a little help from family and friends.

Sisters continues at the Young Centre until September 16. Get advance tickets online or call the box office: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.