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.

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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.

Toronto Fringe: Wedding planning mayhem & big LOLs in Morro & Jasp: Save the Date

Heather Marie Annis (Morro) & Amy Lee (Jasp). Photo by Alex Nirta.

 

Jasp is getting hitched and you’re invited to come along as she and Morro get ready for the wedding! Our favourite clown sisters are back at Toronto Fringe, this time with Morro & Jasp: Save the Date. Created and performed by Amy Lee and Heather Marie Annis, and directed by Byron Laviolette, with clown coaching by John Turner; the show is running in the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace.

Things are abuzz at the sisters’ house as Morro (Heather Marie Annis) and Jasp (Amy Lee) get ready for Jasp’s wedding. Clown shenanigans and audience participation ensue as the sisters visit a dress shop, first for Jasp’s wedding gown and later for Morro’s sister of the bride dress; have a cake tasting; go out clubbing with the girls for the bachelorette party; and more! And, best of all, Morro’s creating a DIY veil for Jasp! [Spoiler-ish alert: Look out for the nods to Carol Burnett, Marge Simpson and Meghan Markle.]

Of course, with Jasp getting married, Morro will be left at home alone; and Morro’s gradual realization that she will be left out of her sister’s life tugs on our heartstrings. But, in the end, nothing—not even marriage—can break the bonds of sisterly love.

Morro & Jasp: Save the Date continues in the Tarragon Mainspace until July 15; check the show page for exact dates/times. Not going to lie to you, these guys are selling out big time, so you must book in advance to avoid disappointment.

Sex, death, snakes & the healing power of flowers & family in Red Betty Theatre & the G Girls’ political, theatrical Ganga’s Ganja

We struggle in birth. We struggle in death.

I popped over to Geary Lane last night for Storefront Theatre’s presentation of Red Betty Theatre and the G Girls’ production of Radha S. Menon’s Ganga’s Ganja, directed by Jennie Esdale. Ganga’s Ganja headlines the Feminist Fuck It Festival (FFIF), a two-week curated festival of multidisciplinary women and non-binary-identifying artists presenting new, bold and entertaining works.

Set sometime in the not too distant future, sisters Mena (Pam Patel) and Ganga (Senjuti Aurora Sarker) have gone off the grid, living on a piece of land where Ganga grows and tends to medicinal marijuana to help ease Mena’s excruciating Multiple Sclerosis symptoms and give her some quality of life. Ever moving in and out of Mena’s consciousness is Kadru (Amanda DeFreitas), a black and gold snake that only Mena can see. Is Mena hallucinating or is Kadru her escort into the next life?

While Mena self-medicates with weed, deeply inhaling the smoke like oxygen, Ganga’s medicine is one-night stands that often keep her out all night, always returning to her caregiving in the morning. Mena is afraid of leaving Ganga alone, and Ganga is terrified of losing Mena. When their marijuana crop is stolen and they meet the fast-talking, charmer Nero (Jesse Horvath), a man with a shiny silver briefcase and a lot of ideas, the sisters’ world is turned upside down. In a world where non-prescription drugs have been criminalized, but big pharma is happy to use plants to create their products, who can they trust—and how will they find a way to let go of each other?

Political and theatrical, the themes of sex, death and alternative medicine combine with feminism, Hindu deities and sticking it to the man. Patel and Sarker have great chemistry as the sisters; and do a nice job layering their respective inner and outer conflicts. Patel’s Mena is cheerful and positive, despite her devastating diagnosis—this all masking her concern, which is more for her sister than for herself. Mena wants to die, to leave her suffering behind and start over in the next life, but she can’t bring herself to leave Ganga. As Ganga, Sarker is a combination of attentive caregiver and devil-may-care party girl; drowning her guilt and fear in random hook-ups, Ganga struggles with the harsh truth that Mena doesn’t have much time left. DeFreitas brings a sensual and fierce edge to Kadru; ever watchful and ever waiting, Kadru is not the menace she appears to be—and appears to represent the faith, tradition and ritual of the sisters’ Indian ancestors. Horvath’s Nero is the perfect picture of white, male entitlement; charming, mercurial and donning a bad boy rebel image, Nero is a 21st century snake oil salesman dealing in mainstream pharmaceuticals. He is the embodiment of Western right-wing conservative, corporate misogyny—all wrapped up in a pretty bleach blond, white linen package.

With shouts to the design team—Tony Sciara (set), Tula Tusox (costume) and Maddie Bautista (sound)—for their work in creating this evocative, otherworldly space that reflects both the South Asian culture of the sisters, and an intriguing environment that’s out of time and space.

Sex, death, snakes and the healing power of flowers and family in Red Betty Theatre and the G Girls’ political, theatrical Ganga’s Ganja.

Ganga’s Ganja continues at FFIF at Geary Lane (360 Geary Ave., Toronto) until April 22, every night (except Mondays) at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2:00 pm, followed by nightly programming at 9:00 pm and 10:30 pm. Get advanced tickets for Ganga’s Ganja online and check out the rest of the FFIF line-up.