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).

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

Mystery & memory in the delightfully whimsical, darkly funny, compelling DIANA (I Knew You When We Were Fourteen)

Ian Goff & Alexa Higgins. Photo by Barry McCluskey.

 

Falling Iguana Theatre Co., in association with The Centre for Drama, Theatre & Performance Studies (CDTPS), University of Toronto, presents the delightfully whimsical, darkly funny and compelling DIANA (I knew you when you were fourteen), by Falling Iguana co-founders Alexa Higgins and Ian Goff, with contributing playwright Sarah Higgins. A physical theatre, dark comedy mystery journey—weaving movement, memory, fantasy, fact and fiction in a fairy tale-like detective story—when Diana disappears after a high school dance, Michael is determined to find out what happened to her. Supported by consulting director Gillian Armstrong and dramaturg Sharisse LeBrun, DIANA opened for a short run in the Robert Gill Theatre at U of T last night—presented as this year’s CDTPS Alumni Performance Project.

Inspired by a footnote at the end of Michael Ondaatje’s poem Elimination Dance that read: “Diana Whitehouse, where are you?”, DIANA traces the individual paths of high school classmates Diana (Alexa Higgins) and Michael (Ian Goff) as they grow into adulthood—with Michael determined to find out what happened to Diana when she disappeared after a high school dance when they were in grade nine. Stretching out across the years, across Canada from small-town New Brunswick, to Vancouver, to Toronto—with side trips in Europe—we’re introduced to the cast of characters they cross paths with; all set to a sparkly, rockin’ 80s soundtrack.

Fact, fiction, fantasy and memory intertwine in a tale that is part dark comedy mystery and part fairy tale. Incorporating music, dance, movement and a cast of characters, we watch Michael investigate as gossip and recollection merge in the stories and perceptions about Diana and her parents. And we see events unfold from Diana’s perspective; confirming, denying and refining what people think they know about her and her family. Darkly funny, at times tender and compelling, lyrical and balletic, the audience gets caught up in both journeys as Michael searches for the truth, and Diana reaches out for a life away from the small-town rumour, judgement and assumptions about her and her parents.

Outstanding work from Higgins and Goff in this 60-minute marathon of storytelling; conveying character, emotion, action and place through monologue, dialogue, dance, movement and practically zero props/set pieces with energy and precision. Higgins brings a sardonic sense of humour with an edge of loneliness to the pragmatic, restless Diana. An enigmatic presence at school—which is what draws Michael to her—Diana struggles with flying under the radar of the small-town gaze while at the same time longing to break free. Goff is delightfully awkward, earnest and curious as Michael; unlike Diana, Michael is an open book, and his sharp focus and positive demeanour keep him on his mission to find Diana, in spite of his own personal heartbreak. And the two are hilarious as honeymooning couple Steve and Sarah; experiencing comic misadventure during a tandem bike tour around Paris. And as assorted elderly and/or gossiping neighbours, telling tall tales of the family who used to live in that house.

Memory can really be a funny thing; and can often say more about us than about the actual events we’re recalling. Tainted by judgement and assumption, and eroded by time, we may not really know what we think we know.

DIANA continues at the Robert Gill Theatre until September 15, with evening performances at 8pm, and matinées at 2pm on Sept 14 and 15; tickets available online or at the door.

Toronto Fringe: Drowning in a small town in the haunting, lyrical Mourning After the Night Before

Models Abby Gillam, Ryan Helgason & Lauren Helgason. Photo by Chloë Whitehorn.

 

Mad River Theatre takes us to a small town by the water as a family struggles to overcome tragedy in Chloë Whitehorn’s haunting, lyrical Mourning After the Night Before; directed by Heather Keith and running at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse.

Lucy (Mary Wall), Drew (Dave Martin) and their teenage daughter Pippa (Brianna Richer) have just arrived in a small town by the water to start a new life, their move assisted by local residents Everett (Jack Morton) and his guardian Fenwick (Loriel Medynski). Pippa is a troubled poet, surrendering the dark contents of her creative, intelligent mind onto paper. Lucy is feeling out of place in her own skin; and Drew, who feels so far away, just wants everyone to be okay. Everett is smitten with Pippa—and Lucy—and the attractions are mutual; and Fenwick’s just trying to keep it together as her adopted son, a reminder of the friend she loved, is on his way to manhood.

Nice work from the cast in this quiet, intimate, ethereal piece where everyday moments float by like leaves on water. Richer’s restless, introspective wild child is nicely balanced by a playful, creative spirit. Wall’s Lucy is part caged animal, part cougar on the hunt as she grapples with her identity as wife and mother and finds herself lacking. Martin’s Drew avoids the stereotypical frustrated, estranged husband; Drew is a hurt, gentle soul who genuinely cares and wants to help, but finds himself at a loss to do so. Morton’s Everett is an endearing combination of lusty youth, optimism and kindness as he navigates his way through the early stages of manhood. And Medynski brings a gentle wisdom to the frank, no-nonsense Fenwick, who’s dealing with both a past loss (Everett’s mother) and an impending loss of her own (Everett growing up).

I first saw an early, shorter version of the play at Alumnae Theatre’s New Ideas Festival in 2018; and was happy to see its evolution. It combines everyday, intimate moments with poetry, and word play and introspection; woven with images and perspectives of water, the characters float around, dive into and drown in their lives as they grasp and gasp for connection, identity and meaning. The water almost becomes a sixth character here. And the minimalist set, incorporating black cubes to denote separate spaces in the story, places a focus on the words and characters as they glide in and out of moments, memories and musings. The result is a heightened realism that is both atmospheric and lyrical.

It is ironic that the family’s retreat to the peace and quiet of a small town forces a level of discomfiting introspection as each tries to anchor themselves within themselves and the world—a not so peaceful or quiet endeavour.

The Mourning After the Night Before continues at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse until July 14; check the show page for exact dates/times and advance tickets.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love, family & home in the heartwarming, hilarious Bed & Breakfast

Paolo Santalucia & Gregory Prest. Set design by Alexandra Lord. Costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by Bonnie Beecher. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper takes us on a heartwarming, hilarious gay pioneering adventure of love, family, community and belonging with its deftly staged production of Mark Crawford’s Bed and Breakfast. Featuring a cast of nearly two dozen characters, performed by two exceptional actors, this poignant comedy directed by Ann-Marie Kerr is running now at the Young Centre.

City boys Brett (Gregory Prest) and Drew (Paolo Santalucia) long to get out of their Toronto condo and into a house they can call home; but despite the best efforts of their flamboyant real estate agent friend Ray (Prest), they continually find themselves on the losing end of cut-throat bidding wars. All that changes when they attend Brett’s aunt Maggie’s funeral and learn that she’s left her large small-town Victorian house to him. Brett, who works as an interior designer, and Drew, who works as a hotel concierge, decide to join forces professionally, go for a total lifestyle makeover and hatch a plan to move in, renovate and open a hip, contemporary B&B.

Easier said than done, as Brett and Drew are two gay fish out of water in a conservative small town. On the plus side, Brett has some knowledge of the town and people from his youth, having stayed with Maggie during the summer, and working with local contractor Doug (Santalucia). It doesn’t take long to find who their supporters are, but opponents are more cowardly and closeted. And, despite all efforts to engage with the community as they pitch in to help with the Santa Claus parade, there’s a cruel streak afoot in the town and the initial hostility they face escalates into something more disturbing. Soldiering on with the support of new friends and their commitment to the project, Brett and Drew persevere.

Chaos and hilarity ensue during the B&B’s opening weekend, when the guys host a Brit couple (Prest & Santalucia), a right-wing activist (Prest) and a pair of newlyweds (Santalucia)—plus deal with assorted emergencies and adopt a rambunctious puppy. They stumble through with a little help from their newfound friends—delightfully hippy dippy café owner Alison (Prest) and her Irish motorcycle-driving partner Chris (Santalucia), bubbly local real estate agent Carrie (Santalucia) and emo teen son Dustin (Prest), and even the tough, homophobic Doug and Brett’s sullen teen nephew Cody (Santalucia). But when Carrie informs them that she has a buyer willing to pay an obscene amount of money for the B&B, Brett and Drew have a tough decision to make—one that gets more complicated as family confessions and revelations emerge.

Outstanding, marathon performances from real-life couple Prest and Santalucia; creating a complementary pair of opposites with Prest’s more private, soft-spoken, circumspect Brett and Santalucia’s out, proud and extroverted Drew. And all this in addition to the sharply drawn, compelling, physically demanding performances as they each turn on a dime to deliver a cast of multiple characters in this tightly staged production. The design supports the story and staging both aesthetically and practically: Alexandra Lord’s multi-purpose airy set features Victorian architecture highlights; Ken MacKenzie’s spot-on, minimalist costume design; Bonnie Beecher’s magical, atmospheric lighting design; and sound design that features music by gay favourites, courtesy of John Gzowski.

The insightful, witty storytelling in Bed and Breakfast goes beyond the differences between gay and straight, and urban and small-town folks. It reminds us of the universal longing for a place where you belong, with people who accept you for who you are. Home is where your loved ones are; and the families we choose are just as potent—if not more so—as the ones we grew up with.

Due to popular demand during the first week of the run, Bed & Breakfast has been extended to September 8. Get advance tickets online or call the Young Centre box office: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.