ICYMI: life with more cowbell is now on an indefinite hiatus as I ponder a new direction for the blog; for more info, please see my post from the end of January.
With the exception of a few shows I’d already committed to reviewing before the holiday (I have one more coming up in mid-April: Discord & Din’s Revolt. She Said. Revolt. Again.), I will no longer be booking reviews. I will, however, continue to broadcast boost, shout out and share/RT shows on social media—so if you’d still like to invite me, please do!
Hi all – Hope 2020 is being good to everyone so far!
life with more cowbell celebrated its ninth anniversary earlier this month and—counting two years blogging for Alumnae Theatre Company—that means I’ve been blogging about theatre for 11 years now. Time flies! It’s been an amazing 11 years, reviewing remarkable, mind-blowing theatre; shouting out Toronto’s rich and vibrant literary, visual arts and music events; and interviewing and getting to know various artists.
When I first started the blog, I had a permanent full-time office job, so I was able to put in the requisite time and energy on an unpaid after hours/weekend passion project; and, since its inception, life with more cowbell has grown in both readership and inclusion on media lists. Over the years, I’ve considered various ways to ‘monetize’ the blog, but in the end decided to keep it free and without strings attached.
A couple of things have changed since the birth of the blog. First, I was laid off my full-time job almost four years ago; and I’ve since become an accidental freelancer/contract worker (copy editing, proofreading and writing, in addition to working as non-union voice-over talent) as I continue to search for permanent employment. Also, as much as I’ve enjoyed shouting out the Toronto arts scene, especially theatre, I’ve found that I’ve been spending most of my free time writing about other people’s art instead of making my own. For a while, I considered that writing about other people’s creative work was my creative work. But after performing in Andrew Batten’s last play The Sad Blisters and exhibiting in ARTiculations’ 2019 Curio Shadow Box Show last year, and a day on location, acting in an indie film adaptation of a novel couple of weeks ago, I realized I really miss working and playing in that creative space.
So, I’ve decided I need to make a change. And to that end, I’ll be putting life with more cowbell on an indefinite hiatus as of February 1 as I ponder a new direction for myself and the blog. I already have a few review bookings coming up (Shakespeare BASH’d’s Cymbeline and Toronto Irish Players’ Many Young Men of Twenty in February; and Discord and Din’s Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. in April); I intend to honour those commitments—but, otherwise, I won’t be doing any reviews in the foreseeable future.
I’ve thought long and hard about this. In fact, it’s come to mind every New Year for the past few years. And even though I won’t be reviewing, I’ll continue to broadcast boost shows and performances/events on social media; and tweet, share and post about performances, events and exhibits I attend. When I return to the blog, I’ll provide an update on where we’ll be headed next.
To my readers, thank you so much for your feedback and support throughout the years; and big thanks to all the marketing/PR and production folks for including me on their mailing lists and inviting me to see so many amazing shows. The blog and I aren’t going away—I’m just hitting pause as I prepare for a return with a new direction. And I will keep shouting out Toronto’s rich and vibrant arts scene no matter what.
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.
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).
Pressgang Theatre presents a workshop production of Graham Isador’s White Heat.Based on real events, it takes us into the incendiary, tension-filled conflict between an alt-right podcaster and a digital media reporter in a searing, timely look at the dangerous consequences of white supremacist views, inciting harassment and violence against racialized people, non-Christian religions and LGBTQI communities—and the news media outlets that shine a light on their hateful, bigoted words and actions. Directed by Jill Harper, White Heat opened its three-performance run in Longboat Hall at the Great Hall last night.
Inspired by, and drawn from, work by Scaachi Koul, Aamer Rahman, Manisha Krishnan, Mack Lamoureux, Kim Kelly and The Good Fight, White Heat is told from reporter Alice Kennings’ (Makambe K Simamba) point of view, as she relates the events leading up to and including her meeting with the alt-right voice behind the White Heat podcast, a man known only as The Captain (Tim Walker). Disturbed by the increasing presence, influence and violence perpetrated by white supremacist and Nazi groups—and encourage by her editor to produce pieces with her own distinct voice—Alice writes a piece about punching Nazis. The piece goes viral, and the subsequent blow-back of hate messages via email and social media are shocking, to say the least—and as she’s a Black woman, the messages are sexually violent or tell her to go back where she came from. Of course, The Captain has his say as well, and encourages his listeners to show their appreciation. Then, three bikers with 1488 bandanas masking their faces show up at her office and threaten to stop by her home, shouting “White Heat” as they exit.
Disturbed and frightened, but not backing down, Alice and her editor launch an investigation to uncover the identity of The Captain; and while they find some unsurprising clues regarding his trajectory toward the sneering, bigoted podcaster he is today, the discovery of his family situation puts Alice in a moral and ethical dilemma, forcing her to reconsider whether they should out him.
Outstanding performances from Simamba and Walker in this electric, compelling and important examination of the growing, out and proud movement of white supremacy; and the real and present danger for those they target, and those who oppose and call them out. Simamba gives a fiercely passionate, sharply funny performance as Alice—balancing cerebral and visceral responses as Alice continues to go after this story even in the face of terrifying threats. A dedicated professional who loves her job, Alice is devoted to reporting the facts and is damn good at it; faced his personal information, she finds empathy for The Captain—but will she be able to use that to reason with him? Walker’s Captain is a fascinating and disturbing portrait of an ordinary white guy who’s confused, angry and bitterly disappointed by a series of life-changing events that were largely out of his control. Now he’s feeling oppressed a white male, targeted and blamed for all the bad in the world—and he’s pushing back and looking for someone to blame for his predicament. He’s not an evil man, but a profoundly human, downtrodden and misguided one—and it’s that humanity that Alice tries to reach.
In the presence of conflicting pieces of conventional wisdom that tell us ‘don’t feed the trolls’ and ‘stand up to bullies’, in this case you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Pushing back against alt-right and Nazi bullies can escalate their push-back and grow their audience—and hate-filled words and threats can easily manifest as violent actions against the communities they target and those who call foul.
White Heat continues in Longboat Hall at the Great Hall for just two more performances: tonight (August 12) at 9:30 p.m. and August 14 at 6:00 p.m. Tickets available online or in person at the box office; it’s a very short three-show run, and last night was packed, so advance booking strongly recommended.
King Theseus (James Dallas Smith) and his betrothed Hippolyta (Siobhan Richardson) are called upon by distressed nobleman Egeus (Ahmed Moneka) to intervene when his daughter Hermia (Marissa Orjalo) refuses to go along with an arranged marriage to Demetrius (Nick Dolan). Hermia is in love with Lysander (Nathaniel Hanula-James); and her BFF Helena (Kelsi James) is in love with Demetrius, who only has eyes for Hermia. Bottom line: Old-school law says if Hermia doesn’t marry Demetrius, she’ll be put to death—so she and Lysander run away into the forest, hotly pursued by Demetrius and Helena.
In the forest, another royal couple—Oberon (James Dallas Smith) and Titania (Richardson)—are estranged and at war over the custody of an orphaned human boy. In an attempt to steal the boy away, Oberon sends sprite Puck (Moneka) to fetch a magical flower, the juice of which will cause its victim to fall madly in love with the first thing they see; Oberon applies the flower to the sleeping Titania. Under Oberon’s orders, Puck goes to anoint Demetrius so he’ll fall in love with the scorned Helena—but mistakenly applies the flower to Lysander. Now both men long for Helena, and threaten to serious harm on each other to win her.
Meanwhile, laid off auto worker Bottome (Steven Burley) gathers in the forest with fellow mechanicals (aka tradesmen: Dolan, Hanula-James, Orjalo and James) to rehearse a play they hope to perform at Theseus’s wedding, where a practical joke played by sprite Puck (Moneka) turns Bottome into a donkey and scatters his friends in fright—and draws the loving attentions of the bewitched Titania when she awakens to see him.
Of course, chaos and hilarity ensue—and Puck must find a way to make it right. And the whole thing culminates with a play within a play, as the bumbling but earnest mechanicals perform their hilarious classical tragedy at the wedding.
This is the kind of Shakespearean comedy where you pretty much have to go silly or go home—and the Driftwood cast really gives ‘er as they accompany the magical hijinks with a catchy rock, soul and opera-inspired a cappella music score (with Fox and associate music director Alison Beckwith providing additional vocals). The production also incorporates some fun Dungeons & Dragons and Pokémon moments.
Burley is hilarious as the loveable windbag Bottome, who would play all the parts if he could—deep down, a man adrift and reaching out for community. Hanula-James and Orjalo are hysterical as the vain cellphone and selfie-obsessed Hermia and Lysander; Dolan brings a sullen teenage edge to Demetrius and James is adorkable as the scorned, awkward Helena. Smith and Titania are nicely matched, doing double duty as the human and magical royal couples; imperious yet full of their own quirks and foibles, they show us that it’s not just humans who can be fond and foolish in love. Moneka is a delight as the mischievous Puck; and comical as the old-fashioned, technically-challenged Egeus.
Driftwood’s reputation for making Shakespeare accessible for all ages, as well as introducing creative innovation to the canon, is in full force with this enchanting, fun production. Bring the family, a picnic, some chairs or a blanket—and enjoy an evening outdoors with this magical comedic favourite.
A (musical) Midsummer Night’s Dream is back at Withrow Park tonight (July 27) at 7:30; and continues around Ontario until August 18, when it closes at Mann Raceway Plaza in St. Catharines. Check the Bard’s Bus Tour page for the full schedule of dates/locations, as well as reserved seating. Admission is pay-what-you-can (PWYC) or free; suggested contribution is $20-$30 per person. Check the company’s Twitter account for weather-related updates.
As part of its 25th anniversary celebration, Driftwood is collecting audience stories about experiences seeing their productions; you can do that on paper at the venue or on social media (make sure to tag Driftwood). You may also want to consider lending your support with a donation to keep the company going for another 25 years.
*New Toronto performance added: Thurs, Aug 15 at 7:30 pm at the Daniels Spectrum Courtyard.
Rage Sweater Productions presents Monica Ogden’s sharply funny, frank, eye-opening Monica vs. the Internet: Tales of a Social Justice Warrior, directed by KP Productions and running in the Tarragon Theatre Solo Room. Storytelling meets TED Talk as shared lived experience and knowledge come together for this look at activism in the digital world, as Ogden addresses mixed-race identity, racism and white supremacy/feminism.
A self-described light-skinned, cis gender Filipina woman coming to terms with a family history that includes both colonizer and colonized, Monica Ogden navigates both the privilege and the oppression she experiences every day. Her multi-generational lived experience of racism (including accusations of not being “Asian enough” to mention it), disability, mental health issues and abuse informed her path from student at a racist theatre school to YouTube series host on Fistful of Feminism and social justice warrior.
Part personal history tour, part TED Talk, the multimedia solo show incorporates projected images—from sweet, sometimes funny, family and personal photos to shocking, racist tweets from trolls—as Ogden shares personal and family history and lived experience, both good and bad. The inspiration and love she receives from her mother and grandmother, whose shoulders she stands on; and the in-person and cyber bullying from Twitter trolls, and even a theatre reviewer at a Fringe festival, about her race (sometimes perceived/misread) and appearance. And she schools many of us, with patience, good humour and frankness, on the myriad ways that POC deal with everyday racism—left out of spaces and conversations, and denied respect and justice.
Ogden is a delightful powerhouse of a storyteller and social justice activist; candid in her sharing of her life and knowledge—despite her daily personal challenges (she also lives with physical disability and mental health issues), despite the racist blow-back, and despite the soul-crushing ‘meh’ response from organizations who don’t think they need her consultation, or do need it but ignore it. But don’t call her “brave”. Firmly, but gently, she calls on the white folks in the audience to examine their responses to white-dominated spaces, places and ideas. How true social justice includes considerations of intersectionality—and we need to be mindful and respond accordingly.
Just because we’re used to situations in which white supremacy is the default—in our government institutions, everyday social lives and even our arts institutions—doesn’t mean it’s a good thing or the right thing. Everyone deserves respect. Everyone deserves to be heard. And everyone deserves a safe space to grow, learn, live and be themselves in the world.
Monica vs. the Internet: Tales of a Social Justice Warrior continues in the Tarragon Theatre Solo Room until July 13; check the show page for exact dates/times and advance tickets.
Tired of playing the mall and county fair circuit, former pop idol Amber Moon (Emma Banigan) found her truth within herself, then founded The Way—an organization that guides members to discover and live their truth—comprised of seven levels of truth actualization. Leading up to the Resetting Ceremony, members at various levels along their journey (Katherine Cappellacci, Brandon Gillespie, Alexis Gontan, Brendan Kinnon, Lindsey Middleton and Jonathan Walls) compete for the prize of levelling up (rising up a level) as they each present a personal celebrity icon to prove their mastery over one of the six freedoms from: Humility, History, Apology, Culture War, Group Think and Moral Slavery.
It’s a selfie-taking, Instagram/social media-loving, self-absorbed world with the Mooners; and holding their celebrity inspiration (a TV/reality show dynasty, several music stars, a tech god and even a politician we love to hate) as dearly as any god, they are determined—and even desperate—to succeed and better their status within the organization. As they travel the country recruiting new members, they especially want to be held in high esteem by Amber, who rules the group with her charismatic presence, peppered with cutting honesty, manipulation and conditional love.
With highly engaging, committed and vulnerable performances, the ensemble brings us eerie shades of Scientology, greeting us as new members as we enter the garden and prepare for Amber’s arrival. Entering like a rock star, Banigan’s Amber Moon takes control and space; the human embodiment of the six freedoms The Way espouses. It’s unsettling and compelling at the same time; repulsive and fascinating—yet, like witnessing the train wreck of a dysfunctional family reality show, we can’t turn away. Who will the leader bless with the granting of a higher level tonight?
Wagon Play continues at Majlis Art Garden until July 15; check the show page for exact dates and times. It’s an intimate space and they sold out last night, so advance booking is strongly recommended.