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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Check out the production teaser:

 

Toronto Fringe: An intersectional heart-to-heart on the state of manhood in the candid, funny, brave We The Men

Sunday Muse, Mercy Cherian, Rachel Brophy & Sundance Nagrial. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Sam’s having the guys over at his cottage—and we’re all invited!

The back room stage of the Cadillac Lounge is transformed into the living room of Sam’s cottage as Soulo Theatre takes us behind the scenes of a heart-to-heart gathering on the state of manhood with its Toronto Fringe production of We The Men. Co-created by director Tracey Erin Smith and an ensemble of Dude for a Day workshop participants, and inspired by hearing men’s stories during Soulo Theatre’s Step To The Line events, women portray male characters—and the sexes come together from the other side of the gender divide in the hopes of bridging the gap and coming to a greater understanding.

The storytelling, which includes stories that emerged from male Step To The Line participants, draws on important and timely ongoing issues: Debates about complicity—direct or indirect—in #MeToo scenarios; societal, familial and cultural challenges and pressures; physical abuse and bullying; and struggles with identity, sexuality, loneliness and finding love. Heartfelt anecdotes and confessions emerge from the cocky, fart-filled party atmosphere as the men confront themselves and each other with their experiences, beliefs and perceptions—giving us a fly-on-the-wall perspective of men’s lives. And one is struck that, while women will naturally open up and have these kinds of conversations—revealing shame, vulnerability and confusion—it’s maybe not so easy or as common for men. And we all need to have those conversations.

Featuring energetic, entertaining and poignant performances from Rachel Brophy, Mercy Cherian, Jacqueline Dawe, Savoy Howe, Sunday Muse, Sundance Nagrial, Silvi Santoso, Savannah Binder and Todd, We The Men is a candid, funny and brave intersectional exploration of what it means to be a man in the 21st century.

We The Men continues at the Cadillac Lounge until July 15; check the show page for exact dates and times. For the inside scoop on the inspiration and creative process, check out this great interview with Tracey Erin Smith by She Does the City. And check out the show’s Facebook event page for bios and character descriptions.