Whooping it up like it’s 1926 in the entertaining, intriguing Hogtown: The Immersive Experience

Mark Prince, Dan Willmott & Jerome Bourgault in Hogtown—photo by Sam Gaetz Photography

Back by popular demand, The Hogtown Collective returns to Campbell House Museum for a new run of Hogtown: The Immersive Experience—written by Drew Carnwath and Sam Rosenthal, and directed by Rosenthal—with new stories and adventures as the audience finds new intrigue and secrets around every corner and behind every closed door.

It`s the eve of the 1926 municipal election, and union boss Bob Delacourt (Dan Willmott) is hosting a big shindig at his home. The incumbent, conservative prohibitionist Mayor Thomas Foster (Jerome Bourgault) is up against the progressive, union- and booze-friendly Sam McBride (Mark Prince). And everyone`s making backroom deals, including McBride`s fierce wife Fanny (Kirstin Hinton).

Meanwhile, local scribe Ben Stein (Gord Gammie) divides his time between covering the event and wooing the McBrides’ daughter Ronnie (Sappho Hansen Smythe), a modern young woman with dreams of becoming a famous reporter. And country bumpkin brothers, the clumsy Tanner (Jonathon Ellul) and malapropism-dropping Jackson (Derek Keurvorst) Busch have high hopes of making loads of cash from their home-cooked hooch; and the menacing Gil Schwartz (Jorge Molina) hopes to get in on some big time gangster action with the rumoured arrival of Chicago rum-runner Franco Vitale (is he really there or not?).

The action starts out on the lawn around the house, as we take in various goings-on and meet some of the key players. Once inside, we are ushered in groups from room to room, getting the opportunity to see three different scenes. My group first entered the dining room, where the McBrides were hosting an intimate gathering of friends and supporters, including Delacourt, developer Lol Solman (Keurvorst) and clergyman Eddie Smalls (Ben Bain). It’s all aces until they’re interrupted by the appearance of a surprise guest—and it’s Mrs. McBride who’s the most infuriated by this unexpected arrival.

Upstairs, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union is having a meeting. Chaired by the imperious Mary O’Grady Hunt (Tara Baxendale), assisted by her demure daughter Eleanor (Jaymee Fuczek) and radical colleague Pauline Drabble (Andrea Irwin), these ladies are hell-bent on spoiling the fun. Even here, there is division on how to best accomplish their goal of keeping prohibition alive and getting Foster re-elected. Even O’Grady Hunt has a secret, which we learn by way of confession and cautionary tale when she has a mother to daughter sit-down with Eleanor, who she fears is getting too friendly with Lulu and Toni.

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Laura Larson, Karen Slater & Emmea Wiechers—photo by Sam Gaetz Photography

Downstairs in the gaming room, Shwartz is waiting on the outcome of some bets—and we’re ushered over to the basement speakeasy when his private meeting arrives. Over in the speakeasy, we can buy yourself a prohibited beverage while we wrap your ears around some hot jazz, courtesy of Cali-Mays Johnson (Michelle Piller) and her girls, accompanied by Colin Frotten on the ivories. It’s here that we learn that Foster’s daughter Maddy (Karen Slater) is working as a singer, and has set up a meeting with Dr. Libby Prowse (Claire Francis Muir) via her pal Anastasia (Emma Wiechers). Don’t worry, barkeep Mad Tom (Michael Lamport) is the soul of discretion, and Katie O’Malley (Susie Burnett) can find you some company or place your bets.

Then, we are invited to wander the house to discover what we may. Upstairs, baseball star Tommy Burt’s (Eric McDace) secret is revealed even as he discovers the secret of another; and his attempt to solicit help from Solman takes an unexpected turn. Wayward Catholic schoolgirls and wanna-be flappers Louise “Lulu” (Laura Larson) and Antoinette “Toni” (Arinea Hermans) may be okay on the dance floor as they try out for jobs in the speakeasy, but they may be in over their heads when it comes to handsome Tommy—lucky for them Detective Hank Dyer (Matt Richardson, also the fight director) steps in. And across the hall at the latest temperance meeting, Pauline makes a dramatic revelation as to how far she’s willing to go for the cause.

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Sappho Hansen Smythe & Michael Lamport—photo by Sam Gaetz Photographer

It’s an entertaining and exciting ride. You never know who you’ll encounter or what’s going to happen. And everyone has a secret. The ensemble is fantastic—genuine and engaging storytellers fully inhabiting their characters, interacting on occasion with the audience (we are instructed to only speak when spoken to) to pull us into the story in an up-close and personal way. The show features several musical numbers, with stand-out vocals from Slater, Piller and Baxendale; and a charming duet from McDace and Hansen Smythe, as Tommy, feeling the pressures of external expectation, finds a kindred spirit in Ronnie McBride.

Secrets, back room deals and home-made hooch. Whooping it up like it’s 1926 in the entertaining, intriguing Hogtown: The Immersive Experience.

Hogtown continues at Campbell House till August 20; advance ticket booking strongly recommended—it’s a very popular show. Please note the 7:30pm start time; get there by 7:15pm to see the outdoor scenes. Get a taste from the trailer:

 

 

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Family, blood & sins of the father in the compelling, darkly funny Tough Jews

Maaor Ziv, Blue Bigwood-Mallin, Luis Fernandes, Theresa Tova, Anne van Leeuwen, G. Kyle Shields & Stephen Joffe in Tough Jews—photo by John Gundy

Leave the gun. Take the kugel.

Storefront Theatre is back, this time partnering with The Spadina Avenue Gang to mount the world premiere of Michael Ross Albert’s Tough Jews, directed by Storefront founder/co-artistic director Benjamin Blais and running at Kensington Hall in Toronto’s Kensington Market.

Tough Jews was Albert’s graduate project about a family of Toronto Jewish gangsters; and, although it’s set in the late 20s and early 30s, the play speaks to issues of anti-Semitic and anti-immigration/refugee sentiments that are relevant today, especially given the influence of the current administration to the south, and the rise in hate crimes targeting Jews and Muslims on both sides of the border.

Set in the basement speakeasy, downstairs from the family’s shop and home in Kensington Market, Act one opens in 1929 on Yom Kippur, 10 days before the stock market crash. Overseen by the widowed family matriarch Ida (Theresa Tova), brothers Joe (Luis Fernandes) and Ben (Blue Bigwood-Mallin) take care of the family business running booze downstairs, while Teddy (G. Kyle Shields) runs the legit business upstairs. Kid sister Rose (Maaor Ziv) and Ben’s American fiancée Marge (Anne van Leeuwen) watch from the sidelines. Downstairs business with Detroit’s Purple Gang goes south when hothead cousin Ziggie (Stephen Joffe) interrupts negotiations. This prompts Ben to come up with an idea to get Rose’s dope-dealing boyfriend Harry (who we never see), to get in on the action; despite the family’s disapproval of Harry, Ben hopes to placate the Purple Gang with new, hard-to-get product.

Act two jumps ahead four years to 1933, a couple of months after Hitler becomes Chancellor of Germany and shortly after the Christie Pits riot. Joe and Marge have been living in Florida, but his business was hit hard by the Depression, and he’s returned home to Toronto. Ben has also just come home, just released from jail; and Rose has a three-year-old and some serious domestic issues at her house. Teddy has taken over the speakeasy in the interim, but is now using it as a hide-out after his involvement in the Christie Pits riot.

Family secrets emerge throughout; and serious, changing situations prompt some equally drastic decision-making and choices. How far will a marginalized, oppressed and desperate people go in order to survive?

Stellar work from the entire cast in this immersive theatrical experience where the audience has a fly-on-the-wall view of the proceedings. Tova is hard as nails, hilarious and heartbreaking as Ida, who recalls in sharp, painful detail the oppression of her homeland and the hardship of an ocean crossing. The dreams of a better life destroyed by hate and oppression in a new country, Ida takes charge with pragmatism, grit and wry wit; and with a laser focus on turning the family’s fortunes around. Fernandes gives oldest brother Joe a nice balance of calculating professional and protective man of the house. Dog tired and struggling to keep the family business afloat, Joe must also manage the less than friendly relationship between Marge and his family.

Bigwood-Mallin brings a great sense of spark and ambition to Ben; the only one who really wants to be a gangster, Ben is genuinely excited to expand the business, make connections in the U.S. and make more money. Shields does a marvelous job with Teddy’s arc; as the bookish, observant kid brother, Teddy is torn between being a good man and seeing their legitimate family business survive, and the struggle to survive in a harsh, unfair world that leaves his family few options. By Act Two, he’s grown up a lot in those four years; a changed man, he sees what’s going on in Germany—and how prejudice and hate know no boundaries—and it sickens him.

Ziv’s Rose is an irreverent spitfire; an independent-minded and often neglected member of the family, Rose does her best to make a life for herself, but finds new challenges outside the safety of the family nest. Van Leeuwen brings a regal edge to the platinum blond, leggy Marge; a dancer when Joe first met her, she’s now set on becoming a respectable wife and looking forward to enjoying the good things in life. Unable to stomach Joe’s family business, however, she retaliates by putting on airs. Joffe gives Ziggie a menacing, lost boy edge. Taken in by his aunt Ida as a child, Ziggie’s grown up into a dangerous punk with some serious anger and impulse control issues; and his choices make him a liability to the family.

With big shouts to the design team Adam Belanger (set), Melissa Joakim (lighting), Lindsay Dagger Junkin (costumes), Angela McQueen (makeup) and Miquelon Rodriguez (sound) for their work on the evocative, immersive environment; and to fight director Simon Fon, and co-stage managers Justine Cargo and Andrea Miller. Throughout the production, corpses will be played by Kyle Bailey, Daniel Briere, Gabriel Hamilton and David Lapsley. The bartender makes a mean Manhattan, with the good Jack Daniels.

Family, blood and sins of the father in the compelling, darkly funny Tough Jews.

Tough Jews continues at Kensington Hall till April 16 (enter through the back alley—follow the sandwich board sign); full schedule and advance tix available online]. Book in advance for this one, folks; it’s a popular company and there’s a lot of well-deserved buzz about this show—not to mention the intimate venue. Warning: Show contains gun shots and smoking (herbal cigarettes).

In the meantime, check out Brittany Kay’s In the Greenroom blog interview with playwright Michael Ross Albert and actor G. Kyle Shields, with director Benjamin Blais dropping by.

The Hogtown Experience is the bee’s knees!

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Laura Larson (as Anastasia Petrov), Dov Mickelson (as Tracey Doyle) & Aisha Jarvis (as Sally Styles) – photos by Joseph Hammond

Better late to the party than never – I finally got out to see the Hogtown Experience at Campbell House Museum last night. And what a party it was!

Written by Drew Carnwath and Sam Rosenthal, and directed by Rosenthal, assisted by Nicola Pantin, the Hogtown Experience is an immersive, site-specific theatrical event that puts you in the middle of the action, which includes over 30 actors and live music, as you rub elbows with politicians, union muscle, gangsters, speakeasy girls, temperance ladies, party girls, moonshiners, a lady doctor and a baseball star.

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David Rosser as Sam McBride

When you arrive at Campbell House (I’d suggest getting there half an hour before show time), you may wander the grounds and the house. Catch some jazz in the basement speakeasy or get an early introduction to some of the characters on the front lawn, where the Temperance ladies are protesting the evils of drink, and mayoral candidate Sam McBride (David Rosser) and his wife Fanny (Kirstin Rae Hinton) are greeting and glad-handing, and the small-town Busch brothers (Matthew Bradley and Tim Ziegler) are anxiously anticipating a meeting with Delacourt to pitch their moonshine. Or wander towards the back, where the Schwartz brothers (Scott McCulloch and Jorge Molina) talk business and the wily, opportunistic Tracey Doyle (Dov Mickelson) inspects his girls before they start their shift – one of which (Anastasia, played by Laura Harding in last night’s performance) makes an appointment with the friendly, socially aware local doctor Libby Prowse (Lori Nancy Kalamanski) for her friend/co-worker Maddy (Lea Beauvais). And there’s a rambunctious, playful and strange little girl (Claire Frances Muir) running around there too.

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Dana Fradkin (as Ronnie McBride) & Drew Carnwath (as Ben Stein)

Newspaper man Ben Stein (Carnwath), who’s dating the McBride’s daughter Ronnie (Sappho Hansen Smythe,* who has been playing the role this summer), gives us an introduction and some ground rules. We are here for a party at the home of union boss Bob Delacourt (David Keeley) on the night before the 1926 municipal election, where the conservative, tee-totalling, penny-pinching incumbent Mayor Thomas Foster (Jerome Bourgault) is up against the more progressive, alcohol-friendly and forward-thinking McBride. From there, the audience is divided into three groups, and each group is guided to a room in the house to start their rotation of three scenes. You may speak to the characters, but only when spoken to.

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Jerome Bourgault as Thomas Foster

My group was first taken upstairs to the ballroom, to a meeting of the Christian Women’s Temperance Union, led by the imperious President Mary O’Grady Hunt (Tara Baxendale), where we hear anecdotes of personal family tragedy that resulted from intoxication. We were then treated to a lively and intense dining room scene, where the McBrides and their supporters – including Delacourt, who remained eerily silent and stone-faced – toasted their good fortune, and a surprise guest made an appearance, decidedly spoiling the good cheer. Then it was down to the games room, where our cheeky hostess Katie (Siobhan Richardson) took all bets, including one from the jovial Police Chief Draper (Robert Clarke); and over to the speakeasy for drinks (cash bar, where you can order wine in a teacup or a can of beer in a paper bag) and music, overseen and kept running smoothly by the tough, but gentleman-like Donato Granta (Conrad Bergschneider).

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David Keeley as Bob Delacourt

From there, where you go and what you see is up to you. You are encouraged to give rein to curiosity and follow characters, open doors – and see what you may find. Young love. Backroom deals upon backroom deals. Desperate, last-ditch efforts to win a race. One of the speakeasy girls in trouble. You won’t be able to catch everything, and you may want to see the show more than once; to this end, keep your program (handed out as you leave) and that will serve as your discount voucher for your next visit. And with all the election and boozy shenanigans – not to mention the red hot jazz – you may want to take them up on that deal.

An outstanding ensemble and fabulous music, creating a unique, intriguing and engaging theatrical experience, and a colourful taste of 1920s Toronto. This humble scribe had a marvelous time at the pre-election soiree at Campbell House last night. The Hogtown Experience is the bee’s knees – go see it!

The Hogtown Experience runs until August 28 at Campbell House Museum; performance info and advance tickets here; otherwise, it’s cash only at the gate.

In the meantime, you can keep up with Hogtown on Twitter and Facebook; and check out the show trailer:

* Department of Corrections: The role of Ronnie McBride, previously attributed to Dana Fradkin, was actually played by Sappho Hansen Smythe. Due to the scope of the show and the size of the ensemble, there is a rotating cast, so some characters are played by different actors, depending on when you see the show.