Toronto Fringe: The devastating ripples of the Montreal massacre in the sensitive, intimate, heartbreaking The December Man (L’homme de Décembre)

Stephen Flett, Jonas Trottier & Kris Langille. Photo by Steven Nederveen.

 

Theatre@Eastminster closed its sensitive, intimate and heartbreaking production of Colleen Murphy’s The December Man (L’homme de Décembre), directed by Jennifer C.D. Thomson, yesterday afternoon at Eastminster United Church. As the narrative turns back time, we witness the devastating impact of the Montreal massacre on a working class family, whose son survived the tragedy.

Their lives shattered by their son’s suicide, Benoît (Stephen Flett) and Kathleen (Kris Langille) Fournier are taking drastic measures to deal with their pain. Loving, well-meaning parents, operating during a time and place where people didn’t have the awareness or resources to navigate the personal aftermath of a massive tragedy, they encourage their son to continue with his education as an engineer, to let go of those tragic events and move on with his life. How could they not have seen it coming? And what could they have done differently?

But Jean (Jonas Trottier) has been having nightmares, he’s been skipping classes—he can’t go back into that building—and his grades have been falling. Guilt-ridden and constantly second-guessing his actions that day, he takes karate classes so he won’t be so scared and powerless “the next time;” and won’t run away again. A natural reaction, to follow the instructions of an unstable man with a gun, then run like hell and call 911—but still, Jean can’t help but beat himself up over what he could’ve and should’ve done, reliving the horrific events over and over.

Beautiful, deeply poignant work from the cast in this powerful piece of how the devastating ripples of this national tragedy crash against this family. Lovely, tender, even humourous, performances from Flett and Langille as the amiable Benoît and devout Kathleen—in everyday household moments, and in their struggle to understand what their son is going through. In the days following Jean’s suicide, they fall into despair, with Benoît reaching for the bottle and Kathleen on extended leave from her housekeeping job, staying home to knit toques and scarves for a children’s charity. As Jean, Trottier digs deep to excavate the guilt, shame and self-blame of a survivor living with PTSD and paralyzing self-doubt; his dreams of becoming an engineer destroyed by the horrific memories of his female classmates’ deaths that he can’t get out of his head, and haunting fact that they’ll never get to build anything.

Heartbreaking in its realism and intimacy, you know events surrounding this story but you don’t necessarily know the stories of the aftermath: the survivors, friends and family left behind to cope with their loss and grief. A reminder that we need to be mindful and aware of the silent, deadly reverberations of senseless violence in our schools, shopping malls and on our streets.

With shouts to the cast of voice-over actors: Scott Bell, Eric Démoré, Sean Gorman, Samuel Magnan, Christian Martel and Susan Wakefield. To the design team for incredible use of the community (aka parlor) space at Eastminster United Church, including use of existing lighting: Ron McKay (set), Chris Bennett (lighting), Monica Sousa (sound), and Ann McIlwraith and Bev Falk (costume). And to the small army of stage managers, dressers and running crew, who kept all the moving parts running smoothly and efficiently during multiple scene changes—as we witness this family’s story in reverse.

Keep your eyes open for future Theatre@Eastminster productions.

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Toronto Fringe: The trajectory of a life & its impact on others in the socially astute, moving Tears of a Bullet

Hobby Horse Theatre Co. explores the right and wrong sides of a social justice argument in its affecting Toronto Fringe production of Josh Downing’s Tears of a Bullet;* directed by Jeff Kennes and running in the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace.

Writer Jim Abernathy (Stephen Flett), who lives with mobility issues and recently lost his partner Martin, has been evicted from their apartment because only Martin’s name was on the lease. Tasked with making sure Jim vacates the premises is Danny Davis (Adrian Leckie), the new building superintendent, who lives with his wife Louise (Chantel McDonald). Property management has promised a bonus cheque for getting Jim out; and Danny and Louise could really use that money, as they have their first child on the way. Jim is gay and the Davises are conservative Christians, bumping up the tension in an otherwise tense situation. Louise’s estranged brother Charles is also gay; and she’s come to the city to find him, filled with guilt that she drove him away. The Davises don’t own a computer, so she reaches out to Jim for help in locating her brother.

Loosely based on sci-fi writer Thomas Disch’s last years, the conversations in Tears of a Bullet evolve into debates on social justice as it pertains to the control exerted over women, LGBTQ people and visible minorities by the law, the Bible and corporate policy—the oppressor wielding power to keep the oppressed down.

Lovely, connected work from this three-hander cast in these timely discussions of societal rules and relationships; each navigating his/her character’s grip on a belief system as they try to make sense out of a senseless world. Jim may seem like a cantankerous old man on the surface, but his dry, razor-sharp wit and penchant for pointing out harsh truths masks a deep sorrow over the loss of his partner and the impending loss of his home. And, more importantly, Danny and Louise (who also happen to be Black) find that they do indeed have more in common with Jim than they might think—and come to question whether they’re on the right side of this eviction notice.

Tears of a Bullet* continues in the Tarragon Extraspace until July 14; check the show page for exact dates/times.

*For those following along in your missals (aka the hard copy of the Toronto Fringe Festival program), look for The Elephant Circle on p.66; the accompanying graphic and synopsis on p.66 reflect Tears of a Bullet. Apparently, there was an online registry mix-up with the title of Downing’s Hamilton Fringe show. The show title listing is correct on the Toronto Fringe site.

Toronto Fringe: Bawdy, silly good times with Macbeth in the wacky fun Weirder Thou Art

Bouffon meets Shakespeare in Physically Speaking’s production of Weirder Thou Art, written and directed by Ardyth Johnson, and running at St. Vladimir Theatre  for Toronto Fringe.

The three witches from Macbeth—The Virgin (played with a fierce feminist energy by Ronak Singh), The Matron (Stephen Flett in the delightfully bombastic and know-it-all role) and The Crone (deliciously lascivious, courtesy of Anne Shepherd)—kidnap William Shakespeare (hapless and confused, played by Philip Krusto) to force him to write the story their way. And to make a proof of their humanity to God.

And because bouffon is about mockery, filthy, rowdy and overblown shenanigans ensue as the witches come in and out of their rehearsal of Macbeth, with The Matron casting herself as Lady Macbeth while relegating the others to bit parts—that is, until the other two witches revolt.

Lots of LOLs from the entire cast; with some nicely performed bits of Macbeth. Adult language and situations—this is not a show for kids.

Bawdy, silly good times with Macbeth in the wacky fun Weirder Thou Art.

Weirder Thou Art continues at St. Vladimir Theatre until July 16; advance tickets available on the show page.

Check out Phil Rickaby’s interview with director Ardyth Johnson on Stageworthy Podcast.

 

 

 

Toronto Fringe: The savagery of civilized society in sharply insightful, brutally funny God of Carnage

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Halo Productions brings biting social commentary to Toronto Fringe venue the Helen Gardiner Playhouse with Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage, translated by Christopher Hampton and directed by Katherine Bignell.

When their 11-year-old son Henry is badly injured by stick-wielding playmate Benjamin, Veronica (Françoise Balthazar) and Michael (Mike Lummis) invite Benjamin’s parents Annette (Angela Froese) and Alan (Stephen Flett) to their home for a meeting about the severity of the situation. The initially civil discussion turns to heated debate, then to violent argument as the adults get caught up in their sons’ playground altercation and reveal their own deep-seated prejudices, neuroses and hypocrisy.

Set in Veronica and Michael’s living room – the minimalist set design all in red, including two vases of red tulips – it becomes clear that Veronica and Alan are the alphas of their respective pairings, while Michael and Annette defer to their spouses, even to the point of mirroring their opinions; but as the action continues, the true natures and attitudes of all are revealed.

The cast does a great job, transitioning from well-mannered and even legal language to insult and cursing as civil conversation turns into drunken living room brawl. Balthazar brings a crisp, fastidious sense of decorum to the highly educated, well-travelled Veronica; and her liberal thinking and good manners reveal an underlying self-righteousness and ferocity. Flett is suitably despicable as the no bullshit, wry-witted Alan; a lawyer attached to his cellphone as an important pharma client deals with the possibility of a drug recall, he puts his career first, but actually does have a heart under all that brutal honesty. Lummis’s Mike seems affable and caring enough at first, a modern-thinking man who eschews violence and is concerned for his son; he soon reveals himself to be a phoney, as his layers are peeled away to reveal a conservative, callous hypocrite with less than friendly opinions on marriage and children, as well as gender and race. And Froese does a lovely job with the mousy, nervous Annette; adrift and put-upon, she is seething underneath and actually mad as hell. Like Mike, she defers to her spouse till she can’t take it anymore – and erupts in a rant about the state of their lives before settling in to intoxicated bliss.

The savagery of modern civilized society in sharply insightful, brutally funny God of Carnage.

God of Carnage continues at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse until July 9. For ticket info and advance tickets/passes, check out the Fringe website.

Insight & delight in a satirical battle of the sexes in highly entertaining You Never Can Tell

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Stephen Vani & Sara Jackson, with Heather Goodall looking on, in You Never Can Tell – photo by Douglas Griesbach

I don’t often make the trip out to Fairview Library Theatre, but for Stage Centre Productions, I was willing to make an exception, to see their production of George Bernard Shaw’s You Never Can Tell, directed by Scott Griffin, which opened to an enthusiastic audience last night.

Inspired by commedia dell’arte and with the hallmark social satire that we’ve come to know and love about Shaw’s work, You Never Can Tell pits reason against romance in a pre-20th century battle of the sexes. Set at an English seaside resort on one August day in 1896, energetic, playful twins Dolly (Sara Jackson) and Phillip Clandon (Stephen Vani) make the acquaintance of bachelor dentist Valentine (Holm Bradwell) during Dolly’s visit for a tooth extraction. All are newcomers, and this is the twins’ first time in England, having been raised by their mother (Heather Goodall) with their older sister Gloria (Kate MacDonald) in Madrid. The fact that they don’t know their father is shocking to Valentine, who finally accepts the twins’ invitation to lunch when they’re able to come up with a grandfather; he is also smitten when he meets Gloria. Before they leave the dental office, the twins meet Valentine’s ornery landlord Fergus Crampton (Michael Chodos), who is put out with a bad tooth and six weeks’ back rent owing from Valentine – and who has a wife and three children he hasn’t seen in 18 years – and he is invited to lunch as well.

You can probably see where this is going. The twins have unwittingly invited their estranged father to lunch and all heck breaks loose, turning this surprising and unwelcome family reunion into a legal battle when Crampton takes issue with how the twins were raised and demands custody. The Clandons’ lawyer Finch McComas (Fabio Saposnik) comes to the rescue and enlists the aid of Bohun, Q.C. (Stephen Flett) to mediate the matter – and to great and satisfactory effect. In the meantime, Gloria and Valentine spar over their feelings for each other, complete with manipulation, revelation and adoration – not to mention some telling and funny hypocrisy and double standards. All this under the care and watchful eye of William (whose real name is Walter) the hotel waiter (Roger Kell), who has a surprise family reunion of his own with his lawyer son.

You Never Can Tell is Shaw at his wittiest, fast-paced best – and this cast is more than up for it. Jackson and Vani are a rambunctious treat as the mercurial chatterbox twins. Jackson is endearing as Dolly, with her unstoppable curiosity and lack of discretion; and Vani has a quixotic and dramatic flare as Phillip, a self-professed expert observer of the human condition. Goodall brings a lovely combination of world-wise intellect and warmth to the direct, forward-thinking Mrs. Clandon; a modern woman and author who chose to leave the unbearable confines of a loveless marriage to a harsh husband, her family may be unconventional, but her children are educated and loved. MacDonald’s Gloria is statuesque, stoic and whip smart; brought up to embrace science and reason, she is shocked and ashamed by her feelings towards Valentine, but refuses to be put down by them. There’s some great chemistry with Bradwell’s Valentine, who blends nicely the romantic and sentimental with the studied and observant; and the two are so well matched, you can’t tell who’s winning.

Chodos’s Crampton is a great combination of glowering grump and baffled traditionalist; appalled by the twins’ behaviour, he can’t help but be charmed by them. He’s not a bad man, just a stubborn one with old-school, outdated standards who’s resistant to change. Other stand-outs include Kell’s William, a delightfully affable, philosophical, class-conscious man who sees things for the way they are, but is nevertheless optimistic enough to allow room for change. It is William who utters, time and again, the words that form the play’s title. Saposnik gives McComas some hilarious layers; a put-upon lawyer trying to maintain a professional, serious demeanour as he struggles to take charge of an unruly situation – and even more unruly clients in the Clandons – he’s an outsider, yet part of the family. And, although we don’t see him till the final scene, Flett is a memorable and strong presence as Bohun, the commanding, astute and sharp Q.C. who can present a situation in a way others hadn’t considered – and to insightful and comical effect.

With shouts to the set designer Todd Davies and lighting designer Michael Walsh for creating a magically light, airy and open seaside environment; and wardrobe coordinator Gayle Owler for assembling the striking period costumes.

Insight and delight in a satirical battle of the sexes in Stage Centre Productions’ highly entertaining You Never Can Tell.

You Never Can Tell continues at the Fairview Library Theatre until Saturday, May 28, 2016; the show runs Friday to Sunday this week and Wednesday to Saturday next week, with an 8 p.m. curtain – except for May 22 and 28, which are 2 p.m. matinee days. You can book ahead by calling the box office at 416-299-5557 to reserve tickets or book online. Advance booking strongly recommended, as this is a popular show – and rumour has it the run is on the way to being sold out.

Stage Centre Productions is very excited about its upcoming 40th season; Artistic Director Michael James Burgess had this to say:

We will be kicking off our 40th Season (my 6th as Artistic Director) in September with the North American premiere of an English comedy called Entertaining Angels by Richard Everett, which broke box office records at the Chichester Festival Theatre a few years ago. That production received widely positive reviews, receiving 5 stars from the Edinburgh Guide with The Sunday Times writing that “Richard Everett has written a warm, glowing, serious comedy, like an Ayckbourn play finished by JM Barrie,” while the London Evening Standard reviewed the play as a “very English comedy with some real emotion … scratch the surface and you’ll find interesting undercurrents rippling the water … Adultery, miscarriage, divorce and deception interestingly handled all, are just some of the problems that writer Richard Everett beds down among well-received jokes … This is a sure-fire hit.”

So mark Thursday, September 29 in your calendars for first night.

In the meantime, enjoy the May 24 long weekend, all!

Toronto Fringe: A quirky fun two-hander hashes out life, love & show business in A Lesson in Gabby

a_lesson_in_gabby-web-250x317Last night, I was back at Tarragon Theatre, to the Extra Space this time, for Mark My Words-Ink’s Toronto Fringe production of A Lesson in Gabby, written by Labe Kagan and directed by Jacqui Burke.

Playwright Jerry Kessler aka Groucho (James Robert Woods) is famous – or, rather, infamous – for his offensive, but radically funny work; and he’s finding himself in a rut both personally and professionally. Stuck in the memory of failed marriages and past wives, he’s unable to disentangle himself from his ex Gabby. Enter his friend, real estate agent and amateur actor Melville (Stephen Flett), who he offers to write a monologue for so Melville can nail his next audition. Enter a parrot and the seed of a new project is born. Enter some transcendental practice and positive thinking – with some angels thrown in – and Groucho has an opportunity to extricate himself from said rut.

Really nice work from Woods and Flett, who manage the comedy nicely while keeping the humanity of the characters and avoiding getting too shticky with the material. Woods’ Groucho is a grumpy, manipulative, cheap and talented bastard, with a sweet guy under there somewhere. Flett’s Melville is Groucho’s wise-ass father confessor – and a pragmatic mensch who will not be trod upon.

A Lesson in Gabby is a quirky fun two-hander featuring some snappy dialogue between two middle-aged Jewish guys as they hash out life, love and show business.

A Lesson in Gabby continues at the Tarragon Extra Space until July 12; check here for exact dates/times.

Amicus Productions’ Cyrano De Bergerac a highly entertaining & moving adventure in wit, swordplay & love

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Valvert (Scott Simpson) challenges Cyrano (Chris Coculuzzi) to a duel.

Spent a highly entertaining afternoon at The Papermill Theatre (Todmorden Mills, 67 Pottery Rd.) yesterday, with Amicus Productions’ performance of Cyrano De Bergerac, written by Edmond Rostand, adapted by Chris Coculuzzi and Roxanne Deans, and directed by Mary Dwyer (Toronto Fringe fans may have seen their marvelous 80-minute memory play version of Cyrano, performed outdoors at the 2004 fest).

Amicus does a really nice job with this classic tale of the mercurial poet, philosopher and swordsman, whose unusually long nose is a distinct social liability among those who are unwilling or unable to look past it. This new, full-length version is a more linear piece of storytelling, hearkens back to Coculuzzi and Deans’ original script, based on the translations of Gladys Thomas, Mary F. Guillemard and Howard Thayer Kingsbury.

Excellent work from the cast, including several multi-tasking supporting players. Coculuzzi does a remarkable job in the title role, bringing a lively yet grounded combination of wit, grace and spleen to a man who, despite his rough edges and brash behaviour, is possessing of a vulnerable heart and a romantic soul. Celeste Van Vroenhoven gives us a nicely layered Roxane, sweet and loyal, also a romantic at heart, and naive at first about love and human behaviour – but unlike both Cyrano and Christian, fearless in the face of love. Paul Cotton does a nice job as Roxane’s earnest admirer Christian, hot and youthful in love – shallow, but not ill-meaning. The triangle here is a lovely illustration of superficial and deep love, both of which can be communicated via poetry and sweet words.

Derek Perks is deliciously diabolical as the smirking and snake-like De Guiche, the noble vying for Roxane’s affections – and not above playing dirty to win her. And Stephen Flett is a delight as the ebullient Ragueneau, the chef with the heart of a poet. And big shouts to Roxanne Deans for stepping in at the top of the show to stand in as Le Bret, when actor Henrik Thessen got stuck in traffic on the way to the theatre.

The design team did a marvelous job, producing a beautifully minimalist set – both practical and aesthetically pleasing – as well as assembling striking costume and evocative music of the period: Arash Eshghpour (set), David Buffham (lighting), Farnoosh Talebpour (costume) and Dave Fitzpatrick (sound). With kudos to Naomi Priddle Hunter for choreographing the exciting and fun sword fights.

Amicus Productions’ Cyrano De Bergerac is a highly entertaining and moving adventure in wit, swordplay and love. This is some big fun for all ages – so get yourselves over to the Papermill Theatre to see this.

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Cyrano (Chris Coculuzzi) prompts Christian (Paul Cotton) as he woos Roxane (Celeste Van Vroenhoven)

Cyrano De Bergerac runs at the Papermill Theatre until November 22. You can get advance tickets online or by phone: 416-860-6176.