Navigating the world with OCD in the funny, poignant, enlightening Living with Olivia Cadence Donovan

Conor Ling, Gabriella Circosta, Allison Shea Reed & Tristan Claxton. Photo by Alice Xue Photography.

 

RedWit Theatre invites us into lived experiences of a young woman living with OCD in Allison Shea Reed’s funny, poignant, enlightening Living with Olivia Cadence Donovan, directed by Sean O’Brien and running now in the Tankhouse Theatre at the Young Centre. Emily has lived with Olivia—her OCD personified—since childhood, and struggles daily with what that means for her relationships and her life. She longs to break out of her comfort zone and enter into a relationship, but will Olivia let her?

Emily (Allison Shea Reed) is a warm, smart and funny young woman who’s been living with OCD her entire life, personified by her helicopter protector, hyper-judgemental joined-at-the-hip best friend Olivia (Gabriella Circosta). Olivia is Emily’s personal flight response attendant, her fierce warrior defender, and her nagging inner voice of self-doubt; the one that tells her she’s too much, a burden, that everyone would be better off if she didn’t exist. Emily also has her roommate and friend, the culinarily gifted Rowan (Tristan Claxton); supportive and on her side, he understands, accepts and is respectful of Emily’s relationship with Olivia.

Enter the fun-loving, charming Graham (Conor Ling), who Emily really likes and, despite her hesitation to go with her attraction—and big pushback from Olivia, who prophesizes doom and gloom about any prospective romantic relationship—decides to date him. The added stress and unknowns about having a new person in her life, and sharing her space both physically and emotionally, make for extra tension between Emily and Olivia. Despite her courageous, and even optimistic, attempts to get out into the world and open up to new people, it’s still a struggle for Emily, even as she openly communicates her needs—needs that may seem strange—to those around her.

As their relationship progresses, and after much consideration, Emily decides to divulge her condition to Graham, who responds positively and even shares his own experiences with mental illness. But Olivia wonders if he’s being honest and realistic about life with Emily, and is skeptical about how long this honeymoon period will last. For a while, Emily has her world to herself—until things begin to get tense with Graham, and Olivia returns.

Beautifully drawn, sensitive work from the cast in this peek into a life experience that we don’t often see portrayed on stage. Shea Reed gives a complex, compelling performance as Emily; high-functioning and managing her illness, Emily’s cheery, good-humoured self is constantly bombarded with negative internal messaging and impulses toward repetitive actions, especially during stressful times. Longing for a “normal life”, she tries to stay positive, and does the best she can to navigate the world through her OCD, but struggles daily with creeping negative perceptions and fearful responses. As Olivia, Circosta turns on a dime, going from entertainingly impish to devastatingly cruel; both a protector and a naysayer on Emily’s shoulder, Olivia does whatever she needs to do in order to keep Emily safe and within the confines of her comfort zone—be it through manipulation, cajoling, tantrums or drama. Thing is, Emily wants to break out of that dynamic—leaving Olivia abandoned and unheeded. And that troubles Oliva a great deal.

Claxton gives an endearing performance as Emily’s friend/roommate Rowan—and has great chemistry with Shea Reed. A loving and supportive ally, Rowan rides the line between being protective and concerned, and letting Emily have her space as she ventures into new territory. It is Rowan who reminds Emily that OCD does not define her; and that she is so much more than a mental illness, and so loved. Ling gives Graham a compelling combination of affable charm and changeable loyalties; and, like Emily and Olivia, we’re not sure if we can trust Graham. Navigating his own mental health issues, Graham wants to be with Emily, but—despite his warm feelings and best intentions—needs to work out whether he can be okay with her challenging days and unorthodox needs. And the fact that he doesn’t seem to be as self-aware of his own mental health as Emily is of her own isn’t helping.

Living with Olivia Cadence Donovan gives us a candid and thoughtful look at the inner workings and lived experiences of someone living with OCD. We need more storytelling like this—to break down barriers and stereotypes, and foster awareness and understanding of those living with mental illness. And that an individual’s mental health issue, while part of who they are, does not define them; and they have something to contribute to their loved ones and society.

Living with Olivia Cadence Donovan continues in the Tankhouse Theatre at the Young Centre until January 25; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

 

Tragic Indigenous love story & pointed satire in the profoundly moving, playful, poetic Almighty Voice and His Wife

 

James Dallas Smith & Michaela Washburn. Set & video design by Ken MacKenzie. Costume design by Kinoo Arcentales. Lighting design by Jennifer Lennon. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Biography meets pointed satire in Soulpepper’s production of Daniel David Moses’ Almighty Voice and His Wife; directed by Jani Lauzon, who performed in the Great Canadian Theatre Company’s premiere production 28 years ago, the show is currently running at the Young Centre. Using the tragic Indigenous love story of real-life Cree runner and hunter Almighty Voice and his wife White Girl as a starting point, the storytelling shifts from linear narrative to cutting vaudevillian send-up as the play dives deep into the contemporary reverberations of the ongoing clashes between European and Indigenous ways of life—and the oppression, ignorance and stereotyping that go with it. Profoundly moving, playful and poetic, it’s a poignant and magical theatrical work featuring some uncomfortable truths and discomfiting comic jabs.

Almighty Voice (James Dallas Smith) and White Girl (Michaela Washburn) are magnetically drawn to each other, his playful courtship breaking through her stern sense of decorum. Although a very young woman, she’s nobody’s fool; her experience of the world forever changed by her time in a Residential School. And as he expresses baffled irreverence for the ways of the white settlers and government, transforming hunting grounds into farmland, she is haunted by the white man’s “glass god” who watches over everything they do. Both have been given European names by the white authorities: he has been called Jean-Baptiste and she Marie; a proud and respected Cree man, he insists on his true name, Almighty Voice.

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James Dallas Smith. Set & video design by Ken MacKenzie. Costume design by Kinoo Arcentales. Lighting design by Jennifer Lennon. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Arrested for shooting a cow for a feast, when he sees a scaffold being erected outside the jail, Almighty Voice hears that he will hang for his crime—a cruel joke that sets into motion a series of tragic events. On the run from the law, White Girl insists on coming with him; and things go from bad to worse when he kills a Mountie in self-defence. When she becomes pregnant, she must let him go on alone while she returns to family to give birth to their child. In the end, he and two warrior friends are killed in a stand-off with 100 Mounties and a cannon, the two lovers getting a final glimpse of each other in visions at the moment of his death, his infant son left without a father and their people starving as hunting grounds are replaced with farmland.

Act II shifts into razor-sharp satire, structured as a vaudeville performance. Here, Ghost (Smith) is the spirit of Almighty Voice, at first acting as the disoriented straight man to the saucy uniformed Interlocutor (Washburn), then gradually getting more familiar and comfortable with the performance style. The antiquated slapstick and bawdy theatrics shine a glaring spotlight on ongoing historical and contemporary clashes between European settler culture and government and Canada’s Indigenous Peoples. Scathing social commentary makes for some uncomfortable moments of dark comedy, as the “Show Indian” performs traditional dances and situation comedy making fun of Indigenous Peoples, and takes hits for the entertainment of the masses. And then, the tables are turned—and all the horrible stereotypes, prejudice and name-calling generated by European oppressors against Indigenous Peoples reverse course and land squarely on the Interlocutor.

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Michaela Washburn. Set & video design by Ken MacKenzie. Costume design by Kinoo Arcentales. Lighting design by Jennifer Lennon. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Beautiful, compelling performances from Smith and Washburn in this epic, poetic and profoundly moving piece of storytelling. Smith brings a playful, impish charm to the proud, determined Almighty Voice, sparking both comedy and passion alongside Washburn’s fierce, strong-willed, resilient White Girl. A perfect match of complementary, courageous kindred spirits, Almighty Voice’s irreverent, almost devil-may-care attitude is in stark contrast to his wife’s wary caution, borne of her lived experience at a Residential School. During Act II, the two actors demonstrate considerable comedic chops with vintage mercurial banter, slapstick antics and satirical characterizations. The comedy is dark, pointed and often discomfiting in its racist oppressor jibes at Indigenous Peoples. And a surprising transformation takes place as the tables are turned on the authoritarian soldier Interlocutor.

The evocative, well-crafted work of the design team is in great evidence here, creating an atmosphere of heightened reality and vaudevillian showmanship. Ken MacKenzie’s set and video design is particularly stunning; the backdrop of the set is from the point of view of looking up at the sky through the smoke hole of a teepee. And the glowing, shifting full moon projection adds to the magic, poetry and natural wonder inherent in the storytelling.

Uncomfortable truths told with an epic love story and sharp wit. Go see this.

Almighty Voice and His Wife continues at the Young Centre until November 10; advance tickets available online, or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188. Last night’s (Tuesday) performance was sold out, so advance booking strongly recommended to avoid disappointment.

ICYMI: Spotlight on director Jani Lauzon in Intermission Magazine.

And check out the trailer: