Two years ago, I had the honour and pleasure of getting a sneak peek at Heather Babcock’s debut novel Filthy Sugar after she approached me to give it a read and write a review blurb. Published by Inanna Publications, it’s set to be released on May 26—and was to have its official launch in Toronto at Queen Books the same day; but since brick and mortar book stores have had to move online, and with events cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, authors and book sellers are now relying on virtual shout-outs and online book sales.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Filthy Sugar (and think it would make a great movie); and hope that Babcock will get to celebrate the launch of the book with colleagues and loved ones soon. Here’s my review blurb:
Filthy Sugar takes us to the mid-1930s, from the struggles of a working-class slum, to the hustle and excitement on and off the burlesque stage. Here, we follow redheaded heroine Wanda Whittle’s rise and fall from fame in a journey of self-discovery that reveals desires and reserves of strength she never knew she possessed. Erotic, compelling and full of richly textured characters, Heather Babcock’s storytelling is equal parts moxie and poetry—tinted with the heartbroken nostalgia of memory and lost dreams; and sparkling with striking, evocative imagery. More than a backstage pass into this world, Filthy Sugar shines a light on the challenges faced by working-class women. Dancing as fast as they can in order to survive, they must navigate the unapologetic misogyny and hypocritical social codes that govern their bodies and behaviour as they pursue their hopes, dreams and desires. Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it?
It will be some time before we’ll be able to attend readings and book launches in person again; in the meantime, you can get your own sneak peek at Filthy Sugar with Babcock’s excerpt reading on YouTube:
Playwright/performer/producer Karie Richards opened the Toronto premiere of her documentary solo show The Ghost Project to a sold-out house in the BMO Incubator at The Theatre Centre last night. Originally directed by Jeff Culbert, The Ghost Project was a hit at the Fringe circuit, premiering at the Halifax Fringe 2018, and went on to the London Fringe and Winnipeg Fringe in 2019. Distilling 13 stories from 28 interviews with friends and family, Richards weaves a series of monologues, all told in the first person, from the storyteller’s point of view—capturing the gamut of emotional and rational responses; and exploring the thoughts, feelings and questions about what happens to us after we die. The result is a compelling, entertaining and thoughtful piece of verbatim storytelling.
Do you believe in ghosts? Have you ever encountered one? While Karie Richards isn’t sure what she thinks, she believes the stories told to her by friends and family—personal experiences with spiritual manifestations that defy explanation and everyday frame of reference; and that ultimately make us question the nature of the afterlife. Each real-life character reveals their story, be it from their university days, childhood or adulthood, or even an experience their child had while they were present. People reacting and responding in the moment; and, in some cases, wondering aloud what it all means. Are these the actual souls or spirits of the departed, or the energy traces they left behind? Or are these encounters a chance look through a thin veil of everyday reality, providing a glimpse of another time or plane of existence while the one experiencing it remains rooted in their own?
Encounters with, and messages from, deceased loved ones; former homeowners looking in on new residents/guests; and unexplained events at a haunted theatre space (Alumnae Theatre folk and fans will be familiar) all come into play—with manifestations ranging from malevolent to friendly, frightening to calming, everyday to ethereal. Experiences of shadowy figures blacker than the darkness, a floating blue girl, a surprising encounter during an Indigenous ceremony, the comfort of a nurturing parental energy, and the high-spirited insistence of a youthful presence that evoked profound responses for the storyteller emerge in Richards’ performance. Navigating myriad emotions, from paralyzing fear, to grief and loss, confusion, relief and joy, each character is vulnerable, curious, wonder-struck and thoughtful. Do these spirits want to be noticed and acknowledged? Are they relieving boredom with their spooky shenanigans? Do they have something to tell us?
Deftly shifting from character to character—signified by the collection and return of a single costume piece or prop from a wardrobe, and remarkable adjustments to voice, facial expression and posture—with a gentle calmness and the care of ceremony, Richards conjures up each storyteller for us, presenting with nuance and profound sensitivity the experiences, reactions and thoughts of each. And her carefully, finely-drawn embodiment of each storyteller makes for a compelling and entertaining performance that goes beyond the storytelling itself. In many cases, it’s the first time the storyteller has revealed their experience to anyone—requiring a high level of trust in, and comfort with, Richards during the interview process that preceded the creation of the piece. The results are eerie, funny, deeply moving and thought-provoking.
Richards’ performance is nicely supported by Glenn Davidson’s minimalist, effective production design, as well as John Sheard’s haunting composition, and atmospheric sound effects supplied by Peter Thillaye and Steve Munro.
Whatever you believe, The Ghost Project engages as much as it challenges the audience to open up and reach out into the unknown—and entertain the suggestion that death is not the end of our journey, but the beginning of a new one. If you have the opportunity, stick around for the post-show talkback, where audience members are invited to ask questions and share their own ghost stories.
The Ghost Project continues in the Incubator space at the Theatre Centre until January 26, with evening performances at 7:00 p.m., and matinées on Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are available online, in person at the box office, or by calling 416-538-0988. It’s a very short run and seating is limited, so advance booking or early arrival is strongly recommended; please note the 7:00 p.m. curtain time for evening performances.
Steven Conway & Pearle Harbour. Lighting design by Logan Raju Cracknell. Photo by Michael Cooper.
Pearle Harbour pops onto the Factory Theatre Mainspace stage for Next Stage Theatre Festival with her timely, funny and moving pre-apocalyptic multimedia drag cabaret Pearle Harbour’s Agit-Pop!Written by Justin Miller and directed by Rebecca Ballarin, with music direction and live accompaniment by Steven Conway, and video design by Adam Miller, Pearle brings her wartime tragicomedienne song stylings and storytelling to explore our deepest fears.
Climate change is at a crisis point, the Doomsday Clock is at two minutes to midnight, and Australia’s on fire—but keep calm and laugh, sing, and even scream and cry, along with Pearle as she treats audiences to some music gems by the likes of David Bowie, Judy Garland, Tom Waits and more, including a different special guest artist appearance with every performance. Examining our deepest existential fears, the storytelling and song stylings switch between funny and poignant, with Pearle living up to her reputation as a wartime tragicomedienne and including some gentle, consensual audience participation.
The 1950s Bert the Turtle PSA bit on how to protect yourself in the event of a nuclear blast (duck and cover) got a bit too close to home this morning when that Emergency Alert went out to folks across Southern Ontario around 7:30AM. The vague warning, directed to folks living withing 10km of the Pickering nuclear power plant, turned out to be sent in error, but loads of questions remain as I write this.
There’s some truly frightening stuff happening out in the world right now—but, ultimately, Pearle’s message is one of awareness, engagement, hope and love. Let’s do better. Let’s reach out to each other. Let’s turn back that clock.
You have three more chances to catch Pearle Harbour’s Agit-Pop! in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until January 19; check the show page for exact dates, times and advance ticket purchase. The house was packed yesterday, so early arrival or advance booking strongly recommended.
Ann Powell and David Powell. Designed & created by Ann Powell and David Powell. Lighting design by Kevin Hutson. Photo by Dahlia Katz.
Puppetmongers Theatre takes us to medieval Russia with a combination of old Russian tales in the delightfully charming, playful Tea at the Palace. Co-created, designed and performed by Puppetmongers’ Co-Artistic Directors, brother and sister David and Ann Powell, and co-created and directed by Sharon Weisbaum, we’re invited on a journey that ranges from the Tsar’s palace to the farmhouses of his subjects as a newly ascended Prince proves his mettle as ruler, providing judgements and finding a wife. Celebrating its 30th anniversary of holiday shows, Puppetmongers presents Tea at the Palace for a short run in the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace.
When a young Prince ascends the throne, his people wonder what kind of Tsar he’ll make. He soon finds himself passing judgement on a farmer who’s unearthed a samovar in his field. Informed upon by a nosey, grouchy neighbour, the farmer is accused of believing himself to be equal to the Tsar; and the Prince soon finds they have more in common than one would think. And when the same grouchy man contests the ownership of an apple tree, which his widow neighbour says is hers, the widow’s young daughter impresses with her riddle-solving skills, resolving the dispute.
Despite the concerns and disapproval of his court, and breaking with tradition, the Prince chooses the clever young peasant woman to be his wife—and, once again, she must solve three seemingly impossible riddles to prove herself worthy. But can she manage the scheming courtiers who disapprove of the match and want to separate her from the Prince?
The Powells magically whisk us away to a world of tradition, ritual and ceremony—where even the making of tea has a set, proper procedure. Using beautiful, cleverly designed puppets and props, ranging from miniature to life-sized—and multipurpose, folding set pieces that reveal miniature pop-up environments—the storytelling is wondrous, entertaining and instructive; and the performances are playful and entertaining.
Despite the pomp, ceremony and entitlement of his upbringing, the young Prince proves himself to be a fair-minded, egalitarian ruler who judges people based on actions over social status. Audience members of all ages will delight in the beautifully crafted, imaginative and fun storytelling artistry of this tale.
Tea at the Palace continues in the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace until December 29; matinées run today (Saturday, December 28) and Sunday, December 29 at 2:30 pm; and there’s an evening performances tonight (Saturday, December 28) at 7 pm. Advance tickets available online, except for the Family Pack, which is only available by phone or in person: 416-531-1827 (Mon from 10am-5pm, Tues-Sat from 10am-7pm, Sun from 11am-1pm). It’s a very short run, so catch it while you can.
Darryl Hopkins, Steve O’Connell & Berni Stapleton. Set & costume design by Shawn Kerwin. Lighting design by Leigh Ann Vardy. Photo by Rich Blenkinsopp.
Factory Theatre continues the celebration of its 50th anniversary with a presentation of Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland’s production of Robert Chafe’s Between Breaths, directed by Jillian Keiley, assisted by Sharon King-Campbell, with music direction by Kellie Walsh. A biographical memory play, the reverse chronological storytelling highlights key moments during the final years of the life of Jon “The Whale Man” Lien, an animal behaviour professor from South Dakota who came to find a home in Newfoundland when he took a position at Memorial University. Eventually becoming known for his work saving over 500 whales caught up in fishing nets before dementia took his mobility, memory and ability to engage with the world as he once did, his relationship with the gentle giants of the sea reminds us of how interconnected are land and sea, man and animal.
Otherworldly, yet grounded in time and place; intensely magical and real, Between Breaths takes us on a reverse trajectory from Jon Lien’s (Steve O’Connell) final days in a long-term care facility, to the frustrating and life-altering onset of his symptoms, to his emerging calling toward saving whales caught up in fishing nets, and salvaging the costly nets for the fishermen. Throughout, Jon is both supported and doubted by his beloved wife Judy (Berni Stapleton), and whale-saving friend and colleague Wayne (Darryl Hopkins), who are alternately exasperated with and taken up by his passion, drive and vision.
Beyond the conservation work, there is a kindred spirit connection between Jon and the whales; an inexplicable, ancestral calling that began the moment he viewed the Rock from the plane—his Viking DNA drawn to the rocky green and surrounding ocean. Present, passionate and proactive in an unwavering commitment to follow through with thoughts and impulses that eventually gel into a broader vision, Jon endeavours to save the gentle giants of the sea and the precious, costly nets that trapped them—contributing to both species conservation and the economic well-being of fishermen.
Lovely, compelling work from the cast in this counter clockwise journey of a man, his work with the beautiful creatures he works to save, and his life and work partners. O’Connell gives a mercurial, profoundly poignant performance as Jon Lien. Charismatic, impulsive and at times infuriating in his single-mindedness, Jon has a sharp mind and enormous heart that can be a challenge for his family and colleagues to keep up with, but he always has a way of turning situations—and people—around. He is well-supported by Stapleton’s Judy, a loving wife and partner in life who holds the fort at home with their children, and continues to reach out in the face of his advanced dementia, even when it’s unclear that he can understand or respond. And by Hopkins’ gruff, salty Wayne; initially cynical and skeptical of Jon’s motives and vision—and wary of folks from away—Wayne is won over by Jon’s contagious optimism, passion and energy. And Wayne gradually comes to trust in himself as much as Jon does.
Accompanied by a live acoustic and vocal soundtrack performed by The Once (Brianna Gosse, Steve Maloney and Kevin Woolridge), and featuring beautiful, haunting whale song, the scenes are performed with minimal set pieces and props on Shawn Kerwin’s stunning blue stage, where the action plays out as if under water. The swirling blues and greens below the sparkling ripples reflecting the sun and sky above—and a C-shaped ramp wraps the playing area—evoking the unseen life beneath the surfaces of the ocean and the mind; the sights and sounds both mirror and complement the action.
Between Breaths reminds us of the strength and fragility of even the largest and most powerful of Earth’s creatures; and Jon Lien’s struggles with evolving dementia run parallel to the experience of a trapped whale—with all the notes of grief that accompany those moments when a living being comes face to face with its own mortality. Life, love, joy, memory and connection happen between those breaths. It is both heartbreaking and inspiring to witness.
Between Breaths continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until December 8; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416- 504-9971. Go see this.
Alumnae Theatre Company (ATC) opens its annual FireWorks Festival of new works with Natalie Frijia’s Belle Darling Klondike Queen, directed by Lori Delorme, with music direction by Anita Beaty—running upstairs in the Studio. Part cabaret, part vaudeville, all heart—this highly entertaining and engaging piece of musical storytelling takes us on vaudeville star Klondike Kate’s (born Kathleen Rockwell) real-life journey of fame, fortune and fall, all set against the backdrop of fading days of the Klondike Gold Rush.
Put on your boots, leave your pick and sing along at the Portland Alaska Yukon Society’s 1931 Sourdough Reunion, featuring headliner—none other than the famous star of vaudeville stage—Klondike Kate (Lindsay Sutherland Boal)! Alumnae Theatre’s Studio Theatre has been transformed into a vaudeville music hall for this real-life tale of the highs and lows of Kate’s storied career in Canada’s North, and dreams of becoming a nation-wide vaudeville impressaria across the U.S.
Accompanied by a fine ensemble of multi-talented, multi-tasking actors (Sarah Kaufmann, Roxhanne Norman and Madeleine Keesmaat-Walsh), with piano player Calvin Laveck tickling the ivories, Kate takes us on a whirlwind musical and storytelling tour of her life—from wayward Victorian Catholic schoolgirl (Kathleen), to vaudeville chorus girl (Kitty), to headliner Belle Darling Klondike Queen (Kate), and a near miss as Pantages theatre partner and impressaria.
Kate has no use for being a “lady” in the traditional Victorian sense of the word, and sets off on an adventure of her own making—breaking gender barriers and the rules as she goes. Taking us back to the “good ‘ol days” with song, story and satire, the God’s honest truth is that these meanderings of nostalgia can’t erase the personal and financial risk, danger and heartbreak of those who tried their luck—and put their strength and resolve to the test—searching for gold in those freezing cold Northern mountains. All for fame and fortune.
Sutherland Boal gives a powerhouse performance as the ambitious, fearless Klondike Kate—a role that amply showcases her considerable vocal chops as she belts out rousing music hall tunes and caresses melancholy ballads. Sassy, classy, gutsy and irreverent, Kate turns away from what’s expected of her as a “good Victorian lady” to carve out her own path and live on her own terms. And beneath the seasoned showmanship and razzmatazz of Kate’s vaudeville persona, Sutherland Boal digs deep to reveal the broken-hearted woman who reached for it all only to find her ultimate dream of business partnership taken away. Disappointed, but not discouraged, she soldiers on—the show must go on, after all.
She is well-supported by a stand-out ensemble; changing character on a dime in this fast-paced, alternately slapstick and poignant trip through music hall shenanigans both on and off the stage. Kaufmann is adorably Puck-like in her comic turns as the crafty entrepreneur Sophie, and a lusty young sourdough (a Yukon resident) on the make. Norman performs with a playful glint in her eye—and has an outstanding set of pipes herself—in her saucy turn as Kate’s pal and vaudeville partner Gertie; and the charming and irresistible, but false, Alexander Pantages. And Keesmaat-Walsh brings hilarity and swagger as Kate’s gruff boss Arizona Charlie and an awkward strong woman act, among others.
It’s a real-life adventure of fame, fortune and fall—told with song, story and heart. But you don’t have to believe me; check out the trailer (scroll down on the show page).
Belle Darling Klondike Queen continues in the Alumnae Studio Theatre until November 10; get advance tickets online or by calling 416-364-4170 (ext. 1), or pick up 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 9 matinée performance.
FireWorks continues its three-week run until November 24, presenting a new show each week: Crystal Wood’s Grief Circus, directed by Paige Foskett (Nov 13-17); and Genevieve Adam’s If the Shoe Fits, directed by Heather Keith (Nov 20-24).
I had the pleasure of attending the launch of Pamela Williams’ new book Evelyn’s Stories at a reading to a packed room on Sunday at the Tranzac Club. Known mostly for her beautiful, haunting black and white photographs of cemetery sculpture, Williams has assembled a collection of brief stories, as told to her by her mother Evelyn—and some handed down to Evelyn by her mother—in a series of short vignettes. Evelyn’s Stories are literary snapshots of family across time and space, ranging from 1900s Glasgow, to 1930s Thornbury and into the 1970s and beyond.
Told with unflinching candor, sharp detail and wry humour, Evelyn’s Stories is a window on moments of personal history and experience; inviting us for brief peeks (the stories are postcard-sized or slightly longer) inside the world of Williams’ family, as told to her by her mother, and to her mother by her grandmother.
It’s family biography as comedy and drama, with eyebrow-raising tales of marriage and infidelity (“When Hector Married Stella” and “Keep Toby Out, England, 1907”); charming and funny childhood shenanigans and observations (“Bathtub Visitor” and “Divorce”); memories of brutal and sweet elementary school teachers (“Mrs. Pinch” and “Miss Chalk’s Replacement”); tragic loss (“New Spectacles, Glasgow, 1906”); hilarious social interactions (“That’s Why I Asked You” and “At the Cinema”); and harrowing but comical senior driving mishaps (“Two Motorcycles” and “A Ride on the Wild Side”).
As the family tales shift from poignant, to comic, to tragic, to saucy, Evelyn’s Stories captures the heart, lives, loves and experiences of generations of family who crossed the ocean from Glasgow, Scotland to settle in rural/small-town Ontario, Canada.
Check out Williams’ book collection online, including her photography books; order via email.