Three generations of women navigate life, love & those feelings “down there” in TIP’s hilarious, poignant, intimate Little Gem

Top to bottom: Rebecca De La Cour, Barbara Taylor & Billie Jean Shannon. Photo by Sean Walsh.

The Toronto Irish Players (TIP) opened their production of Elaine Murphy’s Little Gem, directed by Cliona Kenny, on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage to a packed house last night.

Drawing from the old tradition of the Gaelic storyteller (the Seanachai), Little Gem’s commentator device uses a Trinitarian approach—in this case, the story is told from the perspectives of three women: a granddaughter, a mother and grandmother from the same family.

Set in present-day Dublin, we open on Amber’s (Billie Jean Shannon) tale of the fateful night of her Debs (a city-wide high school prom), and the complex emotional dance of relationships with her boyfriend Paul and school teach-like bff Jo. Then, there’s her mother Lorraine (Rebecca De La Cour), a single mom, husband Ray long gone to who knows where, who works in a department store. She’s been forced to go on leave and see a shrink after she loses it on an extremely annoying and vindictive regular customer. And there’s Kay, Lorraine’s ma (Barbara Taylor), a breast cancer survivor and 24/7 caregiver to her husband Gem, struggling with an itch of her own.

Lovely, compelling—and endearingly comical—work from these three actors; each bringing her own brand of outspoken cheek, feistiness and strength to these characters. Shannon gives us a youthful, impetuous, and keen sense of social awareness and observation to Amber. Mouthy and full of teen sass and mortification, Amber’s a master at projecting an image of giving zero fucks, but there’s a tender, loving heart there that also longs to be loved. De La Cour brings a desperate housewife, poignant sense of resiliency to Lorraine. An anxious, exhausted member of the sandwich generation, Lorraine struggles to communicate with her distant teenage daughter, and worries about the well-being of her aging mother and seriously ill father; and she finds that she can’t stress clean away her own sense of loneliness and lack of a definitive life of her own. Taylor is a laugh riot and a force to be reckoned with as the family matriarch. Now in the winter years of life, there’s heat in that tired 60-something body yet—and Kay’s stubborn sense of resolve overcomes any sense of pride or shame as she actively, and at times hilariously, seeks solutions to her problems. Eschewing spoilers, I’ll have to leave it at that—and you’ll have to go see for yourself.

Life goes on for these three women; and unexpected events change the course of the day-to-day, forcing challenging decisions, personal growth, and acts of strength and courage. And, in the process, the lives of these three women—living separately together—are brought together into new and closer bonds of family and womanhood.

Nicely staged, on an effective and minimalist set featuring beautifully rendered charcoal family portraits (set by Bernadette Hunt and Sean Treacy), each character has her own playing area, with each storyteller staying within her own space until these inextricably intertwined lives gradually come closer together during the final scenes.

Three generations of women navigate life, love and those feelings “down there” in TIP’s hilarious, poignant, intimate Little Gem.

Little Gem continues on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage until March 3; advance tickets available online or by calling 416-440-2888. The Irish Players are an extremely popular local community company, so advance booking strongly recommended.

And no worries about thinking this is a “chick play,” the men were laughing as hard as the women. Having said that, it also struck me that, even though Mother’s Day is some months away, this is the perfect girls’ night out for women, their moms and grandmothers.

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Tracing identity through the sacrifices & dreams of matriarchal herstory in the moving, delightful, lyrical trace

Jeff Ho; set design by Nina Lee Aquino and Michelle Ramsay; lighting design by Michelle Ramsay—photo by Dahlia Katz

 

Factory Theatre, in association with b current performing arts, presents the world premiere of Jeff Ho’s trace, a multidisciplinary journey of family and identity, directed by Factory Theatre AD Nina Lee Aquino, assisted by Darrel Gamotin, and currently running in the Factory Studio space.

Written, performed and composed by Ho, trace is structured as a Piano Sonata, with Five Movements, plus a Prelude and a Coda. Featuring the three most influential women in his life, the storytelling weaves memories with family mythology and moments, travelling through time and across borders—taking family apart and reuniting them.

Starting in the present day, Jeff’s mother (Ma) Kwan Miu Chi (44 years old) returns home to Hong Kong with her eldest son, looking for a place to stay. She finds drastically different receptions from her grandmother (Jeff’s Great Grandma) Kwan Bo Siu (85 years old), who seems happy to see her, but proceeds to gruffly enlist her aid in ridding the apartment of rats; and mother (Jeff’s Grandma) Kwan Wei Foon (64 years old), who is decidedly chilly and resistant to having two more mouths to feed.

As the story shifts back and forth in time and place, we see the three women at various ages—and the world and circumstances that shaped them and their relationships with their children. As a young, single mother, Great Grandma Kwan Bo Siu fled the WWII Japanese invasion of China with her son to live in Hong Kong, where she faced new struggles to find work and survive. Grandma Kwan Wei Foon was 16 when she met her husband to be, receiving a scornful and cross introduction to his mother (Bo Siu); and subsequently garnering constant disapproval and always having to prove herself, and supporting her mother-in-law in her old age. And Jeff’s Ma Kwan Miu Chi, who left Hong Kong for Toronto in pursuit of a better life for herself and two young sons, was once refused tuition to go to school by her mother (Wei Foon). Finding support and commonality with her grandmother (Bo Siu)—who possessed mad skills and an ability to earn great sums at the mahjong table—she was able to pursue her education and chosen profession. And just as Wei Foon and Miu Chi battled over Mui Chi’s dream of becoming an accountant, the economically cautious, traditionally-minded Miu Chi goes on to butt heads with her youngest son Jeff, who eschews academics for the arts, especially the piano.

Ho, who gave us a lovely Ophelia in Why Not Theatre’s production of Prince Hamlet, does an equally beautiful job with these women, capturing their vulnerability, stubbornness—and ultimately determined strength as they ferociously carry on through tragedy and hard times. Charming, eloquent and a wonder on the keys, Ho shifts seamlessly between characters with precise body language and vocal qualities: the hard-talking, chain smoking mahjong Queen Great Grandma Kwan Bo Siu; the imperious, cold and distant Grandma Kwan Wei Foon; and the strict, practical, sharp negotiator Ma Kwan Miu Chi (who also inherited the maternal mahjong queen gene). Amidst the struggles for survival, family is of the utmost importance to these women. All are striving for a better life for themselves and their children—and keeping the line of caretaker from parent to child and back again intact.

The two pianos on stage play out the exquisitely beautiful, Piano Sonata-inspired framework of this story, composed by Ho—and stand in for the other characters the women encounter along the way. The Fifth Movement, played in the home key, is particularly heart-wrenching. During the talkback that followed the performance (hosted by Miquelon Rodriguez), Ho describes this as the most challenging aspect of performance: making the piano speak as a character so the interaction is as clear as possible.

trace is nicely bookended as we return to the present day. The revelations of family history, sacrifice and secret shame bring a painful sense of redemption and closure to the three generations of women—and the realization of why they are the way they are. For Ho, who combined fact, fiction and conjecture to create the piece, it is the story of the three women who made him who he is.

With shouts to Aquino and Michelle Ramsay for the elegant, multi-level platform set design; the black platforms with red legs evoking beautiful Chinese lacquer furniture.

Tracing identity through the sacrifices and dreams of matriarchal herstory in the moving, delightful, lyrical trace.

trace continues in the Factory Theatre Studio till December 3. Get your advance tickets online, by phone at 416-504-9971 or in-person at 125 Bathurst Street (at Adelaide St. W.).

Grit, determination & a love affair with the speed bag in the funny, moving, inspiring Newsgirl

Savoy Howe in Newsgirl—photo by Dahlia Katz

 

Tracey Erin Smith and Soulo Theatre celebrated the 5th anniversary of the Soulo Theatre Festival, opening this year’s fest with an Opening Night Gala presentation of Savoy Howe’s Newsgirl. With direction and dramatury by Soulo Theatre A.D. Smith, Newsgirl ran for one night only at the Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club in front of an enthusiastic, sold out house—and a standing ovation—last night. The fest continues at Red Sandcastle Theatre tonight and throughout the weekend.

When Savoy Howe moved away from her home in New Brunswick in the late 80s to study theatre in Hamilton and later move to Toronto, she had no way of foreseeing what was in store—and the journey that would bring her the sense of strength, determination and empowerment that she would go on to share with women and trans people.

This is the story of Newsgirl, Howe’s autobiographical solo show that takes her from a tomboy growing up on a Canadian Air Force base, to her coming out, to training as a boxer and later passing on her knowledge as a boxing coach, starting the first women’s and trans-friendly boxing gym in Canada: the Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club. And, while it was a photo of a woman wearing boxing gloves that inspired Howe to take up the sport, it was a speed bag that made her fall in love with boxing.

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Savoy Howe in Newsgirl—photo by Dahlia Katz

Combining the physicality, strategy and philosophy of boxing with considerable stand-up and storytelling chops, Howe is an engaging, energetic and endearing performer. With Howe primarily telling her story from inside the boxing ring, the show is dynamically staged, moving her around the gym as she highlights discovery and work on the heavy bag and speed bag; and her rookie first entry into the ring is hilarious!

Newsgirls is a story of struggle, grit and a ‘don’t give up’ attitude that takes some rough, and sometimes violent, turns. Perseverance, a big heart and a curious, open mind—not to mention a hard-working, helping hand way of looking at life—make the wins and losses equal in value. Always learning, never backing down from a challenge, and enduring the deep-seated sexism and male aggression of this world, Howe is an inspiration. Newsgirl is a classic underdog makes good story. And it definitely packs a punch.

Grit, determination and a love affair with the speed bag in the funny, moving, inspiring Newsgirl.

Check out this great interview in VICE Sports with Savoy Howe on how she got into boxing, opened Newsgirls, and how she and the gym are empowering women and trans people. You can also follow the Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club on Facebook.

Howe is in the process of launching a crowdfunding campaign to keep the gym alive and serving the community; stay tuned for details on how you can help.

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Soulo Theatre A.D. Tracey Erin Smith in the ring at Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club—photo by Dahlia Katz

Newsgirl was a one-night only performance, but no worries—there are lots more life-changing, life-affirming true stories to come tonight and this weekend at the fest, which includes solo shows and panel discussions. The Soulo Theatre Festival continues at Red Sandcastle Theatre till May 28; check out the full schedule and purchase advance tickets and get your festival pass.

Department of corrections: The original post for the show mentioned that Howe studied theatre in Toronto; it was actually Hamilton. The error has been corrected.