You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll sing along in your heart with the brilliant, hilarious & deeply poignant Stupidhead!

Katherine Cullen & Britta Johnson in Stupidhead!—photo by Michael Cooper

 

Better late than never to the party, as I finally got out to see Katherine Cullen and Britta Johnson’s SummerWorks hit Stupidhead! A Musical Comedy, directed by Aaron Willis—now in its final week in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Mainspace.

Written and performed by Cullen and Johnson, who also collaborated on the lyrics, with music by Johnson, Stupidhead! is a part musical, part stand-up, part personal storytelling journey of Cullen’s experience living with dyslexia.

Stupidhead! is Cullen’s childhood dream of being in a musical come true. And, despite her lack of training, experience and self-reported ability, she was determined to make it happen; and recruited her good friend Johnson to help her write the music. Johnson joins her onstage, accompanying her on piano and back-up vocals—reacting to Cullen’s performance throughout, sometimes cracking up along with the audience.

Pointing out that dyslexia affects people differently, Cullen has no trouble with reading and writing—and as a child enjoyed escaping into writing poetry, and stories about the adventures of a silly koala and rabbit. Diagnosed at a young age, Cullen relates her struggles with math, organizational skills and directions, finding herself mentally lost at school and physically lost in her own neighbourhood—and, above all, labelled. And that label put her in the position of having to deal with ignorance and lack of compassion from others, making her sense of otherness feel even more isolating and humiliating, and becoming a part of her identity.

Her anecdotes about trying to fit in are both hilarious and moving—from her grade three poetry contest nemesis (now a CFL football player), to being lost on her own street, to two weeks in a puppet camp in Vermont as a young adult and her love of Jesus Christ Superstar—all delivered with genuine feeling and gusto. While it’s a show about the “glamour of failure,” it’s also a show about throwing off the chains of shame and isolation. In the end, Cullen avoids tying it up neatly, but emerges from the darker moments of her experience into a place of hope and determination.

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Katherine Cullen in Stupidhead!—photo by Michael Cooper

Cullen shines onstage. An engaging, genuine and charming performer, she’s gutsy and kick-ass, but also vulnerable and fragile. As she schools us on dyslexia, she gives us the straight goods about what it’s like to live inside her head. And she gives ‘er with the music, putting her all into performing the songs, from belted out numbers to gentle, heartfelt ballads. She and Johnson make a terrific duo. Johnson is pretty damn funny herself; and there’s a lovely tender moment of compassion and understanding between them that rings with friendship and love. And their anthem of “don’t give up!” brought tears to my eyes.

With big shouts to set designer Anahita Dehbonehie and lighting designer Jennifer Lennon for the cool and beautiful neurosciencey environment.

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll sing along in your heart with the brilliant, hilarious and deeply poignant Stupidhead!

Stupidhead! continues in the TPM Mainspace, closing on Apr 2; book in advance online or call 416-504-7529. Check out Hallie Seline’s interview with Cullen and Johnson for In the Greenroom.

And here’s the trailer:

 

 

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SummerWorks: Caught in a web of deceit & love in the exquisite, heartbreaking Mr. Shi & His Lover

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I caught the closing performance of Mr. Shi and His Lover, a Macau Experimental Theatre/Music Picnic contemporary Chinese music theatre co-production, a special SummerWorks presentation at the Theatre Centre Mainspace. Inspired by the real-life love affair between a Chinese opera singer turned spy and a French diplomat, the show is performed in Mandarin with Chinese and English surtitles, with text by Wong Teng Chi, surtitle translation by Derek Kwan, music/music direction by Njo Kong Kie and direction by Johnny Tam.

A love affair between opera singer Mr. Shi (Jordan Cheng) and French diplomat Bernard (Derek Kwan) ends in scandal and imprisonment when it’s discovered that Shi is a spy – and a man disguised as a woman.

Lovely, nuanced and moving work from Cheng and Kwan – in moments of revealing solitude and in powerful, evocative two-handers. With a masterful combination of movement, gesture and voice, Cheng brings a beautiful balance of delicacy and strength to his performance as Shi; although Shi lives for, and revels in, a life of performance, he’s not prepared for getting caught in his own lie. Kwan gives Bernard a great sense of tension; his corporate sense of propriety and manners belie the deep love of ideal beauty and the heart of a romantic. As rational and logical as Bernard strives to be, he cannot explain love away when his ideal woman turns out to be a man. Mining the layers of public and private persona, betrayal, revelation, and attempted forgiveness and redemption, both must admit to real love. And in the end, each man ultimately becomes his own judge and jury.

Njo Kong Kie (piano) and Carol Wang (percussion) create a two-person orchestra for the production; positioned upstage on opposite sides, scoring and underscoring the story of Shi and Bernard’s life together and apart. The music and lyrics draw inspiration from Peking opera, pop music and modern-day music theatre; revealing the inner workings of these characters and heightening the poignant tragedy of their relationship.

Identity, perception, intrigue, scandal – and most potent of all – love; this story has it all. A performer and a diplomat caught in a web of deceit and love in the exquisite, heartbreaking Mr. Shi and His Lover.

Mr. Shi and His Lover closed its SummerWorks run at the Theatre Centre Mainspace yesterday afternoon. Keep an eye out for future productions on the show’s website.

SummerWorks: A young Ghanaian girl’s magical world of stories & dreams of life in America in charming, moving Osia

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Artwork by Zoya Taylor

Emerging playwright Jijo Quayson and director Brad Fraser premiere Quayson’s first play Osia, running in the Factory Theatre Mainspace for SummerWorks, with Fraser’s direction assisted by Spencer Schunk, and dramaturgical support from Djanet Sears, Fraser and Andrea Donaldson.

Set in present-day Ghana, Harmosia (Nicole Nwokolo) and her Mama (Chemika Bennett-Heath) eagerly anticipate the return of Mama’s brother Uncle (Paul Ohonsi), who has moved to America and promised to take them to live with him there. As Harmosia delights in life at school and stories of a magical princess who lives by the river, she dreams of being a princess herself, convinced that her father was a king. Mama dreams of a better life in America, leaving her housekeeping job behind to study to become a nurse. Uncle has big plans, and has enlisted Kwefi (Roshawn Balgrove), a family friend who runs the local shop, to help him make some big money. Meanwhile, Mama’s friend and neighbour Bernice (Chiamaka G. Ugwu) has her sights set on the newly returned Uncle. Beneath all the dreaming and planning, harsh realities are revealed.

Really nice work from the cast with the storytelling. Nwokolo is both delightful and poignant as the little girl Harmosia; fiercely active, with a vast and wonderful imagination, she is a true innocent – all that will change with experience. Bennett-Heath brings a lovely sense of conflict to Mama; longing for something better for herself and her daughter, she is dependent on her brother, both financially and emotionally; and she can’t help but wonder what he’s up to. Ohonsi is charming and generous as the fast-talking Uncle; his jovial manner concealing a nastier purpose. Taking care of business in both his new and former home; his big schemes are risky – legally and personally. Balgrove’s Kwefi is a genuine bright light of welcome and friendship; but even Kwefi’s sense of loyalty can be pushed too far when he sees what Uncle’s about. Ugwu is hilarious as the bubbly neighbourhood gossip Bernice; a devout Christian who leads the community bible studies, her hypocrisy shows as she lusts after Uncle.

Family secrets emerge and dreams become threatened in a story that – rightfully noted by Quayson in the program – could happen anywhere.

A young Ghanaian girl’s magical world of stories and dreams of life in America in charming, moving Osia.

Osia continues at the Factory Theatre Mainspace until Aug 14. Follow the production on Facebook.

SummerWorks: Post-nuclear disaster bravery, vision quest & hope in the powerful, moving, resonant Bleeders

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d’bi.young anitafrika and Watah Theatre wrap the Orisha Trilogy’s epic exploration of the Black diaspora, divinity and the environment with Bleeders, a dub opera running in the Theatre Centre Mainspace as part of SummerWorks.

Part One of the Trilogy, Esu Crossing the Middle Passage, speaks to the past; Part Two, She Mami Wata and the Pussy WitchHunt is set in the present; and Bleeders takes us into the future. Directed by anitafrika, assisted by Nickeshia Garrick, Bleeders features choreography by Garrick, and composition by Waleed Abdulhamid (also the music director), assisted by tuku (also vocalist and vocal coach).

The Pickering nuclear power plant has exploded, destroying the environment, poisoning the water, rendering the population infertile and plunging the land into ongoing war. A group of Black womxn* survivors gathers to find a way to heal the land and its people. A lone bleeder (fertile) emerges to become their warrior, setting off on a vision quest in search of the Ancestor Tree. Meanwhile, an army draws closer, hell bent on finding bleeders in order to increase their numbers and continue the war.

The powerful, high-energy production features an equally outstanding ensemble: Olunike Adeliyi, d’bi.young anitafrika, Aisha Bentham, Raven Dauda, Nickeshia Garrick, Najla Nubyanluv, Sashoya Shoya Oya, Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah and Ravyn Wngs. And the band – The 333, which performs with anitafrika on Aug 9 at the Scotiabank Studio Theatre – is Waleed Abdulhamid, Christopher Butcher, Odel Johnson and Patrick O’Reilly.

The devastating and hopeful storytelling is impactful, both visually (set/costumes by Rachel Forbes) and emotionally, told through song, mythology and the hero’s journey; and many of the ensemble take on the roles of the hero’s animal guides, moving with fluid precision. The effect is both magical and poignant. The lyrics and music resonate to the core, making you want to move and then weep; Garrick’s solo “Rest in Peace” and the “Black Lives Matter” finale are especially potent. Once again, I was left in tears.

In the end, we are reminded of what anitafrika described during the brief post-show talkback as “the intersectionality of oppression” – how all are affected when global greed endangers the climate and environment – and of our collective responsibility to do something about it.

Despite their best efforts at accessing funding through grants, the Watah Theatre is in dire financial straits and needs our help in order to survive. Please consider giving to their Go Fund Me campaign; and keep the vitally important company alive so it can continue providing artist training and support, and produce works that tell stories that need to be told.

Post-nuclear disaster bravery, vision quest and hope in the powerful, moving and resonant Bleeders.

Bleeders continues at the Theatre Centre Mainspace until Aug 14. And look for a life beyond SummerWorks – this is just the beginning.

*This is the playwright’s preferred spelling of “women.”

SummerWorks: A personal & scholarly look at naked women throughout history in bold, brave & moving Naked Ladies

 

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Thea Fitz-James in Naked Ladies

When Thea Fitz-James does a theatre piece about naked women throughout history, she goes all in, performing naked in her multimedia solo show Naked Ladies, directed by Zoë Erwin-Longstaff and running at the Drake Underground during SummerWorks.

Using projection (moving and still images) and scholarly research, as well as personal anecdotes, Fitz-James takes us on a physical, emotional, political and thought-provoking journey. Secret and secret(e)ing, Naked Ladies is personal and political, artistic and academic, as it delves into the revealing and concealing nature of female nudity throughout the ages. The piece looks at the difference between ‘nude’ and ‘naked,’ a distinction illustrated with a fine example from art history, when ‘nude’ referred to works of reclining goddesses – until Manet’s ‘naked’ woman in Olympia.

Fitz-James gives a direct, candid and engaging performance; the presentation is equal parts humourous, poignant storytelling and accessible lecture in this cheeky (pun intended) and smart examination of the reasons behind female nudity. Celebration or exploitation? And what about the nakedness of a fully or partially clothed woman? It’s a revealing and thoughtful look – one that’s worth seeing. There is some audience participation; all very gentle and consensual.

A personal and scholarly look at naked women throughout history in the bold, brave and moving Naked Ladies.

Naked Ladies continues at the Drake Underground until Aug 12.

SummerWorks: Prairie Home Companion meets The Twilight Zone in hilariously absurd, satirical dystopia Plucked

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Banjo-playing rooster-man masterminds a fiendish scheme to amass great wealth by turning women into chickens and selling their chicken-lady eggs.

This is the bizarre world in which we find ourselves in Rachel Ganz’s Plucked, in its Newborn Theatre production directed by Carly Chamberlain; now running in the Theatre Centre Mainspace for SummerWorks.

Yep, we’re down on Jerry’s (Tim Walker) farm, where father-in-law Rooster (Tim Machin, doing double duty as music director) has hatched a plan to turn his daughter Abigail (Sochi Fried) and granddaughter Fourteen (Qianna MacGilchrist) into chickens so he can sell their eggs and make buckets of cash – and he succeeds in turning Abigail with Jerry’s help. Also assisting is Mud (Faisal Butt), anthropomorphized mud that’s become Rooster’s minion. But have no fear, Harley the hunky farm boy (Tyrone Savage), in love with Fourteen, has a plan to save her from Rooster and Jerry’s scheme, then run away together.

It’s an absurd story told through hilariously outrageous bluegrass music and narration (led by Rooster) and scenes of crazy action that include Harley’s “borrowed” tractor (a tricycle) getting stuck in the mud (held by Mud). Not for the faint of heart, misogynist and socially unacceptable language (Abigail was “the fat lady” before she turned; and Harley is called a “retard”) peppers the lyrics and dialogue – with a purpose. Beyond the insanity of this politically incorrect backwoods dystopia is some cutting satire that sends up a fearful and greedy patriarchal society – one that exerts extreme control over its women and their reproductive organs, as well as the men it judges to be less than a ‘real man.’

The cast does a remarkable job with all the insanity. Machin is a diabolical delight as Rooster, the man turned farm foul who’s taken his cock of the walk status to extreme lengths. Always a treat to watch, Walker is hilarious as the numbskull Jerry; he likes to think he’s in charge, but he’s really just a dumbass bully following Rooster’s orders. Fried does a lovely job with Abigail’s conflicting feelings; mortified but defiant in her new chicken-lady body, she refuses to lay eggs. Great physicality and some beautiful, poignant moments with her daughter Fourteen. MacGilchrist’s Fourteen is a feisty, defiant force to be reckoned with; it is she who drives the plans to get away with Harley – giving the impression that, ultimately, it’s love and not a man that will save her. Savage is adorably dim but determined as Harley; a male Daisy Duke in cut-off jeans and plaid flannel, he is a genuinely kind and gentle man with a good heart who would do anything for Fourteen. Butt gives an entertaining performance as Mud, Rooster’s wise-cracking sidekick; he also does a mean percussion.

As you’re laughing at the craziness of it all, you’re also feeling uncomfortable. The absurdity reveals nuggets of truth that we don’t have to look far to find – and that is what’s truly disturbing.

Prairie Home Companion meets The Twilight Zone in the hilariously absurd, satirical dystopia of Plucked.

Plucked continues at the Theatre Centre Mainspace until Aug 14.

SummerWorks: Debating feminism & privilege in provocative, sharply funny Don’t Talk to Me Like I’m Your Wife

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Traitorous whore spy? Feminist? Sexually liberated opportunist?

The gloriously notorious Mata Hari gets look through 21st century eyes in Call Me Scotty Production’s premiere of Andrea Scott’s Don’t Talk to Me Like I’m Your Wife, directed by Andrew Lamb and opening last night in the Theatre Centre Mainspace as part of this year’s SummerWorks program.

Shifting back and forth between Mata Hari’s final hours in prison in 1917 and a university course on ‘Women Screwed Over by History’ in 2016, we see the famous erotic performer and accused spy from several points of view, both past and present.

On her last day in prison, Mata Hari’s (Kimwun Perehinec) is introduced to cellmate Hélène (Lisa Karen Cox), a young French-Senegalese woman in for prostitution who has been moved from another cell block. Instructed by Sister Leonide (Paula Wing) to keep Mata Hari occupied, Hélène knows that this section of the prison is for doomed prisoners. During Mata Hari’s final hours before execution, of which she is unaware, a young prison guard (Jeff Lillico) attempts to satisfy his curiosity about his celebrity prisoner as he takes her for a stroll in the prison grounds. After a failed attempt at converting Mata Hari, a professed Hindu, to Catholicism, Sister Leonide has a genuine heart-to-heart chat. In 2016, as university professor Christopher Locke (David Christo) prepares a lecture about Mata Hari, he gets into a heated debate with a black female student (Cox as Karen Sinclair) over the meaning of feminism and how it relates to Mata Hari.

The sharp, darkly funny and thought-provoking script is well-matched by an excellent cast. Perehinec does a lovely job with the resourceful and unapologetic Mata Hari (the stage name chose by Margaretha Geertruida “Margreet” MacLeod); mining the vulnerability, celebrity entitlement, cultural appropriation and buried memories of a woman who change her name and her life, she reveals the abused wife, loving mother and sexually liberated woman behind the stage name. Famous and infamous for her erotic performances, we see a woman who loves sex and longs to be loved; and who will do what she needs to do in order to survive. Cox is an excellent foil and debater, to Mata Hari (as Hélène) and to Locke (as Karen); fearlessly challenging and questioning preconceived notions with intelligence and edgy humour, tempered with a good-natured personality and a strong desire to have a real dialogue about the issues. Christo brings an easy-going, cool vibe to the forward-thinking, self-professed feminist Locke; he’s genuinely interested in women’s and minority rights, but struggles with a modern marriage arrangement that may be working against his interests, as well as present-day, budget and diversity-conscious hiring practices.

Wing is a delight as the feisty and commanding Sister Leonide; wily and worldlier than she appears, she has a kind heart beneath that take-charge exterior, as evidenced in a lovely two-hander scene with Perehinec. Lillico (a late addition to the cast when Christo suffered a cycling accident that impaired his mobility) does an excellent job with the young guard’s conflicting feelings about Mata Hari; both curious about and furious with her, an apparent crush takes a turn as he reveals his own heartache and loss.

No one is as they seem; and each character challenges our biases and preconceived notions of their social roles and life experiences. This is a play that will make you think about, as well as question, what you believe about gender, race, white privilege, inclusion, economics and power.

With shouts to set/costume designer Melanie McNeill for the opulent and exotic touches to an otherwise drab and Spartan prison setting.

Debating feminism, equality and privilege in the provocative, smart, sharply funny Don’t Talk to Me Like I’m Your Wife.

Don’t Talk to Me Like I’m Your Wife continues at the Theatre Centre Mainspace until Aug 14. Go see #thematahariplay

In the meantime, check out some interviews with playwright Scott by yours truly and this week’s cover story by NOW Magazine’s Glenn Sumi.