Freedom of expression & political oppression in a digital age in the chilling, intersectional, provocative Theory

Sascha Cole. Set & lighting design by Joe Pagnan. Projection design by Cameron Davis. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Photo by Cylla von Teidemann.

 

Under what circumstances should freedom of expression be censored or policed? At what point does politics, however liberal or progressive, become unforgiving and oppressive? Tarragon Theatre’s production of Norman Yeung’s Theory, directed by Esther Jun, assisted by Stephanie Williams, examines the impact of film and social media on modern-day discourse through an intersectional lens, where academia meets art—with chilling and provocative results.

I saw the genesis of Theory, first as a reading at Alumnae Theatre’s New Ideas Festival and then as a full production at SummerWorks, back in 2010. It appeared again at Alumnae during FireWorks Festival 2013—at which point, at the suggestion of dramaturge Shirley Barrie, lead character Isabelle’s boyfriend was re-written as a female character. I missed the 2013 production, but was happy to see the evolution of the piece in the current Tarragon presentation, where Isabelle has a wife who is also a person of colour.

Rookie film studies prof Isabelle (Sascha Cole, in the role from the very beginning) has set up an online message board off the campus server—a bit of a rogue move that becomes even more so with an ‘anything goes’ policy. Her film theory students will self-moderate and there are no plans for censorship. And, in a classic Dead Poets Society moment, she has her students tear out the film screening list from the syllabus—full of white male directors—and replaces it with a more diverse, contemporary list. Even her core group of vocal, engaged students—Davinder (Bilal Baig), Safina (Asha James), Richard (Kyle Orzech) and Jorge (Anthony Perpuse)—have questions and misgivings about the nature of the message board and revised film list, which includes the controversial Baise Moi, translated into Rape Me in an English release.

Isabelle’s wife Lee (Audrey Dwyer)—a Black, tenured prof at the same university—also has reservations about the student message board; and like her, one can’t help but wonder if Isabelle is trying too hard to look cool and connect with her students as adults and academics. Racist and homophobic remarks begin to emerge on the message board—presented onstage via projection (design by Cameron Davis)—some of which are directed at other students.  And, while Isabelle insists that nothing offends her and refuses to censor the board—viewing the remarks in the context of fodder for adult, academic conversation and exploration—some of her students don’t see it that way.

Video messages start appearing, at first referencing films the class is studying, then getting increasingly graphic and violent, and directed toward Isabelle. Becoming obsessed with finding out who the perpetrator is, the strain on Isabelle and her relationship with Lee starts to show; she keeps putting off their plans to have a baby and starts spending an inordinate amount of time on the message board.

As the messages get more personal and close to home, showing up in her personal email, text messages and even on her doorstep, Isabelle blocks a user called @Richard69 and turns to department head Owen (Fabrizio Filippo) to see if she can launch a complaint or investigation to learn the identity of the student. It’s during this meeting that she learns there’s been a complaint launched against her. Isabelle begins to suspect the culprit is among her core group of students, but has no solid proof.

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Sascha Cole & Audrey Dwyer. Set & lighting design by Joe Pagnan. Projection design by Cameron Davis. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Photo by Cylla von Teidemann.

Outstanding work from the cast in this chilling multi-media psychological thriller. There’s a taut scholarly edge in Cole’s performance of Isabelle; and an awkwardness in Isabelle’s attempts to connect with her students on a laid back, personal level. Under pressure to make tenure, Isabelle must walk the line between provoking thought and keeping her students and  superiors happy. Dwyer’s good-humoured academic veteran Lee goes beyond being a great foil and complement to Cole’s Isabelle—she’s the sociopolitical conscience in the relationship and in the piece. A supportive and nurturing partner, Lee has no trouble calling Isabelle out when she’s neglecting their relationship or forgetting to check her privilege. Filippo gives a great turn as the cool guy department head Owen; like Isabelle, he’s invested in keeping everyone happy—but his flip, hip dude exterior belies the institutional administrator who must also answer to higher powers in the university.

Really nice, sharply drawn work from the student chorus. Baig’s sassy, queer South Asian Davinder and James’ earnest, politically aware Safina (Asha James), who is Black, are particularly aware of and sensitive to the homophobic and racist remarks posted online; and Safina is uncomfortable with some of the course content. Both are open and willing to expand their minds and engage in debate; but they understandably draw the line at hate messaging. Perpuse brings a fun class clown energy to Jorge, who posits that porn should be given equal consideration with other genres. And Orzech’s nerdy, curious Richard seems affable enough, but there’s a dark undercurrent to this curious, white kid as he pleads “context” to his observations on films featuring storytelling filtered through a racist lens.

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Bilal Baig, Anthony Perpuse, Asha James, Kyle Orzech & Sascha Cole. Set & lighting design by Joe Pagnan. Projection design by Cameron Davis. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Photo by Cylla von Teidemann.

Isabelle realizes that she’s underestimated the power of a digital media and the accompanying anonymity of user names, which make for an easy, consequence-free platform for hate speech and intolerance; and she’s forced to examine her inconsistent handling of conversation that veers toward hate speech. Her progressive feminist liberal politics and attempts at provoking thought have pushed buttons and opened a Pandora’s box of alt-right ill will. Is she complicit in fostering oppression by holding back on deleting racist and homophobic comments? Timely in its recognition of alt-right backlash, Theory reminds us of the inevitable pendulum backswing on progressive sociopolitical change.

Theory continues in the Tarragon Extraspace until November 25. Get advance tickets online or by calling the box office at 416-531-1827.

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Soul reviving human connection in the entertaining, engaging, enlightening Pearle Harbour’s Chautauqua

Justin Miller as Pearle Harbour, with Steven Conway in the background. Production design by Joseph Pagnan, with tent by Haley Reap. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Pearle Harbour invites you into the milky folds of her tent for some soul reviving human connection in the engaging, entertaining, enlightening Pearle Harbour’s Chautauqua, written and performed by Justin Miller, accompanied by Steven Conway and directed by Byron Laviolette. The sold-out SummerWorks 2017 Audience Choice Award-winning show returns to its home base at Theatre Passe Muraille as it opens TPM’s 2018-19 season.

As you’re ushered into the Mainspace through the stage door and walk towards the tent, you pass various collections of objects from another time and place; an acoustic guitar, a vintage typewriter, wooden crates. There’s a bar, too, just before you get to the opening of the tent; and Conway is there with your seating assignment. Finding your bench to sit inside the tent, you see text stencilled on each wall: SPEAK TRUTH, LIVE PURE, RIGHT THE WRONG, FOLLOW THE WAY. Three strings of Edison bulbs hang from the ceiling; and you can hear fiddle music and a man’s voice speaking—poetry, philosophy?

Our hostess joins us, singing “Come on Up to the House” as she enters, accompanied by Conway on acoustic guitar. A sassy redheaded all-American wartime tragicomedienne, Pearle proceeds to lead us through a rousing, enlightening experience of connection and redemption as she takes us through each of the four pillars of Chautauqua (the words stencilled on the walls of the tent). Acknowledging that things are rough out there in the world, but having faith in “people power” and joining together, Pearle is no clueless Pollyanna. She gives it to us frank and candid, in a gentle, respectful interactive space—and always with the hope and belief that people can change the world.

A hilarious and poignant storyteller and rabble-rouser—true to his drag alter ego Pearle—Miller engages and entertains; touching on universal truths in an intimate, focused yet relaxed way that invites us all to be present, grounded and breathing throughout. The vintage props, puppetry and Creamsicle sing-song reminiscences are more than mere exercises in nostalgia or fond souvenirs of simpler times; they’re a meditation of sorts. A reminder to go back once in a while, to remember who you really are—that individual spirit you may have lost along the way in this hi-tech, fast-paced, ever changing workaday world. And that one flickering light bulb highlights that, no matter how hard you try to make things perfect, we live in an imperfect world—and we’re all imperfect or broken in some way. We’ve all done things that were less than kind, that we may regret. And while that admission can be infuriating, embarrassing and guilt-inducing, we can be better and we can let go.

When was the last time you sang or heard “One Tin Soldier”? The last time you had a Creamsicle? What takes you back to who you were all those years ago?

Part revival, part enlightening cabaret, Pearle Harbour’s Chautauqua invites us in and embraces us—valuing the spectrum of humanity and shining a light on that which unites us. It’s just the thing we need right now. Come on in and join Pearle in the tent.

Pearle Harbour’s Chautauqua continues in the TPM Mainspace until October 27; please note the 7:30 p.m. curtain time for evening performances. Should you book in advance to avoid disappointment? You betcha! Get advance tickets online or by calling the box office at: 416-504-7529.

The run includes a post-show Q&A, usually hosted by Jivesh Parasram, with cast and crew on October 14; and a pre-show chat, hosted by AD Andy McKim, with a cast member or local expert at 6:45 p.m. on October 17.

In the meantime, take a gander at the trailer:

 

 

SummerWorks: Death, fear & loneliness in the spine-tingling, darkly funny, Hitchcockian A Girl Lives Alone

Photo by Molly Flood.

Theatre Mischief gives us a spine-tingling, darkly funny turn—and a unique look at death, loneliness, fear and how people live together—in its SummerWorks production of Jessica Moss’s Hitchcock-inspired murder mystery comedy A Girl Lives Alone. Directed by Moss and the company, the show is currently running in the Theatre Centre’s Franco Boni Theatre.

New to her NYC apartment, Marion (Samantha Madely) returns home one night to find her fellow tenants assembled outside, their building taped off as a crime scene. A young woman in the building was murdered, at home in her apartment, the unknown perpetrator still at large. A murder mystery, Hitchcock fan obsessed with her ex-boyfriend’s classic murder mystery-inspired radio show podcast, Marion becomes hell-bent on investigating her neighbours in hopes of discovering the murderer. Gradually, she gets to know her fellow tenants: the opinionated, judgemental and fastidious Alma (Anita La Selva); the harried landlord Murray (Alexander Thomas); boyfriend/girlfriend pair the volatile Stewart (Aldrin Bundoc) and chatty Kim (Asha Vijayasingham); the nervous, quirky Janet (Jessica Moss); and the creepy, enigmatic Foley Artist upstairs (Andrew Musselman). Watching from the sidelines is the bubbly actress Grace (Tiffany Deobald), the murder victim. Grace lived alone.

The murder is a catalyst for a variety of shifting dynamics within the building; heightening suspicions, and driving self-advocacy and the realization that the tenants don’t particularly know each other that well. Their previous perceptions of safety and comfort profoundly shaken, no one in the building is the same. We see the dark and tender sides of the neighbours as the story unfolds; and everyone has their own way of coping. Janet binge-watches Friends on Netflix while others enjoy Law & Order SVU, Alma calls Murray out on a long-neglected repair to her place and Marion becomes Nancy Drew. Both terrified and fascinated by the strange Foley Artist who lives directly above her, Marion can’t stay away as he shows her the tricks of his trade, at her request, up in his place.

Outstanding work from the ensemble, riding a fine edge of comedy and psychothriller in this gripping, darkly funny tale of mystery, and dangers real and imagined. Noises in the dark—the young couple sexing or fighting, the Foley Artist at work, someone coming upon you suddenly—all take on new meaning and put everyone on edge. And some new, unexpected alliances are forged as well. What do you need to feel safe and comfortable in your own home? And how do women who live alone mitigate the risk? And how do you cope when the unthinkable happens so close to home?

With shouts to the design team for their gripping, atmospheric work on this production: composer/sound designer Richard Feren, set/costume designer Claire Hill and lighting designer Imogen Wilson.

A Girl Lives Alone has one more performance at SummerWorks: tonight (Aug 19) at 8:30 p.m.; advance tickets available online.

 

SummerWorks: Art, madness, longing & inspiration in the visceral, cerebral, deeply moving The Red Horse is Leaving

Moleman Productions presents a multimedia, multidisciplinary work in progress with its SummerWorks production of The Red Horse is Leaving; running for three performances in the Toronto Media Arts Centre Main Gallery. Written and co-directed by Erika Batdorf, with excerpts from artist Thaya Whitten’s journals and performance talks, and co-directed and choreographed by Kate Digby, the piece takes us on a thoughtful, moving journey into the playful, pensive and tormented mind of Batdorf’s performance artist/painter mother. I caught the closing performance, along with a sold out house, last night.

Part lecture, part performance art, part fly-on-the-wall experience, the audience is invited into Whitten’s (Erika Batdorf) studio as she faces off with a blank white sheet of Masonite; struggling to manifest her vision, her concept, in colours and brush strokes on a two-dimensional surface. All the while, a Gargoyle (Zoe Sweet) watches, climbing cat-like over tables and chairs—and even curling itself around Thaya—largely unseen but felt; its glowing, lit spine flashing and changing colour along with her breath and pulse.

Cerebral and visceral at the same time, The Red Horse is Leaving also addresses the issues of meaning, ethics, outreach and economics as they relate to art; and the changing landscape of art and artists, and how their work is perceived and received. Back in the 60s, performance art was the big new thing; controversial, revolutionary and exciting. Not so much anymore. Referencing “the red horse”—the subject of Thaya’s work in progress—we get the impression that it represents her muse, her inspiration, her passion. And it’s eluding her.

Beautiful performances from Sweet and Batdorf in this profoundly moving, thought-provoking two-hander. Batdorf’s Thaya is an artist with a curious, sharp and tormented mind; and a playful, tortured soul. Longing for inspiration and connection with her muse and her work, as well as her audience, Thaya struggles to reach out—to the white space before her and the world around her. Sweet is both menacing and adorable as the Gargoyle; moving with precision and grace under and over furniture, and coiling around the artist. Both bird-like and cat-like, it nudges and prods Thaya, offering brushes and even sharing a snack.

Inside Thaya’s secret heart, like her, we realize that longing can be a dangerous and unfulfilling thing—but it’s part of our human nature to strive and struggle to find meaning in our work, our world and ourselves.

With shouts to the design team for their work in bringing this multimedia vision to life: Mark-David Hosale (digital technology and sound, costumes), Sylvia Defend and Joyce Padua (costumes), J. Rigzin Tute (original music composition) and Alan Macy (biosensors).

This was the final SummerWorks performance of The Red Horse is Leaving; look out for the Toronto premier in the Rendezvous with Madness festival Oct 13 – 21.

Department of corrections: The original post had the cast credits reversed; this has been corrected.

SummerWorks: Memory, nostalgia & queer men longing to connect in the quirky, charming, poignant Box 4901

Thirteen letters responding to a 1992 gay personals ad sit in a box unanswered. What does the recipient say to these men 26 years later? Memory, nostalgia, connection and hindsight figure prominently in timeshare productions’ SummerWorks presentation of novelist Brian Francis’ autobiographical Box 4901; directed by Rob Kempson and running on the Theatre Centre’s Incubator stage.

Long before the age of smartphones and Grindr, a 21-year-old Francis—then a student at the University of Western Ontario—posted a personals ad in The London Free Press looking for a connection in the small LGBTQ world of conservative London, Ontario. Of the approximately two dozen letters he received, 13 went unanswered and were discovered years later. Francis narrates and responds as 13 queer actors perform each letter.

Featuring actors Bilal Baig, Hume Baugh, Keith Cole, Izad Etemadi, Daniel Krolik, Michael Hughes, Tsholo Khalema, Eric Morin, G Kyle Shields, Chy Ryan Spain, Jonathan Tan, Chris Tsujiuchi and Geoffrey Whynot, the responses to the ad range from the bashful to the pornographic. Coming from a variety of men—ranging in age from high school senior to father figure—from various walks of life (“regular guy,” teacher, farmer, jock, “straight-acting,” leather community), the letters are sassy, charming, eloquent and humourous. The replies are frank, witty, sharply observational; and tempered with kindness, and the hindsight of age and wisdom.

There are some missed chances and missed bullets. All of these men share the same desire to reach out; longing for connection and a cure for aloneness, there’s a vulnerable authenticity in even the cockiest of responses. And the fear of being outed to family or housemates is as palpable and strong as the excitement and anticipation of a new connection.

Box 4901 has one more SummerWorks performance at the Theatre Centre on Aug 19 at 4:45 p.m.; it’s already sold out, but you can try your luck by arriving early to see if there are any no-shows.

SummerWorks: Pitching vulnerability in the frank, darkly funny, insightful …And You’ll Never Believe What Happens Next

Graham Isador. Photo by Jillian Welsh.

 

How do the stories we tell about ourselves reflect on us? And how do the stories we read shape how we see the world? Pressgang Theatre explores these questions, combining journalism and theatre together as playwright/performer Graham Isador takes us on a journey of personal story pitches to BuzzFeed in …And You’ll Never Believe What Happens Next. Directed by Jiv Parasram, Isador is performing in the Theatre Centre Incubator for SummerWorks.

Staged as a stand-up routine, while Isador’s solo show has elements of a comedy show, it’s a storytelling show—differentiated by a beginning, a middle, an end and a take-away. Having taken the path to writing and publishing, a piece catches the eye of the Reader editor at BuzzFeed; and he’s invited to pitch his stories, with the instruction to mine the vulnerability—for this is a key ingredient of serious writing. What follows is a challenging apprenticeship in journalism; one that is both gruelling and encouraging.

Cycling through various stories from childhood and youth to adulthood, he submits pieces torn directly from his own personal headlines: The worst day of his first job; a heart-wrenching break-up, precipitated by a horrible moment of finding out his girlfriend was cheating on him; looking after his injured mother while his father lay in a hospital bed in critical condition.

Isador is a masterful storyteller, delivering a performance that is frank, darkly funny and deeply moving. There is vulnerability in the directness, coupled with a quirky stand-up comic edge—reeling us in and keeping us at a safe distance as the storytelling takes on a confessional tone. Struggling with depression, he comes upon a chicken/egg problem: Is it these worst moments of his life that are making him depressed—or is it the telling of story after story of the worst moments of his life?

Is it true that serious journalism only includes the stories of struggle, hardship and tragedy—the awful, sad, worst moments of our lives? What do we get out of staying in bad situations? In telling those tales of personal woe? In reading them? The take-away is largely left up to us—some serious food for thought.

…And You’ll Never Believe What Happens Next has two more performances at SummerWorks: Aug 17 at 10:00 p.m. and Aug 18 at 9:00 p.m. Get advance tickets online. Last night’s show was packed, so advanced booking advised.

SummerWorks: Revolution, gratitude & being with a roar in The AMY Project’s brave, bold Lion Womxn

The AMY Project returns to SummerWorks with the brave, bold and deeply personal multimedia, multidisciplinary ensemble-generated Lion Womxn. Directed by Julia Hune-Brown and Nikki Shaffeeullah, assisted by Jules Vodarek Hunter and Bessie Cheng, Lion Womxn ran for three performances at the Theatre Centre—I caught their closing night show in the Incubator last night.

lion-womxnCreated and performed by nevada-jane arlow, Clara Carreon, Olivia Costes, Gabi M Fay, Carvela Lee, Megan Legesse, Laya Mendizabal, MORGAN, Whitney-Nicole Peterkin, Rofiat Olusanya, Aaliyah Wooter and Fio Yang, Lion Womxn is a theatrical collage of personal storytelling; told through a combination of monologue, dance (choreography by Jasmine Shaffeeullah), song, poetry and projection (design by Nicole Eun-Ju Bell).

With high-energy and soul-bearing performances, each shares her/their own joy, pain, rage, gratitude, struggle and strength—shouting out feminism, self-care, respect, gratitude, community and sex-positivity; and calling out misogyny, racism, homophobia and transphobia, body shaming and slut shaming. Raw and poetic at the same time, the result is heartbreaking, charming, anger-inducing and, ultimately, inspirational.

This was the final performance of Lion Womxn at SummerWorks, but keep an eye out for The AMY Project and future productions. Learn more about The AMY Project on their website—and give them a follow on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.