Hope & regret in the Village Players’ bittersweet, nostalgic The Glass Menagerie

Jacob Klick, Deena Baltman & Claire MacMaster. Set design by Alexis Chubb. Costume design by Livia Pravato-Fuchs, assisted by Marcella Pravato. Lighting design by Jamie Sample. Photo by John Ordean.

 

The Village Players open their 2019-20 season with Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, directed by Victoria Shepherd and running at the Village Playhouse. A deeply autobiographical play, in memory of a beloved sister, it’s the story of a family’s struggles of identity and survival in a world mired in the Depression with another World War around the corner—bittersweet, nostalgic, and full of hope and regret.

Tom Wingfield (Jacob Klick) is both narrator and participant in this tale as he invites us into the world of the small St. Louis apartment where he lives with his mother Amanda (Deena Baltman) and sister Laura (Claire MacMaster). The Wingfield patriarch has been absent some 16 years—a “telephone man who fell in love with long distance”—his ever watchful, smiling face aglow in a frame on the living room wall. It is 1937, and America has been struggling through the Great Depression, with WWII a couple of years away.

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Deena Baltman & Claire MacMaster. Set design by Alexis Chubb. Costume design by Livia Pravato-Fuchs, assisted by Marcella Pravato. Lighting design by Jamie Sample. Photo by John Ordean.

Profoundly restless and bored with his job in a shoe factory warehouse, Tom finds escape and second-hand adventure in the movies and in books; and squirrels himself away at work during lunch breaks, writing poetry. At home, he snatches brief moments of solitude and reflection as he smokes on the fire escape; and hatches a plan to join the Merchant Marine and get away for some real adventures. Meanwhile, a desperate but hopeful Amanda—ever navigating the challenges of keeping the body and soul of the family together—longs for a successful and happy future for her children, even as she criticizes and directs their actions. Retreating into moments of nostalgic reverie as she recalls her days popularity and hosting numerous beaux in the rural south, she is clearly troubled; a fish out of water—and out of time—in their urban Delta home. And the painfully shy Laura—who would likely be diagnosed with social anxiety today—prefers her rich world of imagination and light. Self-conscious about her limp and anxious about how others see her, she finds sanctuary from an outside world that is too overwhelming to bear as she escapes into her glass collection.

Concerned that her daughter’s fragile, anxious soul is unable to manage a career as a secretary, Amanda shifts focus onto finding Laura a suitable husband, and enlists Tom’s aid to find a beau for Laura. He invites co-worker Jim (John Shubat), a former high school golden boy known to both Tom and Laura, over for dinner. Laura had a crush on Jim in high school, and the hopes and dreams of this gentleman caller are met with a frank and unexpected reality check.

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John Shubat & Claire MacMaster. Set design by Alexis Chubb. Costume design by Livia Pravato-Fuchs, assisted by Marcella Pravato. Lighting design by Jamie Sample. Photo by John Ordean.

Nice work from the cast in this snapshot of familial hope, regret, loss and disappointment; moments of humour and tenderness bring take the edge off the brutal frankness and disillusionment of this world. Klick’s Tom is a study of restless detachment; dutifully bound to ensuring the family’s security as the man of the house, Tom is boiling inside—busting to get out and away, and to a life of his own. Baltman brings a desperate edge of optimism to Amanda, a woman whose life vacillates between memories of better times and the harsh realities of present-day existence. Longing for the gentler, civilized days of her bygone youth—a world that no longer exists—Amanda’s gay, energetic girlishness belies an exhausted, lost middle-aged woman grasping for purchase and hope in world she neither understands nor wants.

MacMaster adds a hint of irreverent spunk to the otherwise fragile, introverted Laura. Losing herself in a world of light and magical creatures, Laura finds a sense of safety and belonging from the world outside their apartment. And Shubat’s Jim is the picture of affable charisma and confidence, tempered by the world weariness of a young man who peaked in high school. Jim has high hopes for the future; aiming for a career on the ground floor of television, he represents hope for the Wingfield family; and a high-energy, forward-thinking future where popularity and showmanship are bound to succeed.

In the end, all of these characters are misfits in his/her own way; lost and searching for a way to be in a changing modern world. And, to varying degrees, each is struggling to keep the pain of disappointment from turning into the paralysis of discouragement. The world seems to be made for the popular and confident, with higher value placed on the traditional markers of status and success than on more imaginative and unique qualities—where unicorns are encouraged to be just like the other horses.

With shouts to the design team for their work on bringing this world of fading memory to glowing life. Alexis Chubb’s homey domestic set, revealed by the opening of sheer curtains, nicely complimented by Jamie Sample’s lighting design; John Stuart Campbell’s sound and music design, incorporating popular music of the time and haunting, crystalline original compositions (featuring Vivien Shepherd on vocals) as it conjures the music hall across the alley and complements the emotional tone; and Livia Pravato-Fuchs’ (assisted by Marcella Pravato) period costumes, transporting us to both 1937 and Amanda’s youth.

The Glass Menagerie continues at the Village Playhouse until September 28. Advance tickets available online or by calling 416-767-7702.

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The battle for survival & inclusion in an elite Chinese sanctuary in the provocative, darkly funny Yellow Rabbit

En Lai Mah & April Leung, with Amanda Zhou in the background. Set & costume design by Jackie Chau. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Video design by Zeesy Powers. Photo by: Cesar Ghisilieri.

 

Soulpepper presents the world premiere of Silk Bath Collective’s (SBC) provocative, darkly funny, multimedia and trilingual Yellow Rabbit, written by Bessie Cheng, Aaron Jan and Gloria Mok, directed by Jasmine Chen and running at the Young Centre. Set in a post-nuclear apocalypse dystopia, with dialogue in English, Cantonese and Mandarin (with surtitles), contestants are tested and assessed in a life or death competition to gain entry into the Chinese sanctuary Rich-Man Hill. A beautiful oasis from a harsh and dangerous land, competition is fierce and standards are strict—and only those who are deemed worthy are allowed access.

Yellow Rabbit represents the evolution of SBC’s sold-out production of Silk Bath, which debuted at Toronto Fringe and went on to the Next Stage Festival—making history as the first trilingual play at the Fringe. While Silk Bath focused on external stereotyping and oppression of Chinese-Canadians, Yellow Rabbit dives deep into internalized racism and extremism. You have to be the ‘right’ kind of Chinese to get into Rich-Man Hill.

Woman (April Leung) and Man (En Lai Mah) are brought into the testing facility, paired as husband and wife by Rich-Man Hill authorities, as they’ve been identified as a good match to carry on the Chinese race in this post-apocalyptic world. Overseen by Mother (Amanda Zhou), assisted by Child (Bessie Cheng), Woman and Man must pass a series of tests and challenges designed to prove their excellence—and ultimate worth—as ideal Chinese citizens; and the assessment process is a life and death prospect.

Hounded and hunted in the outside world, Chinese survivors are willing to risk anything to get into Rich-Man Hill. Contestants are fitted with collars, which Mother and Child use to manipulate and discipline with painful shocks. In between challenges, contestants view propaganda videos (by Zeesy Powers) showing Mother and Child enjoying a loving, trusting relationship in a breath-taking, verdant landscape highlighted by a refreshing waterfall. The Woman and Man both have secrets they’re keeping from Mother, but share with each other in an attempt to connect and work together to get through the trials. Meanwhile, Mother and Child find they don’t agree on the standards Mother has set; the more narrow-minded, old-school Mother is much more stringent on who is deemed worthy, while Child is more progressive and desires more modern, forward-thinking parameters.

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Amanda Zhou & Bessie Cheng. Set & costume design by Jackie Chau. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Video design by Zeesy Powers. Photo by: Cesar Ghisilieri.

Great work from the ensemble, balancing the dark humour with the disturbing nature of the situation. Leung and Mah have great chemistry as Woman and Man; both are strong-willed and determined, but realize that they must try to get along and work together, as all the tests are applied to them as a pair. Both deeply troubled and conflicted, the secrets that Man and Woman harbour speak to the core of their identity; and it’s heart-breaking to watch them try to be something they’re not in order to pass the tests and survive. Zhou gives Mother an ethereal air of mystery—a combination spiritual and community leader spouting wisdom and guidance; but beneath Mother’s nurturing exterior is a harsh and unforgiving authoritarian. Cheng’s Child is an innocent, devoted follower and assistant to Mother; but even Child’s loyalty goes only so far—and, despite her more modern-day views, her model is still based on the totalitarian regime already running Rich-Man Hill.

Extreme standards and isolation breed fear and contempt for outsiders and those not deemed the ‘right’ type of Chinese. And with such strict rules for entry and fewer potential contestants at her disposal, Mother risks weakening the community she’s supposed to be protecting.

Yellow Rabbit continues for its final week at the Young Centre, closing on December 1. Get advance tickets online or call the box office: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188. Advance tickets are a must; if a performance appears to be sold out online, check again—as some tickets may be released close to or on the day of.

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.).

Toronto Fringe: Peeling back the layers in the funny, frank, insightful feminist excavation Operation SUNshine

Jennifer McKinley takes us on an unusual reclamation project in her father’s basement bathroom in her one-woman show Operation SUNshine, directed by Clara McBride and running at St. Vladimir Theatre for Toronto Fringe.

Tasked with preparing her father’s home for sale, McKinley tackles the most complex—and unusual—part of the cleaning and purging process: the basement bathroom that was at one time part of her father’s friend Bill’s living space. Walls and ceiling have been wallpapered with Toronto Sun Sunshine Girl clippings. And as she carefully excises these women from their bathroom prison, she discovers more than just a collection of pin-up girls.

Seeing these images as a piece of childhood/family history—not to mention that they present real women living real lives away from their photo shoots—instead of simply scraping the photos off, McKinley chooses to carefully cut and peel. Rescuing these photos and the lives that go with them, she preserves as many of the images as she can and reads the news stories of the day on the other side of each photo page. What she finds are many stories of tragedy and loss—missing and murdered women and children, and the men who put them there—that still resonate 25 years later in that they are still all too common.

The physical activity of removing the photos becomes introspective, inspiring memories of family history, as well as curiosity about the lives of these women. Using specific physical and vocal attributes, McKinley creates a series of compelling, often funny, sharply defined characters, including her father and her younger selves—and a selection of her (and Bill’s) favourite Sunshine Girls. These are women who enjoy their bodies and their sexuality, in some cases promoting themselves and/or earning a living. The rescue mission turns into a feminist excavation—of these models, the accompanying male gaze and, most importantly, of personal self-discovery. She uncovers a hidden part of herself, one that involved choices intended to make herself invisible and safe.

Peeling back the layers in the funny, frank, insightful feminist excavation Operation SUNshine.

Operation SUNshine continues at St. Vladimir Theatre until July 15; advance tickets available online.