Toronto Fringe: Love, joy & taming dragons in the funny, frank, moving The Clergy Project

A rabbi, a minister and a priest walk into a theatre…

Happy Fringe, guys! I started my Toronto Fringe adventures with the opening of Soulo Theatre’s production of The Clergy Project, directed by Tracey Erin Smith, which played to a sold-out house and a standing ovation last night at First Narayever Congregation.

It’s no secret that I love this show; I’ve seen two previous incarnations, most recently in November 2016 at Revival. For Fringe, the show has a BYOV arrangement—and the show sold out its entire run before it even opened!

City Shul Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, First Unitarian Congregation minister Reverend Shawn Newton and Anglican priest Reverend Daniel Brereton took Tracey’s Soulo Theatre solo show workshop—in a class specifically designed to create a space for members of the clergy to tell their stories. Realizing they had much in common despite their different titles and faith backgrounds, the three clergy took a different path from the usual solo show class presentation at the end of the workshop; The Clergy Project is the fruit of their combined labours, weaving in and out of their three individual personal stories.

From the hilarious faith-specific lightbulb jokes, to recounting the call to ministry, to sharing the challenges they face—including situations not covered in their seminary days—to their reasons for doing what they do, all three share the real-life experiences of their jobs with candor and humour. The combination of personalities makes the show:  the shit-disturbing, kick-ass Elyse; Shawn with the wry wit and a twinkle in his eye; and the cheeky, playful Daniel. The frank, funny, heartbreaking—and ultimately inspiring—storytelling reveals their shared attributes of sass, determination and empathy. And the Fringe version has an additional hysterically funny tale from Daniel about his experience directing his first Christmas pageant!

Delivered with heart, soul, humour, and a genuine desire to connect and share personal stories, The Clergy Project is less about religion and more about the humanity of those who minister—aptly illustrating what Tracey Erin Smith and Soulo Theatre are all about. Like Smith says, “Everyone has a story.”

Love, joy and taming dragons in the funny, frank, moving The Clergy Project.

The Clergy Project continues at First Narayever Congregation until July 16, with performances on July 6, 12 and 13 at 8pm, and July 9 and 16 at 4pm. The run is sold out, but if you get there early, you can get yourself on the waiting list (some folks got in last night). The 90-minute showtime includes a brief post-show talkback.

 

Family legacy, identity & repressed anger released in the sharply funny, biting Bad Jews

Rebecca Applebaum, Kristopher Turner & Daniel Krantz in Bad Jews—photo by Dahlia Katz

 

We’re all invited to crash at Jonah and Liam’s as we pay our last respects to their grandfather in the Koffler Centre of the Arts’ production of Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews, directed by Michèle Lonsdale-Smith. Bad Jews opened last night in the Small World Music Centre at Artscape Youngplace.

Set in an shoe box-sized NYC studio apartment, which Jonah (Daniel Krantz) and Liam’s (Kristopher Turner) parents bought so they could have a place to stay in their building during the funeral, Bad Jews takes us on an emotional journey as we get a taste of the repressed anger, hidden resentments, judgements and expectations of this family. The apartment becomes a physical representation of the claustrophobic, everyone in everyone else’s business that is the family dynamic—especially potent among this group of 20-somethings, who are in the midst of establishing their own lives and identities while they navigate parental, cultural and religious expectations.

We first meet Jonah, lounging on a double air mattress in his dress shirt, boxers and yarmulke, playing video games. The brothers’ cousin Daphna (Rebecca Applebaum) has been staying with him on the pull-out couch. It’s just after the funeral and there is a quiet, exhausted atmosphere as Daphna hangs up their clothes and attempts conversation. She’s pissed that Liam missed the funeral; he was in Aspen with his girlfriend, lost his phone and didn’t get the message in time, and is due that night, girlfriend in tow. There’s something of their grandfather’s that Daphna desperately wants; a precious family heirloom, a piece of jewellery given to their grandfather by his father and kept safely hidden during the Holocaust. She wants Jonah’s blessing; he doesn’t want it, but he’s unwilling to take sides and wants nothing to do with the decision.

When Liam arrives with his non-Jewish girlfriend Melody (Julia Vally), Jonah learns that not only does Liam want the treasured family heirloom, he’s already got it. Both Daphna and Liam have very good reasons for wanting the necklace; and both have very different approaches and perceptions toward their family’s Jewish traditions and faith. Coupled with perceptions of entitlement, family loyalty and being a ‘good’ Jew, things get ugly between them pretty fast. It’s clear these two already don’t like each other and the battle over their grandfather’s jewelry is steeped in long-term, ongoing resentment. Melody tries to act as mediator, but ultimately can’t break through—no wonder, as she’s just been introduced to the family and has no idea about the history behind the verbal savagery she’s witnessing. In the end, we’re left with just Jonah and Daphna again—only now, the tone and atmosphere of their conversation is quite different. And further revelations emerge after the cathartic blow-out.

Lovely work from the cast in this claustrophobic and caustic dark comedy. As director Lonsdale-Smith pointed out during the post-show talkback, anger is motivated by fear; the fear of letting people go, death, identity, how we may take a different path from our parents—and these characters are angry. Krantz does a beautiful job with the soft-spoken, mild-mannered Jonah’s complexity and inner conflict. Jonah gives the impression of being checked out and disinterested, and perhaps even not as smart as his older brother and cousin, but he’s aware and listening—and he feels things more deeply than you might think as he struggles with his grief. Applebaum, who identifies as mixed race (half Asian, raised Jewish), used her lived experience to bring scope to her laser-focused performance as the sharply intellectual, self-righteous Daphna. A super observant Jew, and a Vassar student bound for Israel, rabbinical school and the army, Daphna is always looking for a debate, if not an outright fight. Constantly on the lookout for fault in others, Daphna’s devotion is of the holier than thou, selectively fundamentalist variety—but much of this is a shield for a deeply wounded, lonely soul.

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Rebecca Applebaum, Julia Vally & Kristopher Turner in Bad Jews—photo by Dahlia Katz

Turner brings a ferocity and intellectual vigour to Liam, who’s chosen a more secular path and even changed his name. The eldest son of a well-off family, there’s more than a whiff of entitlement about Liam, and his anger is vicious when it erupts; however, his wish to mirror a gift their grandfather made to their grandmother reveals the depth of his love and appreciation for family and for Melody. Vally gives a great sense of firmness and strength to the sweet-natured, genuinely good Melody. A former opera student who loves music, but in the end decided that career path wasn’t for her, Melody is an administrator at a non-profit organization—helping others is in her blood, but she can’t seem to help Liam’s family issue. How could she?

Ultimately, as Turner mentioned toward the end of the talkback, this is a play about family—the history, the love, and intellectual and emotional dynamic that twists and turns across generations and through time. And nothing brings out the good, bad and the ugly like family, especially during meaningful, emotionally fraught family gatherings.

Family legacy, identity and repressed anger released in the sharply funny, biting Bad Jews.

Bad Jews continues in the Small World Music Centre at Artscape Youngplace until June 4; get your advance tix online via the show page or through Eventbrite. Advance booking recommended; it’s an intimate venue, fitting with the cramped space of an NYC studio apartment.

A delightful, insightful evening with Oscar in the witty, thoughtful Introducing Mr. Wilde, or Work is the Curse of the Drinking Class

Red Sandcastle Theatre A.D. Rosemary Doyle has teamed up with Jennifer Watson and Dorian Hart to launch The Wilde Festival, which opened with its inaugural production of Neil Titley’s one-man show Introducing Mr. Wilde, or Work is the Curse of the Drinking Class at Red Sandcastle’s storefront space at Queen St. East and Logan, Toronto last week.

Hart sets the tone for Titley’s intimate performance with a pre-show selection of beautiful nocturnes by Irish composer/pianist John Field, who invented the Nocturne. Field’s work served as an inspiration for Frederic Chopin’s compositions—and Chopin was a favourite of Wilde’s.

Introducing Mr. Wilde is performed in three parts. When Titley first appears onstage, it is as himself—in affable, accessible lecturer mode. Engaging and entertaining, he offers up a brief history of the show—which has been performed all over the world and to great acclaim at the Edinburgh Festival—and a quick timeline overview of Wilde’s life. In particular, we track Wilde’s 1882 lecture tour to Toronto; and Titley found the only venue still standing, not demolished or destroyed by fire, is Niagara Falls. And Wilde was apparently unimpressed by the great wonder of nature. Perhaps he only saw the American side.

Then, something truly remarkable happens. Titley transports us to 1898, to a Paris café where he shifts from himself as 2017 lecturer to Oscar Wilde, a year after he was released from his two-year prison sentence. The transformation is remarkable, both physically and vocally. As Wilde, he regales us with thoughts and anecdotes—with razor sharp wit, charm, unapologetic irreverence, and disdain for the mediocre and disingenuous. It’s not all fun and satire, though. There is an impassioned, deeply moving account of his experience in jail; and combined with that keen observation and ability to poke fun at society, it makes for a lovely nuanced, mercurial and poignant performance. Titley masterfully evokes the energy of Wilde; so much so, you can feel you’re sitting in the room with him.

Through it all, even when times are at their roughest, we see a man intent on pursuing a life of pleasure, art and beauty. Sucking the marrow out of life, even in his final days of penury and failing health, Wilde is the soul of wit to the end—a man who made the most of his life until his death at 46 in a Paris hotel.

We then return to 2017 to a short Q&A with Titley, during which one audience member asked if it was true that Wilde’s final words were “One of us has to go,” referring to the wallpaper in his hotel room. It’s highly likely. However, there is some question about his death bed conversion to Catholicism; it’s possible that his gesture in response to Ross’s query to bring a priest was misinterpreted—and he wasn’t signaling affirmation, but rather reaching for a cigarette. So his conversion could have been entirely accidental.

This is a must for all Oscar Wilde fans—or even if you’re just curious about the man. Whether you know a lot or nothing about him, it’s an entertaining and informative ride. I hear Titley is heading out on a cross-country train trip next week. If VIA Rail is smart, they’ll let him perform the show on the train.

A delightful, insightful evening with Oscar in lecture and first-person musings in the witty, thoughtful Introducing Mr. Wilde, or Work is the Curse of the Drinking Class.

Introducing Mr. Wilde, or Work is the Curse of the Drinking Class continues at Red Sandcastle until Jan 15; reserve your spot in advance by emailing redsandcastletheatre@gmail.com or by calling 416-845-9411.

Keep an eye out for future Wilde Festival productions; the website is under construction (look out for it at thewildefestival.com). In the meantime, check out this interview with Doyle about the The Wilde Festival in Xtra.

Photo: Neil Titley – by Jennifer Watson.

SummerWorks: A young woman’s journey through confusing, crazy times toward empowerment & love in The Emancipation of Ms. Lovely

TheEmancipationofMs.Lovely-400x580“Today my heart broke,” said the seed, “it itched and ached, I was smashed to pieces.”
“Ahh,” said the burning sun, “you were growing, to blossom you have to break.” – Ngozi Paul

With today’s hand-held devices, and instant news and social media access, bad news travels even faster than before. The nature of the injustices we see – particularly those against marginalized and racialized people, and especially women and children – coupled with the sheer amount of information bombarding us every day, can be overwhelming and exhausting as we try to absorb and make sense of it all. All while we go about our own daily lives in search of growth, healing – and love.

It is this world that the heroine of The Emancipation of Ms. Lovely must navigate as she becomes herself and reaches out into the world for love. Written and performed by Ngozi Paul, directed by d’bi.young anitafrika, choreographed by Roger C. Jeffrey – and featuring music, performed on stage, by musicians/composers Waleed Abdulhamid and DJ L’Oqenz AKA Non – the play is an exciting offering of SummerWorks’ 2015 theatre series, running at the Factory Theatre Studio.

Lovely’s story is told through a series of a present day scenes of a sexual encounter and flashbacks to her youth. Growing up with her mother and grandmother, Lovely danced and sang to Jem and the Holograms, aspired to the strength of TV’s Wonder Woman, and adored Paula Abdul. Then came an interest in boys, and with it the pressure to “be cool,” and to behave and dress for them – something that Lovely struggles with, being the energetic girl that she is, and one who wears her heart on her sleeve. Then, the discovery of sex and intimate relationships – easily hurt with her heart out there like that – and the detachment of casual hook-ups and infidelity. Constantly getting the message – from family, friends, boyfriends and media – that her body and sexuality don’t belong to her, she loses sight of her true self, and judges herself and her body in the reflections of others. Until she has to ask herself: “What are you doing?”

Woven throughout Lovely’s story, in first person voice-over, is the story of Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman, a 19th century black woman who was paraded around Europe as a human zoo attraction, her large buttocks used as a selling point – a “specimen” of an exotic black female, hyper-sexualized and exploited. So much so that after her death, her bones and vagina were on display in France for 200 years. Of Baartman’s story and its inclusion in the play, Paul writes: “On a quest to understand how I learned to love, what I understand about my body, my life, a woman’s life and what a black woman’s life means in the 21st century, I was introduced to reflections of myself in the cellular memory of Sarah Baartman.”

Brilliant performance from Paul – and one that includes movement, dance and physical theatre. Her characterizations are engaging and truthful, with a lovely combination of comedy and poignancy – from her watchful and critical grandmother, who doesn’t want shame brought upon the family; to the contagious energy of their church preacher, who blames Eve for man’s falling out with God; to the men who try to seduce her and those who succeed. And the bright-eyed, open-hearted Lovely – excited about growing up, and full of desire and longing. Longing for more than just good sex, but for love. While Paul’s story includes aspects specific to women of colour, it resonates with all women.

The minimalist set is very effective for this production (something that director young anitafrika pushed for as an alternative to Paul’s vision of a more multimedia, high-tech set-up). The nine identical full-length mirrors that cup the playing area serve to reflect the action of Lovely’s story, allowing for viewing at multiple angles. And the way the mirrors are used throughout shifts from child’s fairytale fantasy props to silent reflections of judgment and negative thoughts about body image.

A young woman’s journey through complex, confusing and crazy times toward ownership of her body and sexuality on the way to finding love in the powerful, high-energy and inspirational The Emancipation of Ms. Lovely.

The Emancipation of Ms. Lovely continues at the Factory Theatre Studio until Aug 16 and includes a talkback after the show – check the show page for exact dates/times.

Cinematic, diabolically fun trip to the dark side – Cine Monstro @ PROGRESS fest

CineMTop-620x372A kid who’s fascination with his weird next door neighbours turns to morbid fixation following a horrific event in their home.

A boyfriend and girlfriend constantly fight as she longs for marriage and a baby, and he gropes for an unknown something that’s just out of reach.

A recovering addict drawn to screenwriting envisions an edgy, quirky love story featuring an eerily familiar flashback scene.

Appalled by his own script, a filmmaker brings his film shoot to an abrupt halt in an effort to disengage from – and disown – the darkness portrayed.

All hosted by the devilishly charming narrator Adam, his Puck-like mischievousness tinged with malevolence.

White flats stretch across expanse of the playing space upstage, serving as a screen for the projected atmospheric and scenic images. A clear plastic chair with an accompanying glass table, bearing mostly glasses of water and one glass of red wine, sits centre stage. It is here that performer/producer/co-translator/co-director Enrique Diaz spends most of the play – but only after hanging out with the audience a while, and then offering an introduction and instructions as to how the play will begin.

Which all happens when he rides a red tricycle around the stage and the lights go to black out. We have begun.

This is Cine Monstro, a Portuguese translation (by way of Brazil) of Daniel MacIvor’s Monster, translated Barbara Duvivier with Diaz, directed by Marcio Abreu and presented/curated by Why Not Theatre for SummerWorks’ inaugural PROGRESS international festival of performance and ideas at the Theatre Centre.

It was my first time seeing this play – in any language – and my initial concern about splitting my attention between the English surtitles and the action onstage was quickly dispelled. Cine Monstro is a dynamic, sight and sound-filled trip. And I’ll never hear “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” (which folks may remember from the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid film soundtrack) again.

Diaz is an engaging and compelling storyteller, skillfully weaving in and out of the various characters and scenarios with truth and a sense of the present, balancing light and dark with the warmth of his voice and the sharpness in his eyes.

Following last night’s performance, Why Not Theatre A.D. Ravi Jain moderated a talkback with Diaz and MacIvor, who took questions from Jain and the audience, as well as a brief interview (in English and Portuguese) with Omni TV. And it was Jain who was the connecting thread between the two artists.

MacIvor described the process of creating Monster, taking inspiration from the film world, reading The Fifth Child, the impending birth of a friend’s baby, among other things. Diaz first saw MacIvor perform in two-hander In on It in New York, and was fascinated by the layers, structure and humour of the piece – and the work the audience must do in the process of watching.

Last night was the first time MacIvor saw Cine Monstro, and while he seems to be less comfortable with interpretations of his one-person shows in general (which are more his babies, as he both wrote and performed them), he is pleased with this production and marvelled at Diaz’s multitasking. Diaz described his experience as an exercise in relaxing into the piece, focusing on the text and getting any sense of ego out of the way.
Jain remarked how present the text is when one is watching a show with surtitles: “we engage with the ideas in a different way – engaging with the text itself.” Diaz was nervous about whether the audience would follow the show, with their attention divided between the watching the action and reading the text (translated back from Portuguese to English, while maintaining the original English script) – but we were fine.

The question of language rhythm came up: was it an issue with the translation? This didn’t seem to factor into the show as much as what the actor brings to the performance. MacIvor spoke of approaching it differently – with tension and rapid pacing, barely moving from the chair throughout his performance. He also remarked how he found Diaz’s interpretation warmer in tone, with a stronger placement in the film world – especially evidenced by the “Cine” in the title of the translation, which reveals Diaz’s intention to immerse the audience in the story. Diaz worked with the translation as an actor, and seems to have taken an organic approach, as opposed to focusing on the rhythm of the language per se.

An audience member asked about the reception in Brazil, as the origins of the piece are very Canadian. Diaz found that cultural differences were not an issue, as the audience engaged with the characters’ experiences and the themes of the storytelling. Nor were there any issues of regional differences as Diaz performed the piece around Brazil. This is storytelling at its best – so these findings are not so surprising. Good storytelling is good storytelling.

Another audience member wondered if having an original work interpreted by others around the world represented a shift in MacIvor’s work – a “revisiting of the Canadian cannon,” as it were. Whether this is an overly optimistic outlook or not, with Cine Monstro, Diaz has made the piece his own and has introduced MacIvor’s theatrical storytelling to a whole new audience.

With shouts to the design team: Simone Mina (set), Batman Zavareze and Nathalie Melot (video), Maneco Quindere (lights) and Lucas Marcier (music).

Cine Monstro is a diabolically funny trip into the flickering dark and light of the destructive side of the human spirit.

You have one last chance to see Cine Monstro: tonight (Sat, Feb 14) at 8p.m. – the place was packed last night, so I strongly suggest that you book ahead. In the meantime, check out the Cine Monstro trailer on the Why Not Theatre website.

 

PROGRESS announcement: Cine Monstro talk back with MacIvor & Diaz following Feb 13 performance

CineMTop-620x372The folks at PROGRESS announced today a not to be missed event following the February 13 performance of Cine Monstro, the Portuguese adaptation of Daniel MacIvor’s much lauded play (translated by Barbara Duvivier and Enrique Diaz), Monster: a talk back featuring playwright Daniel MacIvor and director/performer/co-translator Enrique Diaz.

A dynamic, one-man piece of storytelling, Cine Monstro weaves “a series of storylines that link multiple characters to one unsettling event.”

Created in Brazil, Cine Monstro is presented/curated in partnership with Why Not Theatre with the support of the Department of Canadian Heritage.

Cine Monstro runs February 12-14 at the Theatre Centre; the piece will be performed in Portuguese with English subtitles. You can get advance tix online.

Toronto Fringe NSTF: Big rhapsodic fun with sketch comedy in Unbridled & Unstable

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Gwynne Phillips & Briana Templeton in Unbridled & Unstable

My second opening night show at the Next Stage Theatre Festival (NSTF) in the Factory Theatre Studio last night was The Templeton Philharmonic’s production of Gwynne Phillips’ and Briana Templeton’s sketch comedy romp Unbridled and Unstable.

From the moment they appear through the mist astride their noble steeds Dvorak and Duchovny (riding side saddle, of course), Philips and Templeton take the audience on an engaging, satirical ride of sketches: Victorian equestrian ladies, a book club discussion, a 1950s amateur foley artist radio show, a real estate agent’s absurd home showing and audience participation horse racing.

Drawing on psychological dramas and thrillers of the 50s and 60s, Phillips’ and Templeton’s voice and diction work is spot on. Most of the sketches are two-handers, but the gals break out for solo efforts: Templeton’s hilarious historic romance novelist reading, and Phillips as the drunken and inappropriately frank Aunt Gloria, staggering down memory lane as she describes the photos in a family album to the kids. Throw in some wacky fun dance breaks – with nods to disco, Michael Jackson’s Thriller video and Truly Scrumptious’s music box doll from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – and you’ve got one ripping good time.

Added bonus: Templeton Philharmonic merch is available for purchase before the show and the program notes include saucy renderings of horses by Philips, Templeton and SM/Associate Producer Vanessa K. Purdy.

Unbridled and Unstable is a big, rhapsodic fun trip though some sharp-witted and highly entertaining sketch comedy. Somewhere, Dorothy Parker is raising a martini glass to these two wacky, smart and fun-loving gals.

Unbridled and Unstable continues in the Factory Theatre Studio until Sun, Jan 18 – with a talkback at The Hoxton following the show on Sun, Jan 11. Click here for advance tix.