Real-life ghost stories come out of the dark in the compelling, entertaining, thoughtful The Ghost Project

Karie Richards. Photo by Tanja-Tiziana.

 

Playwright/performer/producer Karie Richards opened the Toronto premiere of her documentary solo show The Ghost Project to a sold-out house in the BMO Incubator at The Theatre Centre last night. Originally directed by Jeff Culbert, The Ghost Project was a hit at the Fringe circuit, premiering at the Halifax Fringe 2018, and went on to the London Fringe and Winnipeg Fringe in 2019. Distilling 13 stories from 28 interviews with friends and family, Richards weaves a series of monologues, all told in the first person, from the storyteller’s point of view—capturing the gamut of emotional and rational responses; and exploring the thoughts, feelings and questions about what happens to us after we die. The result is a compelling, entertaining and thoughtful piece of verbatim storytelling.

Do you believe in ghosts? Have you ever encountered one? While Karie Richards isn’t sure what she thinks, she believes the stories told to her by friends and family—personal experiences with spiritual manifestations that defy explanation and everyday frame of reference; and that ultimately make us question the nature of the afterlife. Each real-life character reveals their story, be it from their university days, childhood or adulthood, or even an experience their child had while they were present. People reacting and responding in the moment; and, in some cases, wondering aloud what it all means. Are these the actual souls or spirits of the departed, or the energy traces they left behind? Or are these encounters a chance look through a thin veil of everyday reality, providing a glimpse of another time or plane of existence while the one experiencing it remains rooted in their own?

Encounters with, and messages from, deceased loved ones; former homeowners looking in on new residents/guests; and unexplained events at a haunted theatre space (Alumnae Theatre folk and fans will be familiar) all come into play—with manifestations ranging from malevolent to friendly, frightening to calming, everyday to ethereal. Experiences of shadowy figures blacker than the darkness, a floating blue girl, a surprising encounter during an Indigenous ceremony, the comfort of a nurturing parental energy, and the high-spirited insistence of a youthful presence that evoked profound responses for the storyteller emerge in Richards’ performance. Navigating myriad emotions, from paralyzing fear, to grief and loss, confusion, relief and joy, each character is vulnerable, curious, wonder-struck and thoughtful. Do these spirits want to be noticed and acknowledged? Are they relieving boredom with their spooky shenanigans? Do they have something to tell us?

Deftly shifting from character to character—signified by the collection and return of a single costume piece or prop from a wardrobe, and remarkable adjustments to voice, facial expression and posture—with a gentle calmness and the care of ceremony, Richards conjures up each storyteller for us, presenting with nuance and profound sensitivity the experiences, reactions and thoughts of each. And her carefully, finely-drawn embodiment of each storyteller makes for a compelling and entertaining performance that goes beyond the storytelling itself. In many cases, it’s the first time the storyteller has revealed their experience to anyone—requiring a high level of trust in, and comfort with, Richards during the interview process that preceded the creation of the piece. The results are eerie, funny, deeply moving and thought-provoking.

Richards’ performance is nicely supported by Glenn Davidson’s minimalist, effective production design, as well as John Sheard’s haunting composition, and atmospheric sound effects supplied by Peter Thillaye and Steve Munro.

Whatever you believe, The Ghost Project engages as much as it challenges the audience to open up and reach out into the unknown—and entertain the suggestion that death is not the end of our journey, but the beginning of a new one. If you have the opportunity, stick around for the post-show talkback, where audience members are invited to ask questions and share their own ghost stories.

The Ghost Project continues in the Incubator space at the Theatre Centre until January 26, with evening performances at 7:00 p.m., and matinées on Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are available online, in person at the box office, or by calling 416-538-0988. It’s a very short run and seating is limited, so advance booking or early arrival is strongly recommended; please note the 7:00 p.m. curtain time for evening performances.

 

 

NSTF: Love, grief & celebrating life in the deeply moving, resonant musical Every Silver Lining

Allison Wither & Laura Piccinin. Photo by Tanja-Tiziana.

 

Silver Lining Productions brings its Toronto Fringe 2019 breakout musical theatre hit Every Silver Lining to the Factory Theatre Mainspace for the Next Stage Theatre Festival. Written by Laura Piccinin and Allison Wither, and directed by Jennifer Stewart, with music direction by Aaron Eyre, Every Silver Lining takes us on a journey of love, friendship, grief and a celebration of life as a family and a group of high school students navigate the loss of a son, brother and friend to cancer. The songs are both profoundly insightful, revealing and catchy—resonating deep in the heart—performed with impressive vocal chops and great sensitivity.

Seventeen-year-old Andrew (Daniel Karp) has leukemia and is looking forward to his last round of chemo. Hiding his illness from even his closest friends, he just wants to get back to school, hang out with his friends and live as normal a life as possible. He and his teen sister Clara (Allison Wither) are good buds, but since his diagnosis, she’s been feeling invisible at home, drowning in the extreme life-changing routine and tension-filled atmosphere; and even having to put some of her own life on hold while she drives Andrew to appointments and keeps him company during chemo sessions. Their mother Judy (Alison J Palmer) is fearful and hovering, and getting on Andrew’s nerves; and dad Kevin (Luke Marty) is caught in the middle, acting as peacemaker between his wife and son while the family lives with the stress and uncertainty of Andrew’s prognosis.

At school, Clara’s BFF Emily (Laura Piccinin) gently prods and advises her on how to get to know the cute new guy Ben (Alex Furber). Clara’s not sure she’s up for it, but finds herself drawn to Ben; and Andrew is happy to be back with his gamer friends Jeremy (Joel Cumber), Bev (Jada Rifkin) and Sam (Ben Skipper). This period of apparent normalcy is short-lived as Andrew comes down with a critical infection, and his chances for further treatment are gone.

Andrew’s friends are stunned to learn of his death—especially as they hadn’t known he was ill—and find themselves facing the death of a loved one their own age for the first time. They’re well-supported by their arts and science teacher Ms. Vella (Starr Domingue), who gives them space to share their thoughts and feelings. Dealing with so many feelings—about Andrew, dealing with school work and tests, blossoming feelings of attraction—and experiencing the various stages of grief is painful and confusing. But, ultimately, the friends pull together to support each other, remember Andrew and celebrate his life.

Delivered with heart and impressive vocal chops—and nicely supported by musicians Aaron Eyre (piano), Erika Nielsen (cello) and Alex Panneton (percussion)—the cast takes us from laughter to tears; performing beautifully composed songs featuring moving and catchy melodies, resonant counter melodies, and soaring harmonies. Karp gives the outgoing Daniel a combination of brave face and resilient resistance; struggling, even fighting, for normalcy when his life has been turned upside down in the face of an unknown outcome. Wither’s performance as the introverted, irreverent Clara is a nuanced portrait of a teen working through complex, challenging times; the sometimes tough, give no fucks exterior belies her inner conflict and fear of losing her brother. She loves her brother, but she hates what the disease is doing to him and their family; and feels guilty for doing so. Palmer and Marty’s grounded, present performances as parents Judy and Kevin run the gamut from hope to despair; Palmer’s loving helicopter mom and Marty’s supportive middleman dad are doing the best they can while facing the unthinkable loss of a child.

Furber gives an adorkably lovable performance as the cute, somewhat nerdy Ben; there are some lovely moments with Wither as Ben and Clara get to know each other and explore their growing attraction. Piccinin and Cumber add some great, and much needed, comic relief as the effervescent extrovert Emily and the goofy, fun-loving Jeremy. Piccinin gives Emily a warm, protective, enveloping hug vibe, while Cumber’s Jeremy is more sensitive than at first glance, using gentle humour to support his friends through their grief. Rifkin gives a poignant performance as the socially awkward Bev; and Skipper does a nice job revealing Sam’s anger about Andrew’s death, and toward Andrew himself, as Sam deals with his grief. Domingue is lovely, engaging and supportive as Ms. Vella; and makes for an understanding, approachable oncologist.

Profoundly poignant and inspiring—and full of spirit, hope and love—in the end, Every Silver Lining is about recognizing and being open to the love and support of family and friends during times of fear, loss and grief; and sharing, remembering and celebrating the life of the departed loved one as part of the acknowledgment of, and working through, the stages of the mourning process.

Every Silver Lining continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until January 19; check the show page for exact dates, times and advance ticket purchase.

Power, politics & poison in the wickedly funny, sexy, irreverent Bella Donna

Françoise Balthazar, Paul Hopkins & Chelsea Russell. Photo by Tanja-Tiziana.

 

The Bella Donna Artists Collective opened a new, revised production of David Copelin’s Bella Donna, directed by Anita La Selva, to a sold out house at the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace last night. Examining the political intrigue during the latter part of Lucrezia Borgia’s life through a 21st century lens, the wicked funny, sexy and irreverent script features all the salacious intrigue and backroom power plays one would expect—focusing on how she, and other women of the day, wielded political and sexual power despite social, legal and religious limitations.

Like her father Rodrigo (Pope Alexander VI) before her, Lucrezia (Françoise Balthazar) is the subject of grudging select fear and respect, as well as derision and vicious gossip. She’s onto her third husband, Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrera (Paul Hopkins), who has taken his ward and goddaughter Contessa Angela Di Ghilini (Chelsea Russell) as his mistress. As with all of her marriages, this union was arranged by her father for political gain—in this case, d’Este’s army—and Lucrezia is aware of, and disinterested in, her husband’s extramarital dalliances.

Dewey Stewart & Françoise Balthazar. Set & costume design by Jan Venus. Lighting design by Waleed Ansari. Photo by Rene Stakenborg. 

When Alfonso receives word from Rome that Pope Julius II has excommunicated them, and by association all of Ferrera, over allegations of immoral and criminal acts (see rumours about Lucrezia), the house is thrown into a tizzy, prompting Lucrezia to travel to Rome to try to reverse the decision. It is there that she meets Giovanni (Dewey Stewart), a handsome young captain in the Pope’s elite guard. Both in disguise for a masked ball when they meet, Giovanni—who loathes the Borgias, out of duty to the current Pope and based on rumour—doesn’t believe she is who she says she is and the two embark on an affair. We also meet Lucrezia’s friend and confidante Sister Bibiana (Martha Chaves), who acts as an informant for Lucrezia and Alfonso.

Giovanni, on the heels of Lucrezia after she slips away from Rome, is captured and beaten by Alfonso’s henchman Carlo (Michael Giordano); Alfonso has learned of Lucrezia’s tryst with the young captain, and forces her to choose between throat slitting or poison for his execution. An expert with poison and antidotes, she chooses the latter, a decision that offers Giovanni not only the opportunity to live another day, but to meet the lovely young Angela. Like Giovanni, Angela’s derision of Lucrezia melts when she gets to actually know her—and she gets a quick tutorial on Lucrezia’s signature poison, the titular belladonna (deadly nightshade), mixed with snake venom, from Sister Bibiana.

Of course, since we’re talking about the Borgias and the cut-throat politics of that time and place, someone does die and there’s a question about the lineage of someone else—and you’ll have to go see for yourself to find out who. Death, sex, alliances and even devotion to the Catholic Church all hinge on expediency, convenience and political advantage; vengeance is swift and sure, and life such as it is carries on in spite of it all.  Oh—and there’s puppets!

Chelsea Russell & Dewey Stewart. Set & costume design by Jan Venus. Lighting design by Waleed Ansari. Photo by Rene Stakenborg. 

Balthazar gives a stellar performance as the sultry, cunning Lucrezia—a role that seems tailor-made for her, as it showcases her compelling presence and vocal strength. Although technically lower in rank than her husband, Lucrezia is Alfonso’s match in every way: politically savvy, highly intelligent and possessing of an unabashed sexual appetite. Where the two diverge is apparent in Alfonso’s pompous, cruel sense of entitlement, which Hopkins executes with charming yet vicious precision.

Russell is highly entertaining as the bored little rich girl Angela, whose shade-casting ways turn to respect when she actually gets to know Lucrezia; also shouts to her for the puppet show, a hilariously irreverent Punch and Judy-like faceoff between Pope Alexander VI and Pope Julius II (design and construction by Jan Venus). Stewart is a delight as the brash, lusty Giovanni; a one-time true believer of Lucrezia’s rumoured unsavoury reputation, he too becomes a convert when he gets to know her, both biblically and otherwise. Chaves is a treat as the impish, wily Sister Bibiana; like Lucrezia, there’s more than meets the eye to this little nun—and you don’t want to get on the wrong side of those expert snake-handling hands. And Giordano’s strong, mostly silent henchman Carlo adds a gangland-flavoured comic edge.

Poison is often dismissed, mainly by men, as a “woman’s weapon.” But as we see from Sister Bibiana’s chemistry lesson and Lucrezia Borgia’s mastery of it—it involves science, skill and subtlety. And while the use of a plant to kill is perhaps a more velvet glove approach compared to the brute force of cold steel, it gets the job done. After all, one must use what weapons one has at one’s disposal. Underestimate the power of such weapons, and those who wield them, at your peril. Misunderstood, maligned and underestimated, Lucrezia Borgia is a survivor turned thriver, evolving from political bargaining chip to political force in her own right. Just don’t tell the men that.

Bella Donna continues in the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace until June 1; performances run Tues-Sat at 8 pm, with matinées on Sundays at 2:30 pm. Get advance tickets online or at the door (PWYC rush tickets available on Tuesdays and Sundays).

 

NSTF: Story time for grown-ups with three solo tales—and one is a big fat lie—in the funny, frank Two Truths & a Lie

Pressgang Theatre serves up some storytelling meets game show fun with Two Truths and a Lie, created by and featuring Graham Isador, Helder Brum and Rhiannon Archer, and directed by Tom Arthur Davis. The action is happening at the Toronto Fringe Next Stage Theatre Festival (NSTF), upstairs in the Factory Theatre Antechamber.

Think you’re good at spotting a tall tale that’s way too unbelievable to be true? Test your skills and enjoy some good times as Archer, Brum and Isador share personal anecdotes. Two of them are telling the truth and one is lying to your face.

Over the course of 30 minutes, each storyteller serves up a hilarious, supposedly true, story of determination, patience and heartache. Each performer has a distinct presence and delivery style. Archer is a high-energy delight and an unapologetically ambitious firecracker in her story. Brum is endearingly self-deprecating and hilariously frank as he takes us on his journey. And Isador has a wry, introspective, edgy energy as he delivers his personal tale of experience and growth. And one lucky audience member has a chance to win a prize if he/she can determine who’s lying.

Storyteller Jillian Welsh will be joining the gang at the end of the run, on Jan 13-15.

Story time for grown-ups with three solo tales—and one is a big fat lie—in the funny, frank Two Truths and a Lie.

Two Truths and a Lie continues in the Factory Theatre Antechamber until Jan 15. Get your advance tix and passes online; and check out the full NSTF schedule.

Photo: Graham Isador – by Tanja-Tiziana

NSTF: Joke packs a powerful, thought-provoking punch in A Man Walks into a Bar

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Rachel Blair in A Man Walks into a Bar – photo by Tanja Tiziana

Saw another remarkable Toronto Fringe remount last night: Circle Circle’s production of Rachel Blair’s meta theatre social commentary A Man Walks into a Bar, directed by David Matheson, now playing at the Factory Theatre for the Next Stage Theatre Festival (NSTF).

A Man (Blue Bigwood-Mallin) helps a Woman (Blair) tell a joke – and the narrative weaves in and out of role playing as they become a man and a waitress in a bar. It all starts off amiably enough, then the tone shifts to something decidedly different as the Man’s initial helpful demeanour becomes something else.

Bigwood-Mallin and Blair do an amazing job of navigating the scenarios, playing out complex, layered and socially relevant interactions with candor and humour. Blair’s Woman is adorably shy and awkward as she sets up the joke, confessing her nervousness at doing something completely new. As the Man, Bigwood-Mallin is charming and good-humoured, approaching the situation in the spirit of support and assistance. The intensity of their banter, light and punchy in the beginning, builds to a startling conclusion.

I’ve been struggling with what to write here, as I a) don’t want to drop any spoilers and b) realize that my experience of this particular play won’t necessarily be the same as that of others. Here’s what stood out for me. The Man says he wants to be helpful and supportive, but proceeds to continually interrupt the Woman, telling her how to tell the joke. This dynamic initiates a loop of sorts – the repetition of the unheard – and highlights things that guys just don’t get about women’s daily lives, where women have to be on their guard, even with apparently “average,” “nice,” “normal” men. It’s an indictment of a world where women are trying to find their voices and be heard, but men are hijacking the conversation (reminding me of Sen. Claire McCaskill’s famous quote that men should “just shut the hell up”). In addition, men are the ones making the rules, but they get pissed off when women play by those rules and things don’t go the way they expected. Miscommunication and misunderstanding aren’t the same as manipulation and harassment, yet the lines between them get blurred – by mistake or on purpose.

In 2016, when it comes to sexual politics and equality, the joke’s on all of us. And the joke packs a powerful, thought-provoking punch in A Man Walks into a Bar.

A Man Walks into a Bar continues at the Factory Theatre Studio until Jan 17, with a talk back following tonight’s performance (Jan 10) at the Hoxton. Advance booking is strongly recommended – this show was also sold out last night.

To book tickets in advance, call 416-966-1062 or purchase tix online; or you can purchase tickets in at the box office, which opens one hour before the first show of the day. Click here for full ticket/pass info.

NSTF: Sisters are takin’ names and kickin’ butt in From Judy to Bette

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Rebecca Perry in From Judy to Bette: The Stars of Old Hollywood – photo by Tanja Tiziana

The Toronto Fringe’s annual Next Stage Theatre Festival (NSTF) opened at the Factory Theatre last night and I kicked off this year’s festivities with Rebecca Perry Productions’ From Judy to Bette: The Stars of Old Hollywood. Written and performed by Rebecca Perry, and directed by Michael Rubinstein, From Judy to Bette is Perry’s NSTF debut – and a departure from her Redheaded Coffeeshop Girl shows – in this solo cabaret-style homage to four real-life women.

Inspired by four powerhouse performers (Bette Davis, Judy Garland, Betty Hutton and Lucille Ball) who refused to be relegated to the stereotypical female roles of the day, Perry highlights the career highs and lows of these remarkable women with anecdotes, quotes and songs. Perry is no slouch herself, taking us on a 30-minute old Hollywood history tour in a delightfully dynamic and engaging performance of a tight and entertaining script. Accompanied by music director/arranger Quinton Naughton, she gives us some sweet tastes of the tunes that made these women famous, particularly Garland and Hutton, featuring a moving performance of “Over the Rainbow,” a hilarious “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun” and a rousing finale of “Rock-a-by Your Baby With A Dixie Melody.”

With big shouts to the design folks for this production: Edward George (set), Chin Palipane (lighting) and Patricia Whalen (costume and props).

Four talented dames take names and kick butt in old Hollywood in Rebecca Perry’s entertaining and eye-opening solo cabaret From Judy to Bette: The Stars of Old Hollywood.

From Judy to Bette: The Stars of Old Hollywood runs until Jan 17 in the Factory Theatre Antechamber; see the show’s page for exact dates/times. It’s an intimate space – and last night’s opening was sold out – so advance tix are strongly recommended. There will be a talk back following the peformance on Sun, Jan 10 at the Hoxton.

To book tickets in advance, call 416-966-1062 or purchase online; or you can purchase tickets at the box office tent, which opens one hour before the first show of the day (it’s heated and includes a bar featuring tasty warm drinks). Click here for full ticket/pass info.

Check out these great interviews with Perry from In the Greenroom blog  and Stageworthy podcast; Perry was also featured in this week’s brave, bold and beautiful Love Your Body edition of NOW Magazine.

Saturday = Artaday

Yesterday was a day of art and friends – “Artaday,” as my partner in creative crime Lizzie Violet coined it – as we attended two art exhibit openings and a very unique haunted house experience. Here are some highlights, as well as the details, of these events.

5 By 5 exhibit at the Gladstone Hotel Art Bar Gallery features five local artists, who have joined forces for a collaborative painting exhibit:

Jacques Albert uses a mostly subdued palette of earth tones, creating organic, flowing pieces featuring nature and figures that are both moving and haunting.

Brenda Clews combines text and figures using a vibrant primary palette for a series of electric works.

Jennifer Hosein’s beautiful paintings are sometimes disturbing, sometimes ethereal, and water colour-like in a striking use of blues and greens.

Anna Karoliina Koskinen’s works include some lovely snapshot moments of human and animal subjects, the images of people capturing a second’s worth of joy and pensiveness.

Greg Nordoff’s paintings have a sharp photographic quality to them, with images of mysterious, sexy women, as well as finely detailed architecture and portrait work.

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5 By 5 – Brenda Clews performs some of her poetry.
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5 By 5 – Lizzie & Laurie take in Jennifer Hosein’s work.
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5 By 5 – Opening reception guests mingle, with Greg Nordoff’s work in the background.
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5 By 5 – Guests chat, with Jacques Albert’s and Anna Karoliina Koskinen’s work in the background.

5 By 5 closes on October 26, so get on over to the Gladstone Art Bar Gallery.

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Kill Joy’s Kastle – The tour waiting area aka “the Womb”
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Kill Joy’s Kastle – The larger than life Goddess figure.
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Kill Joy’s Kastle – The Carpet Muncha installation.
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Kill Joy’s Kastle – The Hall of Straw Feminists (Liz Lemon & Margaret Thatcher).

Kill Joy’s Kastle at 303 Lansdowne Ave. is a scary fun haunted house trip into women’s studies, feminist thought and gender fluidity. Our tour guide Keith Ann McWoman, a prof at McMaster U., leads us through the space, which features thought-provoking, spooky and humourous images and installations. Totally destroys the stereotypes of joyless, humourless feminists and lesbians by giving these preconceived notions a good send-up. On until October 30 – 4 till 8 p.m. daily or by appointment. Take the alleyway on the south east side to get to the entrance.

Urban Federation of Artists at Gallery Catalyst is a remarkable, edgy and eclectic multi-artist show. Here are some artists that stood out for me:

Nik Beat’s work is a selection of darkly whimsical multi-media collage pieces, featuring images of pop culture and famous musicians.

Dr. Seuss – yes, that Dr. Seuss – unique drawing style is on display, and for sale, in numbered prints of illustrations from some of his most beloved books.

Tanja-Tiziana gorgeous black and white photographs combine nostalgia, memory and iconic architecture.

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Urban Federation of Artists – Opening reception guests mingle & view the art at Gallery Catalyst.
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Urban Federation of Artists – Lizzie Violet & artist Nik Beat.
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Urban Federation of Artists – Nik Beat’s and Alice Zilerberg’s art on display, with pieces & prints available for purchase in the trays below
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Urban Federation of Artists – A live model in full body paint stands in the front window.

Alice Zilerberg’s stunningly beautiful altered photographic images are where dream meets nightmare meets fairy tale.

What art has inspired you recently?