The implications of a kiss: When Raymond met Mimi in a hilarious, moving, cerebral Blind Date

Back by popular demand from its 2015-16 season, Tarragon Theatre wraps its 2016-17 season with Spontaneous Theatre’s production of Blind Date, created by Rebecca Northan. This run of the improv date night hit features Northan, Christy Bruce and Tess Degenstein as rotating Mimis, and Bruce Horak as various other characters.

For those of you not familiar with the show, Mimi (a lovely French clown) has been waiting for her blind date for two hours. Clearly, she’s been stood up, and instead of giving up on her evening, she chooses a man from the audience to be her date (prospective dates have spoken with the Blind Date team before the show and have consented to the possibility of being chosen).

Last night’s date was 44-year-old Raymond, a communications and sociology professor who’s working on his PhD. He grew up in the Annex (a neighbourhood in Toronto) with a single mom and a younger sister, surrounded by strong women in the family. His awareness and appreciation of women and their experience translated into his own identification as a feminist, as well as his earlier work in film, where he made a point of creating roles for women. He also works with autistic kids. I know! A well-educated, socially aware, sweet and gentle man who respects women—Raymond is a catch.

Last night’s Mimi was Rebecca Northan, who set some ground rules before they set out on their evening together: honesty at all times, her date has the option to call a time out for clarification or during moments of discomfort (his date actual date, who Christy Bruce kept company, is allowed one time out call from her seat in the audience), and her date needs to temporarily pretend that he’s single and available for this date with her.

There was a really nice give and take feel to the date, with both Raymond and Mimi engaged, asking questions and being open with their responses. Mimi was clearly impressed by Raymond’s work and accomplishments, especially his identity as a feminist. Some truly engaging and thought-provoking discussions emerged regarding the nature of what Raymond teaches: an awareness and understanding of the experiences of others, and the intersectionality of experiences. They also spoke of their upbringing—bonding over being the eldest sibling, raised by single moms—and there was a truly tender moment of sharing and inspiration when Mimi recounted the experience of being present at her mother’s death from cancer (Northan’s own story). Her mother ushered her into the world and she ushered her mother out of it.

Soft-spoken, but communicative, Raymond worked through his nerves to play along—setting his own boundaries when he expressed an unwillingness to dance, which became the subject for ongoing gentle teasing for the rest of the show. And just when you thought he couldn’t be more awesome, he revealed a great sense of humour during their chat about Millennials: handling students who won’t put down their cellphones during class and essays that include emojis. In the scene at Mimi’s uncle’s apartment, that was the funniest and most cerebral lead-up to a kiss I’ve ever seen. And in the flash forward to their life together five years later, Raymond handled a hilariously stressful situation like a champ.

One of the things that Mimi outlines before the date starts is that her job is to look after her date and make sure he’s okay for the duration. This was evident throughout the entire performance, but especially so during the scene where Mimi and Raymond get pulled over by a female motorcycle cop (Degenstein) investigating Mimi’s erratic, possibly drunk, driving. Raymond is Black and the all-white company demonstrated awareness and sensitivity for the lived experiences of Black men regarding interactions with police. The cop took a firm hand with Mimi, who was the driver; and was respectful with Raymond, requesting that he take the wheel for the rest of their trip. And there was an added friendly twist when the cop realized he’d been her communications professor and thanked him for being such a great teacher.

This was my fourth time seeing Blind Date, including its genesis as a 10-minute piece at the Spiegeltent at Harbourfront Centre and the queer version at Buddies in Bad Times last year, with Northan playing Mimi in three of those performances (Julie Orton played Mimi in the girl/girl queer version). And every time, Northan amazes me with her generosity, her candor, her great big, open sense of humour and her fearlessness. Sexy, charming and sassy, as Mimi interacts with her date and gets to know him, she gets the audience to fall in love with him too. And along the way, we also fall in love with Mimi. Every single time.

With big shouts to Horak (the French waiter with just the right amount of snootiness) and Degenstein (the affable restaurant manager and professional, friendly motorcycle cop); producer/stage manager Marcie Januska (who took care of running improvised sound and lighting cues); and set designer Brandon Kleiman. And to Raymond’s date Abby, who got to see an audition/preview of Raymond on a date—and this was their first date!

This was a one-night only performance—and that’s the beauty of Blind Date. There’s a different date every show; and, for the first time in the production’s history, there are three rotating Mimis (Northan, Bruce and Degenstein). So you could see Blind Date several times during the course of the same run and never see the same show twice. What you will see every time is a unique, hilarious and poignant improvised theatrical experience, where Mimi takes care of her date, making sure he’s comfortable and having a good time. And making us fall in love with him in the process.

The implications of a kiss. When Raymond met Mimi in a hilarious, moving, cerebral Blind Date.

Blind Date continues in the Tarragon Mainspace till June 25; advance tickets available online—strongly recommended as this is a very popular show. Make sure to get there early to catch the pre-show activity in the lobby; and stick around for a drink after the show.

Compelling storytelling in the riveting, edgy, darkly funny Slip

Clockwise, from top: Alex Paxton-Beesley, Daniel Pagett, Mikaela Dyke & Anders Yates—photo by Alec Toller

Circlesnake Productions remounts its production of Slip, collectively written by the ensemble and directed by Alec Toller—opening in the Tarragon Theatre Workspace last night.

Walking into what appears to be a crime scene—some of us walking through it to get to the bank of seats opposite the entrance—we become immersed in Jane’s (Mikaela Dyke) apartment. Pieces torn out of books, scraps of paper, post-its litter the floor and cover the walls; and there’s a banner with a strange interlocking symbol (set by Bronwen Lily, lighting by Wesley McKenzie). Jane lies dead in the middle of the floor, red hood pulled up covering her face.

Detective Lynne (Alex Paxton-Beesley) and her partner Mark (Daniel Pagett) assess the scene as they await the arrival of medical examiner Blake (Anders Yates). Is it murder or suicide? Perfectly matched, they work at piecing together a story for this incident, playfully one-upping each other in a private, quick-paced game as each comes up with theories and trajectories.

As the detectives sift through photographs and other evidence found on the scene, we see pieces of Jane’s story played out in flashback—inspired by a photo Lynne finds on a shelf: a relationship with a young black woman, one of two people witnesses saw entering and exiting the apartment. Marina (Nicole Stamp) is Jane’s ex-girlfriend, still on friendly terms and concerned about Jane’s welfare. And we learn that the young ginger-haired man seen in the vicinity turns out to be Chris (Yates), Jane’s brother.

Meanwhile, Lynne is a subject of particular interest in a tribunal investigating an incident where she and Mark pursued a perp into a darkened alley and shots were fired. And she’s in the dog house with their boss Passader (Stamp), who expects great things from her. Brilliant and known for her remarkable instincts, Lynne has been anxious and off her game lately. And it’s not just because of the tribunal—she’s been forgetting, losing her grip on her memory and sense of time. And the investigation into Jane’s death becomes personal—maybe too personal.

Outstanding work from the cast in this tale where crime procedural meets psychological thriller meets dark comedy. Paxton-Beesley and Pagett have amazing chemistry as the two detectives; dedicated and good at their jobs, Lynne and Mark are well-matched, riffing off ideas and theories with a playful, mercurial banter and a good-natured sense of competition. Beneath the professional, hard shell exteriors are two damaged souls. Paxton-Beesley (no stranger to playing detective—Murdoch Mysteries fans will recognize her as Murdoch’s childhood friend turned private detective Winifred “Freddie” Pink) gives a compelling, heartbreaking performance of Lynne’s journey; Jane’s story hits close to home—and the dawning realization of what will it mean for a beloved career she’s dedicated her life to. And Pagett reveals the softer, conflicted side of Mark; a man struggling with alcohol and having a ‘normal’ life when he goes home from the job. Supportive and loyal to Lynne, Mark can’t help but be suspicious and concerned about her recent erratic behaviour.

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Mikaela Dyke & Nicole Stamp—photo by Alec Toller

Dyke gives a moving performance as Jane; deeply troubled, fragile and lost, Jane reaches out in an attempt to reconnect with ex Marina, but can’t bring herself to tell her what’s wrong—revealing and mysterious at the same time. Her perceptions of family are in stark contrast with that of her brother; whose version of the story is true? Stamp shows some great range as the hard-ass, domineering Passader, who has big plans for Lynne and demands she doesn’t screw it up; and the loving, kind Marina who longs to be there for Jane, but whose care and compassion can only go so far. Yates is hilarious as the wisecracking ME Blake, who doesn’t particularly enjoy his job, but game for the quick-paced, sharp-witted exchanges with Lynne and Mark. And he brings an edge of pragmatism and deep-seated pain to Jane’s brother Chris.

The immersive staging puts the audience on either side of Jane’s apartment, giving us a fly-on-the-wall’s-eye view of the proceedings. Photographs and writings become jumping off points for flashbacks, revealing new pieces of the puzzle. Memory and story weave in and out—and stories intersect and combine to a stunning and heart-wrenching revelation.

Compelling storytelling in the riveting, edgy, darkly funny Slip.

 Slip runs in the Tarragon Workspace till April 2; advance tickets available online—strongly recommended as it’s an intimate space with limited seating.

In the meantime, check out the interview with director Alec Toller on Stageworthy Podcast with host Phil Rickaby.

Top 10 theatre 2016

Hope everyone’s been enjoying the holiday season. As we say goodbye to 2016 (for better or worse), it’s time for the annual top 10 theatre list. As usual, this is always a challenging endeavour, so I’ve added a few honourable mentions (in alphabetical order):

Top 10 theatre 2016

Blind Date (queer version): Spontaneous Theatre & Buddies in Bad Times Theatre

Chasse-Galerie: Kabin, Storefront Theatre & Soulpepper

Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen: Theatre 20, The Firehall Arts Centre & Theatre Passe Muraille

The Harrowing of Brimstone McReedy: Eldritch Theatre

The Hogtown Experience: The Hogtown Collective & Campbell House Museum

Late Night: Theatre Brouhaha & Zoomer LIVE Theatre

Mouthpiece: Quote Unquote Collective & Nightwood Theatre

The Queen’s Conjuror: Circlesnake Productions

She Mami Wata and the Pussy Witchhunt: The Watah Theatre

The Summoned: Tarragon Theatre

Honourable mention

The Clergy Project:  SOULO Theatre

Killer Joe: Coal Mine Theatre

The Taming of the Shrew: Driftwood Theatre Group

Three Men in a Boat: Pea Green Theatre

Up next: The Next Stage Theatre Festival (NSTF), running January 4 – 15, 2017 at Factory Theatre.

To breed or not to breed? Choices, identity & divisions in reflective, funny Rattled

paige and lena couch
Nessya Dayan & Ximena Huizi – photo by Claire Holland

Brouillon Productions examines the spectrum of women’s choices and attitudes towards motherhood in Claire Holland’s Rattled, directed by Holland and currently running at the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace.

BFFs Lena (Ximena Huizi) and Paige (Nessya Dayan) can count on each other for everything, calling or texting each other every day with updates, advice, rants. That all changes when Lena has a baby, and she becomes too busy, too tired and too mommy brained to maintain frequent, focused contact. And when they attend Lena’s post-delivery baby shower at Lena’s aunt Donna’s (Stacey Iseman), it becomes apparent that the two friends now belong to two different groups: the breeders and the non-breeders. The breeders are Grace (Carina Cojeen), Julia (Kaya Bucholc) and Aundrea (Fleur Jacobs), and the non-breeders include Lena’s colleague Michelle (Regan Brown) and Donna, who takes more neutral territory as host and referee. During the food, drinks and games, the range of attitudes and desires regarding motherhood emerges. It’s a big life change for Lena, with a huge impact on her friendships; and on top of all this, Paige needs to decide if she’s going to stay in Toronto or move to Vancouver with her boyfriend as he starts a new job.

whole cast stroller scene
L to R: Regan Brown, Nessya Dayan, Stacey Iseman, Ximena Huizi, Kaya Bucholc, Carina Cojeen & Fleur Jacobs – photo by Claire Holland

The cast does a lovely job, with all the funny, touching and wit’s end insanity of caring for a tiny human – or not – arguing about strollers on transit and toddler meltdowns in restaurants. Huizi does a really nice job with Lena’s conflicting desire to be a mom and a friend; missing her little James even during the few hours of the shower, she struggles to recall details of conversation with Paige and finds herself distracted by the mommy talk in the room. Dayan brings a nice balance to Paige’s devotion to Lena and the growing frustration that their friendship will never be the same; a non-breeder by choice, now that Lena’s attentions are more focused on her baby, Paige needs to decide where to refocus her own life. Iseman brings a lovely sense of calm and quiet to Lena’s aunt Donna; with a history of cancer deciding her non-breeder status, she is gently pragmatic and pensive, and grateful for her life even though it took an unexpected turn. Brown is both cheerful and heartbreaking as Michelle, who longs to be a mother, but finds life’s busyness has kept her from finding a partner with which to create and share her dream. Lovely work in the two-handed scene with Iseman, where Michelle and Donna respectfully and poignantly share perspectives on identity and the disappointment of watching hopes drift away.

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Regan Brown & Stacey Iseman – photo by Claire Holland

Representing the mommy spectrum are Cojeen’s amiable and practical Grace, a mom of twins who’s happy to be out with the grown-up girls; on the more traditional side of parenting as far as boundaries go, she cares about her kids’ impact on others. Jacobs’ Aundrea is Grace’s hilarious polar opposite; bursting into the party, wondering where the booze is and over the moon that she has time away from the rug rats. She believes in free-range kids, and people just have to deal with it if they’re being their wild, kid-like selves in public. Bucholc’s Julia is a picture of fastidious efficiency and kid programming; doting mother to her Henry, she’s an encyclopedia of the best pre-school classes and knows where all the stroller accessible spaces are within a 10-km radius.

The social and peer – and self-imposed – pressure to be a woman in a certain way is alive and well in the 21st century, with motherhood being a significant piece of that equation. Perhaps if we were a bit gentler on ourselves, we could be a little less judgemental of the choices other women make.

The pre-show lobby video monitor and program include some fabulous quotes on motherhood from various notable women. My favourite is from Gloria Steinem: “I’m completely happy not having children. I mean, everybody does not have to live in the same way. And as somebody said, ‘Everybody with a womb doesn’t have to have a child any more than everybody with vocal cords has to be an opera singer.’”

To breed or not to breed? Choices, identity and divisions – funny ‘cuz it’s true in poignant, reflective Rattled.

Rattled continues till July 23 in the Tarragon Extraspace, running every night at 8 p.m. with an additional performance on July 23 at 2:30 p.m. It’s a very short run, so get yourself out there to avoid disappointment.

Toronto Fringe: Biting social & immigration satire in sharp, startling, physical Silk Bath

_mg_8896_1280x853 silk bath

The Silk Bath Collective gives us a scathing, darkly funny and deeply moving send-up of western society and its biases toward Asian immigrants in Silk Bath. Co-written by director Aaron Jan, producer Gloria Mok and performer Bessie Cheng, the show is currently running in the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace during Toronto Fringe.

Set as a bizarre reality TV show where contestants are held in cells, new immigrants compete for social acceptance in their new country through a series of physical and verbal tests, where they gain points for giving the correct Western response and dominating in martial arts bouts. The dialogue is delivered in English, Cantonese and Mandarin, with projected surtitles.

When we first enter the theatre, we see three contestants already onstage, each seated on a mat with a metal bucket. Clementine (Dorcas Chiu), who careful tends her clementine tree; Mutt (En Lai Mah) looks after his sore knee; and the Old Lady (Amanda Zhou) sits up centre, lost in her thoughts as she wrings out a tea towel. A new arrival appears as the action commences: New Girl (Bessie Cheng) wide-eyed and eager to learn. We soon learn that each has an agenda of his/her own in addition to winning the prize.

Lovely work from the cast in this physical and emotional piece. Chiu gives Clementine a strong but wary nurturing quality, combined with a sense of natural leadership; seeking to make alliances, her way is to band together to find a way out. As Mutt, Mah gives us a man of masks; although Mah harbours a bitter and cynical attitude, he knows how to play the game and give the answers he knows the judges want to hear and he’s not above sabotage to gain points. Zhou brings a solitary dignity to Old Lady; a veteran contestant determined to win by ongoing analysis and stamina, she longs to be reunited with her love after a long separation. Cheng’s New Girl is a bright and feisty underdog; learning the ropes of this new and strange place, she is driven to succeed, and keeps a positive and hopeful attitude despite her confusion and nervousness. All want out of this place – and we find out how far each is willing to go in order to gain freedom.

With shouts to the design team: Aram Heydarian (set/costumes), Kevin Feliciano (projection/sound) and Logan Cracknell (lighting) for their inventive and evocative work to create this world.

Biting social and immigration satire in sharp, startling, physical Silk Bath.

Silk Bath continues at the Tarragon Mainspace, with only two more performances: today (Fri, July 8) at 4:15 p.m. and Sat, July 9 at 8:00 p.m.; highly recommended. For ticket info and advance tickets, check out the Fringe website.

p.s.: Because he’s crazy (his word, not mine), playwright/director Aaron Jan has another show in Fringe this year: Rowing, playing at the Kensington Conference Centre. I saw it in October 2015 and highly recommend it.

 

Toronto Fringe: Do you want to believe? Sharp, dark comedy in Bright Lights

 

bright lights 2

Theatre Brouhaha’s production of Kat Sandler’s Bright Lights opened to a sold out house of super enthusiastic folks at the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace late last night.

Written and directed by Sandler, Bright Lights is set in a community centre, where members of the Alien Experience Support Group gather for their regular meeting to share their experiences of alien encounters in a safe, supportive space. The arrival of newcomer Zoe (Heather Marie Annis) shakes the group to its foundations; her abduction memory includes group organizer Ross (Colin Munch) – and his true identity and motive for forming the group come into question.

The action is fast-paced, and the storytelling is equal parts hilariously funny and darkly edgy; collegial turns combative as the heat gets turned up. Sandler’s outstanding cast is laser-focused and mercurial, weaving tight comedy with fringe society paranoia – and features the creative forces behind Punch Up, Morro and Jasp, Peter n’ Chris and Shakey-Shake & Friends.

Amy Lee is delightfully kooky as the group’s snack baking den mother Laurel; earthy and nurturing, she’s pregnant by a man who isn’t her husband and describes her abduction in terms of a classic rock song. As Zoe, Annis brings a bright-eyed sense of curiosity and tightly wound nerves as she steps into this strange world of those who believe. Peter Carlone is hilariously paranoid as Dave, who’s turned survivalist after suffering multiple probings, a family tradition; dressed in militia gear, he carries a duffle bag of weapons at all times – just in case. Equally hilarious is Chris Wilson’s Wayne; a former child actor who starred in a legal procedural TV show, he fancies himself a legal expert and claims to have been gifted psychic powers during his abduction experience. (Carlone and Wilson are also performing Peter vs. Chris at this year’s Toronto Fringe). Munch gives Ross an affable, welcoming vibe and keeps us guessing as he reacts to the group’s accusations against Ross’s humanity and intentions; Ross has definitely been hiding something.

The only thing for certain is that the dynamic of this group is permanently altered during this meeting – with suspicions, theories and alliances unfolding in unexpected ways. And, in the end, you’re asking yourself: What and who do you believe?

Do you want to believe? Alien abduction, conspiracy theory and suspicion in sharp, darkly funny Bright Lights.

Bright Lights continues at the Tarragon Mainspace until July 9; advance booking for this one is strongly recommended. For ticket info and advance tickets/passes, check out the Fringe website.

Trippy, quirky, thought-provoking mind-f*ck of a good time in The Summoned

The Summoned, Tarragon Theatre
Fabrizio Filippo in The Summoned – photos by Cylla von Tiedemann

If it can be done it will be done.

Static for a time, then appearing as if being typed by an unseen hand, there is a quasi-religious elegance to these words. God meets science.

This is how the stage is set for Tarragon Theatre’s world premiere of Fabrizio Filippo’s The Summoned, directed by Richard Rose, assisted by Joel Bernbaum – currently running in the Mainspace.

Tech giant Khan (one name, like Cher, chosen himself) is dead and his executor has called an assembly of the important figures in his life for the reading of his will at a shitty airport hotel in Toronto, run by his former partner/ex Annie (Maggie Huculak) and her son Aldous (Fabrizio Filippo). The hotel was set up as a safe house for the world’s intellectual elite, and the guests are transported to the location with impressive precision and secrecy by Khan’s security chief Quentin (Tony Nappo). Company president Gary (John Bourgeois) and lawyer Laura (Kelli Fox), and flight attendant and Aldous’s sort of girlfriend Isla (Rachel Cairns) round out the guest list. Instructions are relayed to Quentin via Walkie Talkie (Alon Nashman).

Aldous also serves as our narrator, setting the scenes and introducing the players, and we learn about Khan via flashback scenes, where we see how a young Khan (Filippo) meets a young Annie (Cairns), and get glimpses into their work together and the genesis of his empire. It appears obvious to everyone except Aldous that Khan is his father. And, of course, the reading of the will is largely Khan’s way of messing with his dearly beloved from beyond the grave. And it all gets emotional and weird. Really weird.

The Summoned, Tarragon Theatre
Kelli Fox, Rachel Carins, John Bourgeois, Maggie Huculak, Tony Napppo & Fabrizio Filippo in The Summoned

I effing love this cast. This is a wild, entertaining, high-energy ride – and this ensemble isn’t afraid to give ‘er. Playwright Filippo is a multitasking machine onstage, playing two very different characters. As Aldous, he brings an unflappable, almost eerie, sense of detachment and calm; minimally communicative and eschewing physical contact, there’s an Asperger’s quality to his relationship with the world. As Khan, he’s an impish, big personality; a mercurial and diabolically brilliant tech maestro with a lascivious appetite and flexible morals, he takes and uses what he wants, when and how he wants.

Huculak brings a lovely, layered sense of desperation and control to Annie; a brilliant, groundbreaking tech mind in her own right, her life forever changed by motherhood. Long estranged from Khan, she got the kid and he got the company, and she’s kept one foot in their once shared world by running the hotel safe house, perpetually longing for a connection with her son. Cairns is a kooky delight as Isla, the flight attendant who lives a seemingly charmed life; always living in the present, she is super spontaneous, hilariously irreverent and refreshingly honest. Nappo is a loveable combination of efficiency and wackiness as the cellphone snapping, air freshener spraying security guy Quentin; a schlub in a uniform, he also appears to be a narcoleptic, but this doesn’t stop him from executing his duties with tight-lipped, covert expertise. Bourgeois’ Gary is a great combo of funny and intimidating; an imposing corporate badass, Gary is entitled and cynical, and we see his soft underbelly emerge during the reading of the will. And Fox’s Laura is a gorgeous, ballsy 21st century Rosemary Clooney; pragmatic, but warm, she’s a sharp no-nonsense professional – and a woman with a confession to make.

The Summoned, Tarragon Theatre
Seated: John Bourgeois, Fabrizio Filippo & Maggie Huculak, with Kelli Fox on the floor

On the serious side, The Summoned is an exploration of the history and evolution of tech, and its applications and implications for our lives. If it can be done it will be done. Forever and ever, Amen.

With shouts to the design team, especially Jason Hand (lighting and set) and Kurt Firla (video) for the minimalist, multimedia environment; the playing space has a crisp, sleek quality to it – making you expect to see Steve Jobs walk out to launch a new iPhone. (Yes, I know, he’s dead.)

A trippy, quirky, thought-provoking mind-f*ck of a good time in The Summoned.

The Summoned continues in the Tarragon Mainspace until May 29; get your tix in advance, kids – this show is packing the house.

In the meantime, check out this Theatromania interview with playwright/actor Filippo.