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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Toronto Fringe: Art, longing & acceptance in the poetic, heart-wrenching, gender-bending The Bird Killer

Clockwise, from bottom left: Emerjade Simms, Tymika Tafari, Subhash Santosh, Mo Zeighami, Evan Mackenzie & Mike Ricci. Photo by Patrick J. Horan.

 

LET ME IN presents Justine Christensen’s poetic, heart-wrenching modern-day, gender-bending adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull with its Toronto Fringe production of The Bird Killer, directed by Patrick J. Horan and running in the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace.

A group of artist friends grapple with the day-to-day challenges of artistic expression, and personal and professional fulfillment—all while maintaining their relationships and support network. Masha (Emerjade Simms) is a keen observer of her friends’ goings-on, and acts as a host/narrator when she’s not directly involved in a moment. Wearing black to mourn the state of her life, her sardonic sense of humour masks a broken heart: her unrequited love of the driven, tormented playwright Kostya (Mo Zeighami). Kostya is with the nervous emerging actor Nina (Even Mackenzie), who stars in her new contemporary theatre piece. Singer/songwriter Medvedenko (Mike Ricci, who also supplies original music for the production) is Kostya’s loyal, hard-working stage manager; and taken with Masha.

Kostya’s wise-cracking stand-up comic brother Arkadina (Subhash Santosh) brings his girlfriend, renowned playwright Trigorin (Tymika Tafari), to an invitation-only presentation of Kostya’s new work; setting off debates of artistry vs. celebrity, and changing the group dynamic. He’s unwittingly set in motion a significant ripple within the group—and things will never be the same.

Beautiful, moving work from the ensemble with a piece that cuts close to home for all artists. Each character longs for love and professional artistic fulfillment, but finds it difficult to achieve satisfaction. Does acknowledgement and accolades make one artist’s work more important than another’s? How does an artist navigate authenticity vs. marketability? And, most importantly, how does an artist accept him/herself?

The Bird Killer continues in the Tarragon Mainspace, with two more performances: tonight (July 13) at 9:15 pm and July 15 at 3:30 pm.

Want to check if the show you want to see is sold out? The Toronto Fringe folks have set up a page for sold-out shows, updated daily.

 

Toronto Fringe: Wedding planning mayhem & big LOLs in Morro & Jasp: Save the Date

Heather Marie Annis (Morro) & Amy Lee (Jasp). Photo by Alex Nirta.

 

Jasp is getting hitched and you’re invited to come along as she and Morro get ready for the wedding! Our favourite clown sisters are back at Toronto Fringe, this time with Morro & Jasp: Save the Date. Created and performed by Amy Lee and Heather Marie Annis, and directed by Byron Laviolette, with clown coaching by John Turner; the show is running in the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace.

Things are abuzz at the sisters’ house as Morro (Heather Marie Annis) and Jasp (Amy Lee) get ready for Jasp’s wedding. Clown shenanigans and audience participation ensue as the sisters visit a dress shop, first for Jasp’s wedding gown and later for Morro’s sister of the bride dress; have a cake tasting; go out clubbing with the girls for the bachelorette party; and more! And, best of all, Morro’s creating a DIY veil for Jasp! [Spoiler-ish alert: Look out for the nods to Carol Burnett, Marge Simpson and Meghan Markle.]

Of course, with Jasp getting married, Morro will be left at home alone; and Morro’s gradual realization that she will be left out of her sister’s life tugs on our heartstrings. But, in the end, nothing—not even marriage—can break the bonds of sisterly love.

Morro & Jasp: Save the Date continues in the Tarragon Mainspace until July 15; check the show page for exact dates/times. Not going to lie to you, these guys are selling out big time, so you must book in advance to avoid disappointment.

Toronto Fringe: Navigating marital challenges in the hilarious, brutally honest Settle This Thing

Tamara Bick & Drew Antzis.

 

Marriage is hard work, with dozens of infuriating, mind-numbing decisions and situations to navigate every single day. For the duration of the Toronto Fringe fest, bick/antzis are here to help as they present Settle This Thing; created and performed by real-life married couple Tamara Bick and Drew Antzis, and on now in the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace.

Part improv, part TedTalk, part audience participation, Settle This Thing is a hilariously sharp and brutally honest multi-media look at the challenges of married life. Using the democratic process of audience votes to decide on issues facing their marriage, Tamara and Drew tackle everything from matching tattoos, to taking sides with/against a mother-in-law, to teaching their kids about lying. In return, and armed with scientific(ish) facts, they will provide you with coping skills and tools to navigate your relationship, deal with those in-laws and raise your kids.

It’s a whole lot of fun in 60 minutes of laugh-filled decision-making and strategizing. And the best part is: You’re deciding an issue for someone you’re likely never going to see again!

Settle This Thing continues in the Tarragon Extraspace until July 14; check the show page for exact dates/times.

Toronto Fringe: The trajectory of a life & its impact on others in the socially astute, moving Tears of a Bullet

Hobby Horse Theatre Co. explores the right and wrong sides of a social justice argument in its affecting Toronto Fringe production of Josh Downing’s Tears of a Bullet;* directed by Jeff Kennes and running in the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace.

Writer Jim Abernathy (Stephen Flett), who lives with mobility issues and recently lost his partner Martin, has been evicted from their apartment because only Martin’s name was on the lease. Tasked with making sure Jim vacates the premises is Danny Davis (Adrian Leckie), the new building superintendent, who lives with his wife Louise (Chantel McDonald). Property management has promised a bonus cheque for getting Jim out; and Danny and Louise could really use that money, as they have their first child on the way. Jim is gay and the Davises are conservative Christians, bumping up the tension in an otherwise tense situation. Louise’s estranged brother Charles is also gay; and she’s come to the city to find him, filled with guilt that she drove him away. The Davises don’t own a computer, so she reaches out to Jim for help in locating her brother.

Loosely based on sci-fi writer Thomas Disch’s last years, the conversations in Tears of a Bullet evolve into debates on social justice as it pertains to the control exerted over women, LGBTQ people and visible minorities by the law, the Bible and corporate policy—the oppressor wielding power to keep the oppressed down.

Lovely, connected work from this three-hander cast in these timely discussions of societal rules and relationships; each navigating his/her character’s grip on a belief system as they try to make sense out of a senseless world. Jim may seem like a cantankerous old man on the surface, but his dry, razor-sharp wit and penchant for pointing out harsh truths masks a deep sorrow over the loss of his partner and the impending loss of his home. And, more importantly, Danny and Louise (who also happen to be Black) find that they do indeed have more in common with Jim than they might think—and come to question whether they’re on the right side of this eviction notice.

Tears of a Bullet* continues in the Tarragon Extraspace until July 14; check the show page for exact dates/times.

*For those following along in your missals (aka the hard copy of the Toronto Fringe Festival program), look for The Elephant Circle on p.66; the accompanying graphic and synopsis on p.66 reflect Tears of a Bullet. Apparently, there was an online registry mix-up with the title of Downing’s Hamilton Fringe show. The show title listing is correct on the Toronto Fringe site.

Passion, reason & Canada’s tumultuous Camelot couple in timeshare productions’ stellar Maggie & Pierre

 

 

Kaitlyn Riordan. Set and costume design by Jung-Hye Kim. Lighting design by Oz Weaver. Photo by Stephen Wild.

 

He pirouetted with taut panache. She spun with child-like joy. And we fell in love with them both. timeshare productions presents Maggie & Pierre, by Linda Griffiths with Paul Thompson, in the Tarragon Theatre Workspace, directed by Rob Kempson and starring Kaitlyn Riordan.

Famously performed by the late actor/playwright Linda Griffiths, there’s well-deserved buzz about a passing of the torch in Canadian theatre with this production, as Riordan (also AD of Shakespeare in the Ruff and an emerging playwright herself) takes on this one-woman powerhouse of a play, portraying Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Maggie Sinclair and Henry (a reporter following their story).

Henry is our tour guide of sorts, a newspaper reporter who confesses his fascination with this unusual, unlikely relationship, and can’t refuse a request to follow their story. Part of what makes their love story so compelling is the unlikely nature of Maggie and Pierre’s relationship—and not just because of the 30-year age difference. He, a highly intellectual, political animal determined to create a Canada in the image of his idea of a Just Society; and she, an effervescent young woman navigating a world of social change from her well brought up, ‘good girl’ background to the freedom and exploration of the flower child movement, and burgeoning mental illness/mental health advocate. We witness the two seeming opposites in their mutual attraction; following their love affair and marriage from honeymoon period to disillusionment and dissolution—the public’s romance with them running parallel with their own.

Maggie & Pierre
Kaitlyn Riordan as Maggie, Henry and Pierre. Set and costume design by Jung-Hye Kim. Lighting design by Oz Weaver. Photos by Greg Wong.

With physical, verbal and energetic precision, Riordan delivers a stellar performance, shifting seamlessly from one character to another—at times during quick exchanges. As Henry, she gives us a hard-nosed, jaded newspaper scribe; more than a bit embarrassed, like the rest of us, he’s silly in love with Maggie and Pierre and can’t look away. A conflicted professional witness to the relationship, he’s torn between the drive to report what he observes, no matter how unflattering, and the instinct to protect their reputation. Her Pierre is dashing, charismatic and arrogant; and she nails the tight, academic bearing and razor sharp mind. Pierre is the reason in this equation, while Maggie is the passion. Riordan’s Maggie is a lovely mess of self-discovery, confusion, enrapture and authenticity. While there’s humour in her fish out of water experience of the old boys’ world of politics and requisite social events—her increasing discomfort being under the international spotlight is heartbreaking to witness as we realize the toll it’s taking on a fragile soul.

Maggie & Pierre is as much about emerging Canadian identity and our fascination with celebrity as it is about the tumultuous relationship between two seemingly polar opposites. The writing and storytelling style is aptly Canadian: irreverent, insightful, good-humoured and also compassionate. With a luminous performance that’s as captivating, entertaining and charming as the story Riordan’s telling, we can’t look away.

Maggie & Pierre continues in the Tarragon Workspace until May 19; advance tickets available online. It’s an intimate space and an outstanding show, so advance booking strongly recommended.

Coming up: timeshare’s production of Maggie & Pierre will be featured in the Grand Theatre’s (London, ON) 2018/19 season, with a short run February 12-16, 2019.

Preview: LOL warfare with neighbours from Hell in the quirky, edgy Person of Interest

There are good neighbours and there are bad neighbours. This is a story about the latter: The neighbours from Hell. And what happens when a good neighbour gets pushed too far. Written and performed by Melody A. Johnson, with additional dialogue by Eric Woolfe and directed by Rick Roberts, Person of Interest previewed last night in the Tarragon Theatre Workspace.

Inspired by the true story of an event that happened on Johnson’s street in Little Poland, Person of Interest is a one-woman tale of a neighbourly dynamic gone wrong. Horribly, horribly wrong.

Wanting to help out at her son’s school on Pizza Day, Johnson must submit to a background check to determine eligibility/fitness for the task. Standard procedure. What’s not so standard is that her application is denied; she’s been flagged as a Person of Interest. And so we go back to the beginning, back to when she, an actor, met and married Allen, a composer, and how they bought a house in a cool little west end neighbourhood, on a street off of Roncesvalles, and moved in with their five-year-old son Dashiell and their rescue dachshund Luna.

They soon meet the Krakowskis, the next door neighbours with whom they share a three-foot wide alley. A primly neat, pressed, conservative couple with a pre-schooler and a dog of their own, no sooner have the introductions been made when the Krakowskis request that Johnson and family move their furnace vent, as they fear it’s a hazard. In true Canadian fashion, Johnson complies; it seems to be a simple enough request and their contractor is still onsite. She later realizes she should have listened to her mother and not given in.

That first request is just the beginning of a series of increasingly nit-picking, unreasonable expectations that go from passive aggressive to downright bullying, with infuriating impacts on outdoor décor and landscaping, not to mention the Krakowski’s Hummer blasting exhaust fumes into Johnson’s home. Cue the subsequent retaliation and the Law & Order gavel thunk! Desperate, crazy times call for desperate, crazy measures.

Johnson is an entertaining storyteller and a treat to watch. Endearingly Puck-like, full of energy, mischief and irreverence for the mundane, but genuinely wanting to get along, she weaves this sometimes shocking tale of neighbourhood warfare with candour and an edgy sense of fun. Deftly shifting in and out of her cast of characters, highlights include the uptight, controlling, mom from the Hummer driving couple from Hell next door; and her smoking, knitting, crime procedural loving mother, who’s always up for offering her own brand of sage and wry-witted advice. As herself, Johnson plays out with hilarious honesty scenes from her actor’s life, her growing neurosis as she navigates the looming jackassery next door alone while Allen is away on a gig, and serves up snapshots of universal observational humour.

Person of Interest opens in the Tarragon Workspace tonight and runs for one weekend only, with three more performances: tonight and March 3 at 8:00 pm, and March 4 at 2:30 pm. Get advance tickets online or by calling 416-531-1827. It’s an intimate venue and a super short run—and last night’s preview was close to sold out— so advance tickets are recommended.