#MeToo from the other side in the sharply funny, provocative Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes

Alice Snaden & Matthew Edison. Set & costume design by Michael Gianfrancesco. Lighting design by Bonnie Beecher. Photo by Joy von Tiedemann.

 

Tarragon Theatre kicks off the New Year with the premiere of Hannah Moscovitch’s sharply funny, provocative #MeToo look at a student/professor affair in Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes, directed by Sarah Garton Stanley, assisted by Eva Barrie. A famous 40-something author and popular professor, grappling with writer’s block and a crumbling marriage, would rather not have the lovely, smart girl in the red coat standing so close to him—but he is irresistibly drawn to her despite the personal and professional ramifications. Questions of the nature of consent, power dynamic, and mixing up admiration and love, come into play as we witness the evolution of the relationship over time.

Jon (Matthew Edison) is a 40-something author and professor. Both famous for his writing and popular among students, he’s feeling out of sorts as he struggles with writer’s block on his current novel, and navigates separation and impending divorce from his third wife. Enter the bright and attractive first-year student Annie (Alice Snaden), who is a big fan. And she lives across the street from him.

Despite his scoffing at youthful sexuality and the middle-aged men who are attracted to it, and his initial discomfort at Annie’s attentions, Jon’s personal and professional resolve melt in the face of his hot mess of a life and a longing to get close to this fascinating young woman who appears to be coming on to him.

The “love story” is narrated by Jon, who speaks about himself in the third person and punctuates events with editorial comments that both admit and rationalize his actions. In this way, the narrative—presented from Jon’s point of view and coupled with surtitles that read like pointed chapter headings (video design by Laura Warren)—takes on the feel of a novel, written from a man’s point of view and ultimately relegating the female character to a roughly drawn, vague love interest. Despite his awareness of the sloppy, dismissive effect this has on writing, Jon proceeds to live this dynamic with Annie.

A few years after the end of the affair, Annie brings forward a perspective that questions the consensual nature of that relationship—given the age difference and power imbalance. As more years pass, Annie finds some closure as she examines their relationship from his point of view.

Razor-sharp, nuanced performances from Edison and Snaden in this thoughtful, provocative and funny two-hander; nicely complemented by Michael Gianfrancesco’s perspectival set of multiple doors, and Bonnie Beecher’s lighting design, adding a luminous sense of discovery and mystery. Edison gives Jon a genuine combination of cockiness and self-consciousness; above all the student drama, sex and stupidity, but wondering if he can still be cool and relate to them, Jon fears becoming a stereotypical middle-aged man who chases after younger women as much as he eschews the behaviour. Using the stresses of his mess of a life to rationalize his affair with Annie, Jon believes she’s coming on to him and that he’s really falling for her—and that makes it alright. Snaden brings an ethereal, wise child edge to Annie; wide-eyed, smart and a brilliant writer in her own right, Annie longs for acceptance, acknowledgment and a sense of identity. Despite Annie’s attention and attraction to Jon, and that she was of legal age, she realizes that she was still the student and he was still her professor.

Jon was in a position of power and could’ve stopped the affair from happening, but didn’t—and what Annie needed wasn’t a lover, but a mentor. In the end, it looks like they both mistook admiration for love. And the middle class isn’t as “nice” as some would expect.

Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes continues in the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace until February 2; advance tickets available online. This premiere is bound to provoke questions and discussions—get out to see it and get in on the conversation.

 

A journey to medieval Russia in the delightfully charming, playful Tea at the Palace

Ann Powell and David Powell. Designed & created by Ann Powell and David Powell. Lighting design by Kevin Hutson. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Puppetmongers Theatre takes us to medieval Russia with a combination of old Russian tales in the delightfully charming, playful Tea at the Palace. Co-created, designed and performed by Puppetmongers’ Co-Artistic Directors, brother and sister David and Ann Powell, and co-created and directed by Sharon Weisbaum, we’re invited on a journey that ranges from the Tsar’s palace to the farmhouses of his subjects as a newly ascended Prince proves his mettle as ruler, providing judgements and finding a wife. Celebrating its 30th anniversary of holiday shows, Puppetmongers presents Tea at the Palace for a short run in the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace.

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Ann Powell and David Powell. Designed & created by Ann Powell and David Powell. Lighting design by Kevin Hutson. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

When a young Prince ascends the throne, his people wonder what kind of Tsar he’ll make. He soon finds himself passing judgement on a farmer who’s unearthed a samovar in his field. Informed upon by a nosey, grouchy neighbour, the farmer is accused of believing himself to be equal to the Tsar; and the Prince soon finds they have more in common than one would think. And when the same grouchy man contests the ownership of an apple tree, which his widow neighbour says is hers, the widow’s young daughter impresses with her riddle-solving skills, resolving the dispute.

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David Powell and Ann Powell. Designed & created by Ann Powell and David Powell. Lighting design by Kevin Hutson. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Despite the concerns and disapproval of his court, and breaking with tradition, the Prince chooses the clever young peasant woman to be his wife—and, once again, she must solve three seemingly impossible riddles to prove herself worthy. But can she manage the scheming courtiers who disapprove of the match and want to separate her from the Prince?

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Ann Powell and David Powell. Designed & created by Ann Powell and David Powell. Lighting design by Kevin Hutson. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

The Powells magically whisk us away to a world of tradition, ritual and ceremony—where even the making of tea has a set, proper procedure. Using beautiful, cleverly designed puppets and props, ranging from miniature to life-sized—and multipurpose, folding set pieces that reveal miniature pop-up environments—the storytelling is wondrous, entertaining and instructive; and the performances are playful and entertaining.

Despite the pomp, ceremony and entitlement of his upbringing, the young Prince proves himself to be a fair-minded, egalitarian ruler who judges people based on actions over social status. Audience members of all ages will delight in the beautifully crafted, imaginative and fun storytelling artistry of this tale.

Tea at the Palace continues in the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace until December 29; matinées run today (Saturday, December 28) and Sunday, December 29 at 2:30 pm; and there’s an evening performances tonight (Saturday, December 28) at 7 pm. Advance tickets available online, except for the Family Pack, which is only available by phone or in person: 416-531-1827 (Mon from 10am-5pm, Tues-Sat from 10am-7pm, Sun from 11am-1pm). It’s a very short run, so catch it while you can.

 

Toronto Fringe: Victorian bicycle tour shenanigans in the hilarious, entertaining Three Men on a Bike

David DiFrancesco, Matt Pilipiak & Victor Pokinko. Costume design by Nina Okens. Photo by Mark Brownell.

 

Pea Green Theatre Group is back with our favourite fun-loving Victorian man-boys in Mark Brownell’s hilarious, entertaining Three Men on a Bike, adapted from Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men on the Bummel, On the Stage and Off and The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow. Directed by Sue Miner, with musical arrangements/vocal coaching by J. Rigzin Tute, this time our intrepid travellers go on a bicycle tour of Germany—which you can experience from the safety of your seat in the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace.

Following the unprecedented success of his first book, Three Men in a Boat, idler and sometimes author Jay (Matt Pilipiak) is under pressure to produce a successful sophomore effort—by no means an easy task. He, his even more idle friend and roommate George (Victor Pokinko) and his other friend Harris (David DiFrancesco)—who’s now got a wife!—put their heads together and come up with a three-week bike tour of Germany. Their ultimate destination: the Black Forest.

Shenanigans and hilarity ensue, starting with convincing Harris’s wife to let him go; this followed by the acquisition of tandem and single rider bicycles and some dodgy DIY bike repair. Jay hires a yacht from an ancient, hump-backed man down at the docks (Pokinko); then the agreeable but vague skipper (DiFrancesco) can’t seem to find the right wind to set sail upon. After waiting a week, they book passage on a steamer and finally arrive in Germany, where they individually run afoul of the local constabulary; get lost in the Black Forest; and encounter Montmorency’s (Jay’s terrier, who had to stay home) evil German twin.

Top notch performances from this outrageously funny and talented trio, who conjure up scenes almost exclusively with movement, gesture, a cappella harmonies and hysterical facial expression—plus Nina Okens’ smart period costumes. Pilipiak’s Jay is an amusingly arrogant wordsmith, often breaking the fourth wall to address us as scenes shift, their adventure broken up into chapters. Pokinko is a slapdash delight as the wry-witted bachelor George, who enjoys doing as little as possible. And DiFrancesco is endearingly dense as the somewhat dull-witted but affable and well-meaning Harris.

Not to worry, it all works out in the end—and it’s a jolly good ride.

Three Men on a Bike continues in the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace until July 14; check the show page for exact dates/times and advance tickets. Advance booking strongly recommended; audiences love these guys and the house was packed full last night.

Toronto Fringe: A new mom’s fears come to life in the hilariously candid, deeply poignant Night Feed

Corinne Murray, with puppet fur bunny and puppet baby. Puppet construction by Shawna Reiter & Jonathan Davis. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Canvas Sky Theatre gets us up in the middle of the night with Sarah Joy Bennett’s hilariously candid, deeply poignant Night Feed; running in the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace. Directed by Bennett and associate director Ginette Mohr, with puppetry direction by Shawna Reiter and guest puppetry direction by Mike Petersen, everyday household objects come to life as a new mother’s self-doubt, fears and anxieties surface from her sleep-deprived mind as she breast feeds her newborn.

New Mother (Corinne Murray) is up in the middle of the night nursing her baby (puppet, operated by Murray), who struggles to latch on properly to get enough to eat and gain some weight. In her exhausted state of mind on the couch at 4 a.m., everyday objects around her living room start coming to life (courtesy of puppeteers Ginette Mohr and Sarah Joy Bennett) to taunt, tempt and tell her she’s just not up for this whole motherhood thing. She’s up every hour to feed the baby, she can’t remember when she last washed her hair, she can’t reach that glass of water on the side table without upsetting the baby—and she doesn’t know a lullaby!

Anything and everything can, and does, become a puppet here—in some cases by design or just regular objects, manipulated to move and speak. Concerns about neglected personal hygiene and appearance emerge as the Mother’s hair, breasts and even vagina speak to her. And the fur bunnies (puppets) accuse her of slacking off on the housekeeping, really sticking it to her with mentions of her mother and grandmother’s accomplishments in this regard—represented by two quilts hanging over the back of the couch, as thoughts of the mothers before her become both critical and comforting.

Scholarly books bemoan that she hasn’t gotten to them, while children’s classics preview the promise of shared readings to come. The Internet presents all manner of ridiculousness, especially on Pinterest. And surely the baby will be fine on its own while she goes for a bike ride—oh, but the sutures. Highlights include a book on breast feeding (Mohr) that cheerily chirps on about how easy and vitally important nursing your baby is, while passive aggressively damning the use of formula. And What to Expect (Mohr) gets into an all-out brawl with a bottle of Jack Daniels (Bennett) when it tries to tempt the mother to a drink. And the breast pump—best real object turned puppet ever! And did you know that, regardless of sex, we all have a vagina puppet (also, who knew she was French)? You’ll just have to go see for yourselves to see what I mean.

Lovely work from the cast as they run the gamut of new parent concerns. Murray is comically poignant as the Mother; struggling with self-doubt on a few hours of sleep a day, she’s able to brush off some fears and self-criticisms, while others land like a punch to the gut. And Mohr and Bennett are a diabolically hilarious tag team of postnatal torture as they give life to the objects around the Mother—showcasing some fine character voice chops in the process—and in some cases flanking her (in matching pj’s) to bring her inner voice to life as rookie maternal self-doubt and fears emerge.

In the end, the Mother knows she’ll falter, but she’ll do the best she can—be present, love, nurture—and the lullaby will come.

Night Feed continues in the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace until July 14; check the show page for exact dates/times and advance tickets. This show has been selling out, including last night’s performance, so advance booking is a must.

Toronto Fringe: Storytelling meets TED Talk in the fight for social justice in the sharply funny, frank, eye-opening Monica vs. the Internet  

Monica Ogden. Photo by Sortome Photography.

 

Rage Sweater Productions presents Monica Ogden’s sharply funny, frank, eye-opening Monica vs. the Internet: Tales of a Social Justice Warrior, directed by KP Productions and running in the Tarragon Theatre Solo Room. Storytelling meets TED Talk as shared lived experience and knowledge come together for this look at activism in the digital world, as Ogden addresses mixed-race identity, racism and white supremacy/feminism.

A self-described light-skinned, cis gender Filipina woman coming to terms with a family history that includes both colonizer and colonized, Monica Ogden navigates both the privilege and the oppression she experiences every day. Her multi-generational lived experience of racism (including accusations of not being “Asian enough” to mention it), disability, mental health issues and abuse informed her path from student at a racist theatre school to YouTube series host on Fistful of Feminism and social justice warrior.

Part personal history tour, part TED Talk, the multimedia solo show incorporates projected images—from sweet, sometimes funny, family and personal photos to shocking, racist tweets from trolls—as Ogden shares personal and family history and lived experience, both good and bad. The inspiration and love she receives from her mother and grandmother, whose shoulders she stands on; and the in-person and cyber bullying from Twitter trolls, and even a theatre reviewer at a Fringe festival, about her race (sometimes perceived/misread) and appearance. And she schools many of us, with patience, good humour and frankness, on the myriad ways that POC deal with everyday racism—left out of spaces and conversations, and denied respect and justice.

Ogden is a delightful powerhouse of a storyteller and social justice activist; candid in her sharing of her life and knowledge—despite her daily personal challenges (she also lives with physical disability and mental health issues), despite the racist blow-back, and despite the soul-crushing ‘meh’ response from organizations who don’t think they need her consultation, or do need it but ignore it. But don’t call her “brave”. Firmly, but gently, she calls on the white folks in the audience to examine their responses to white-dominated spaces, places and ideas. How true social justice includes considerations of intersectionality—and we need to be mindful and respond accordingly.

Just because we’re used to situations in which white supremacy is the default—in our government institutions, everyday social lives and even our arts institutions—doesn’t mean it’s a good thing or the right thing. Everyone deserves respect. Everyone deserves to be heard. And everyone deserves a safe space to grow, learn, live and be themselves in the world.

Monica vs. the Internet: Tales of a Social Justice Warrior continues in the Tarragon Theatre Solo Room until July 13; check the show page for exact dates/times and advance tickets.

Toronto Fringe: Heaven calling in the sharply funny, fiercely candid The Commandment

Phil Rickaby. Photo by Phil Rickaby.

 

Have you heard the one about God and the atheist? Simple Truth Theatre present this unlikely match in its sharply funny, fiercely candid Toronto Fringe production of The Commandment; written and performed by Phil Rickaby, directed by Richard Beaune, assisted by Adrianna Prosser, and running in the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace.

Compelled to speak, with an important message to deliver, Thomas (Rickaby) crashes an open mic night. He’s been called upon by God to deliver a new commandment. Thing is, Thomas is a mildly misanthropic atheist whose already shattered life becomes even more so as a result of this heavenly contact. A reluctant prophet hell-bent on sticking it to the Almighty, he finds himself having to come up with non-stop chatter in order to avoid blurting out God’s message.

Part rant, part confession, part personal storytelling, The Commandment is irreverent and intensely candid, with a comic edge; and there’s a lovely balance of vulnerability, rage and tenderness in Rickaby’s performance.

Bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people—and it’s hard to keep the faith when your world has fallen completely apart. So what’s the new commandment? You’ll have to go see for yourself. It just might do your soul some good.

The Commandment continues in the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace until July 14; check the show page for exact dates/times and advance tickets.

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).