Hope & regret in the Village Players’ bittersweet, nostalgic The Glass Menagerie

Jacob Klick, Deena Baltman & Claire MacMaster. Set design by Alexis Chubb. Costume design by Livia Pravato-Fuchs, assisted by Marcella Pravato. Lighting design by Jamie Sample. Photo by John Ordean.

 

The Village Players open their 2019-20 season with Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, directed by Victoria Shepherd and running at the Village Playhouse. A deeply autobiographical play, in memory of a beloved sister, it’s the story of a family’s struggles of identity and survival in a world mired in the Depression with another World War around the corner—bittersweet, nostalgic, and full of hope and regret.

Tom Wingfield (Jacob Klick) is both narrator and participant in this tale as he invites us into the world of the small St. Louis apartment where he lives with his mother Amanda (Deena Baltman) and sister Laura (Claire MacMaster). The Wingfield patriarch has been absent some 16 years—a “telephone man who fell in love with long distance”—his ever watchful, smiling face aglow in a frame on the living room wall. It is 1937, and America has been struggling through the Great Depression, with WWII a couple of years away.

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Deena Baltman & Claire MacMaster. Set design by Alexis Chubb. Costume design by Livia Pravato-Fuchs, assisted by Marcella Pravato. Lighting design by Jamie Sample. Photo by John Ordean.

Profoundly restless and bored with his job in a shoe factory warehouse, Tom finds escape and second-hand adventure in the movies and in books; and squirrels himself away at work during lunch breaks, writing poetry. At home, he snatches brief moments of solitude and reflection as he smokes on the fire escape; and hatches a plan to join the Merchant Marine and get away for some real adventures. Meanwhile, a desperate but hopeful Amanda—ever navigating the challenges of keeping the body and soul of the family together—longs for a successful and happy future for her children, even as she criticizes and directs their actions. Retreating into moments of nostalgic reverie as she recalls her days popularity and hosting numerous beaux in the rural south, she is clearly troubled; a fish out of water—and out of time—in their urban Delta home. And the painfully shy Laura—who would likely be diagnosed with social anxiety today—prefers her rich world of imagination and light. Self-conscious about her limp and anxious about how others see her, she finds sanctuary from an outside world that is too overwhelming to bear as she escapes into her glass collection.

Concerned that her daughter’s fragile, anxious soul is unable to manage a career as a secretary, Amanda shifts focus onto finding Laura a suitable husband, and enlists Tom’s aid to find a beau for Laura. He invites co-worker Jim (John Shubat), a former high school golden boy known to both Tom and Laura, over for dinner. Laura had a crush on Jim in high school, and the hopes and dreams of this gentleman caller are met with a frank and unexpected reality check.

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John Shubat & Claire MacMaster. Set design by Alexis Chubb. Costume design by Livia Pravato-Fuchs, assisted by Marcella Pravato. Lighting design by Jamie Sample. Photo by John Ordean.

Nice work from the cast in this snapshot of familial hope, regret, loss and disappointment; moments of humour and tenderness bring take the edge off the brutal frankness and disillusionment of this world. Klick’s Tom is a study of restless detachment; dutifully bound to ensuring the family’s security as the man of the house, Tom is boiling inside—busting to get out and away, and to a life of his own. Baltman brings a desperate edge of optimism to Amanda, a woman whose life vacillates between memories of better times and the harsh realities of present-day existence. Longing for the gentler, civilized days of her bygone youth—a world that no longer exists—Amanda’s gay, energetic girlishness belies an exhausted, lost middle-aged woman grasping for purchase and hope in world she neither understands nor wants.

MacMaster adds a hint of irreverent spunk to the otherwise fragile, introverted Laura. Losing herself in a world of light and magical creatures, Laura finds a sense of safety and belonging from the world outside their apartment. And Shubat’s Jim is the picture of affable charisma and confidence, tempered by the world weariness of a young man who peaked in high school. Jim has high hopes for the future; aiming for a career on the ground floor of television, he represents hope for the Wingfield family; and a high-energy, forward-thinking future where popularity and showmanship are bound to succeed.

In the end, all of these characters are misfits in his/her own way; lost and searching for a way to be in a changing modern world. And, to varying degrees, each is struggling to keep the pain of disappointment from turning into the paralysis of discouragement. The world seems to be made for the popular and confident, with higher value placed on the traditional markers of status and success than on more imaginative and unique qualities—where unicorns are encouraged to be just like the other horses.

With shouts to the design team for their work on bringing this world of fading memory to glowing life. Alexis Chubb’s homey domestic set, revealed by the opening of sheer curtains, nicely complimented by Jamie Sample’s lighting design; John Stuart Campbell’s sound and music design, incorporating popular music of the time and haunting, crystalline original compositions (featuring Vivien Shepherd on vocals) as it conjures the music hall across the alley and complements the emotional tone; and Livia Pravato-Fuchs’ (assisted by Marcella Pravato) period costumes, transporting us to both 1937 and Amanda’s youth.

The Glass Menagerie continues at the Village Playhouse until September 28. Advance tickets available online or by calling 416-767-7702.

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Fond & fierce dreams in poignant 73H Productions’/Howland Company’s modern-day reflection on The Glass Menagerie

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Hannah Spear in The Glass Menagerie – photos by Yannick Anton

73H Productions, with the support of The Howland Company, opened its production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, directed by Philip McKee, in the Theatre Centre Incubator space last night.

Set in St. Louis, Amanda Wingfield (Tracey Hoyt) lives in a cramped apartment with her two young adult children Tom (James Graham) and Laura (Hannah Spear). Mr. Wingfield, famous and infamous for his charm and grin, is long gone – not dead, but absent; a fifth character in this story, present only in a grinning photograph. This is a memory play, narrated by Tom and featuring milestone moments in the family’s history. Painfully shy and incapacitated with fear, Laura has dropped out of school; preferring to live in a world of old music and glass animals. Concerned for her daughter’s future, Amanda, a displaced member of privileged, old southern society, hatches a plan to have Tom invite one of his warehouse co-workers (Jim, the Gentleman Caller, played by Samer Salem) over for dinner in the hopes of sparking a romance and eventual marriage for Laura. Meanwhile, Tom is working on a scheme of his own, with plans to break free from a life of ennui and movie house escape, and into a journey of real adventure.

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James Graham with Hannah Spear (l) & Tracey Hoyt (r)

Lovely work from the cast in this intimate portrait of desperate dreaming family life. Graham brings a melancholy tinged with a wistful, and at times dark, sense of whimsy to his performance as Tom. A philosophical introvert, Tom’s a ticking time bomb of frustration; burdened with being the family breadwinner, he’s torn between taking care of his mother and sister, and making a life he can call his own. Hoyt’s Amanda is a complex combination of old southern gentility and ruthless realism. The life and world Amanda’s come to live in are both foreign and a step down for her socially speaking; disillusioned and desperate for a secure future, Amanda is a well-meaning nag with permanent worry lines on her forehead. And we see how rooted she is in the past as she slips into girlish coquetry when Jim arrives.

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Tracey Hoyt & Samer Salem

Spear brings a lovely sense of fragility and solitude to Laura; a painfully shy and delicate soul who dares to dream. A creative and good-humoured introvert with low self-esteem, Laura is both genuine and awkward – and her failings are largely in her mind. Salem gives Jim a high-energy, charismatic and athletic spark. As Laura’s polar opposite, Jim’s high self-esteem – perhaps a bit too high – is tempered by a charm and sincerity; a man who appears to have peaked in high school, he is “disappointed but not discouraged,” and spends his time after work on self-improvement courses.

All are disappointed but not discouraged – to some degree, at least – but, as Amanda points out, despite one’s best efforts “Things have a way of turning out so badly.”

Keeping the script intact, but setting the scene in modern-day America – as well as offering a new take on the menagerie – this production of the Williams classic finds the past aptly mirrored in the present; bringing this story of ennui, economic struggle and dreams of a better life into current focus. When Laura plays her father’s old records, it’s on a CD player; and, beyond a mere collection of acquired knickknacks, the menagerie is her own creation. Like the mirror ball at the Paradise Dance Hall across the alley, the animals are covered in pieces of mirrored glass – and those who look upon Laura’s creations are reflected in them.

Staged in the round in the more intimate Incubator space at the Theatre Centre, the audience really gets a fly-on-the-wall perspective of this family drama. Shouts to set/costume designer Adriana Bogaard, and lighting designer Jareth Li for their work in creating this world.

Fond and fierce dreams in 73H Productions’/The Howland Company’s poignant modern-day reflection on The Glass Menagerie.

The Glass Menagerie continues at the Theatre Centre Incubator until September 11. You can get advance tix online; strongly recommended, as it’s an intimate space and opening was sold out.

In the meantime, check out the trailer, created by Daniel Maslany:

 

 

Tennesee Williams classic in extreme punk rock close-up: A Streetcar Named Desire – The House Show

Stella & Blanche
Stella (Mackenzie Gruer), Blanche (Lynne Rafter) & Mitch (Alex Strauss) – photo by AnnaDan Zuo
Stanley
Stanley (Luke Gallo) on the fire escape – photo by AnnaDan Zuo

Saw some outstanding indie theatre at its purest and best last night in Studio BLR’s punk rock adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire: A Streetcar Named Desire – The House Show.

The audience assembles in Dragon Alley, near the northwest corner of College and Dufferin. Soon, Eunice (Jasmine Bowen) appears bearing a stainless steel bowl, a sign that says $10 and another asking for spare change – the spare change she requests of us is the ticket price. Stella (Mackenzie Gruer) appears, and soon Stanley (Luke Gallo) and his pals Mitch (Alex Strauss) and Steve (Erik Kovalevskyy) stroll by, on their way to the bowling alley around the corner. Stella joins them. Soon, a well-dressed and lost-looking woman appears, toting a suitcase and desperately searching for information on her cellphone. This is Blanche (Lynne Rafter), just arrived in the Quarter to stay with Stella. Eunice offers assistance and beckons Blanche up the fire escape to the top floor apartment. The audience is instructed to follow – and watch our heads as we head up the steel steps. We assemble in the kitchen/living area of the apartment and Eunice leaves Blanche to go fetch Stella.

And thus begins a modern-day version of Streetcar, a punk rock tragedy that features a different live band at every performance. In this case, it’s the newly formed duo Lightning with Legs, acting as Stanley’s band/jam buddies. Given the intimate space – it’s a real apartment and can accommodate 20 patrons – this is Streetcar in extreme close-up. All the desire, brutality and personal tragedy are writ large and performed only a few feet – and, in some cases, inches – away.

The original script’s story of family dysfunction, personal scandal and financial ruin, steeped in brutality, alcoholism, desperation and desire, translates well into present day. It is easy to see how Blanche and Stella’s family home could fall prey to family circumstance and economic recession. The modern references to scandal, involving Blanche’s personal conduct and psychological damage, are nicely drawn with rumours of her questionable relationship with a student and moments where she finds herself haunted by the music that was playing when her first love/young husband died, a psychological ear worm that wreaks havoc on her already fragile psyche. Also notable is the fact that not much has changed regarding the double standard of the sexual dynamic between men and women: men are on the offensive, with women obliged to be on defence. Blanche breaks the rules with her aggressive flirting and scandalous past. And, even though such terms did not exist in the time of the original script, slut-shaming figures prominently in the climax of the play – and the sickening result of he said/she said skepticism and denial is that the victim is branded crazy and mistaken, or even worse lying.

The cast does an excellent job of bringing to life the colliding worlds of old-time rural chivalry and romance, and modern-day urban brutality with its unleashed primal urges. Rafter is heart-breaking as Blanche, vulnerably majestic and falling apart before our eyes. Gallo’s Stanley is a brooding caged animal, brutally sensitive and ready to pounce; and Gruer brings a lovely battered strength to Stella, a young woman caught between two forceful and passionate personalities, all the while navigating her own fears and desires. Strauss’s Mitch has a nice sense of internal conflict, unflinchingly loyal to his gravely ill mother and rowdy friends, and grappling with loneliness and longing to have a family of his own. Very strong supporting work from Bowen and Kovalevskyy as friends/downstairs neighbours Eunice and Steve, as well as Joe Bumbacco (Paper Boy), Peter Campbell (Doctor) and Anastasia LeSage (Nurse). And, if you’re lucky, the adorable house cat will also make an ad lib appearance, as it did toward the end of this performance.

A Streetcar Named Desire – The House Show continues for two more weeks – Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. – until October 6. Seating is limited and it was a full house last night, so best to get yourself to Dragon Alley early.

More music & theatre this week: Shannon Butcher & Mr. Paradise

Hey again – had to give a shout out to some more upcoming music and theatre events, so here goes…

Jazz tomorrow night (Thurs, May 3): Shannon Butcher (http://www.shannonbutcher.com/), Mark Kieswetter and Ross MacIntyre will be playing at The Cherry Street Restaurant (275 Cherry St., Toronto), from 7:30 p.m. – 10 p.m. There’s a $10 cover and reservations are recommended: 416-461-5111 (http://cherryst.ca/).

Theatre this week through Monday next week: Mr. Paradise (Tennessee Williams), featuring Kate Besworth and Christopher Kelk, will be performed at a variety of venues:

May 2 Green Room (296 Brunswick) 7:30 p.m.
May 3 Kiwanis Club (101 Spruce) 8 p.m.
May 4 Gibson House Museum (5172 Yonge) 8 p.m.
May 5 Galleria 814 (814 St. Clair W.) 9 p.m.
May 6 Kiwanis Club (101 Spruce) 8 p.m.
May 7 Magic Oven (798 Danforth) 8 p.m.

Great opportunities to get out and support our local Toronto artists. Seen anything cool this week?