Preview: Survival, resilience & resistance in the powerful, raw, timely Four Sisters

Bea Pizano & Company. Production design by Kaitlin Hickey in collaboration with Susanna Fournier. Wardrobe and props design by Patrick Peachey Higdon. Video design by Steph Raposo. Photo by Bernie Fournier.

 

Four Sisters is the final installment of Susanna Fournier’s Empire trilogy; produced by Paradigm Productions and commissioned by Luminato, and running this week at the Theatre Centre. Directed by Fournier and choreographed by Amanda Acorn, this powerful, raw and timely tale takes us to the Empire 259 years after the events of The Scavenger’s Daughter; into a world of plague and social cast-offs, where a 279-year old former madam raises the orphaned children of women who worked for her. A doctor arrives, promising to help as she works to come up with an inexpensive cure for marginalized, low-income populations; and she needs to experiment on the children.

We are in the Skirts, an outlying neighbourhood on the outskirts of the city where society’s marginalized and cast-off people dwell—the poor, mostly women and sex workers. And because this is the Empire, this is a world where only those with money, power and connections can afford to survive and thrive in the toxic, disease-ridden mess left behind after centuries of greed, violence, war and cut-throat capitalism. Former madam Sarah (Bea Pizano) has managed to cheat Death and now finds herself being mother to Abby (Chala Hunter, Krystina Bojanowski, Yolanda Bonnell), Beah (Aria Evans, Ximena Huizi, Jennifer Dahl), Cassie (Claudia Moore) and Dee (Virgilia Griffith)—children of women who worked for her, who all died of plague. When a Doctor (Krystina Bojanowski, Yolanda Bonnell), driven by the desire to find an inexpensive cure that can be used on the low-income population, arrives from the city with the promise of medical help, Sarah must decide if she’s willing to let her girls be Guinea pigs or die of plague.

The story plays out both within and without time and space—on a bare stage, sculpted with light and punctuated with video on a solitary TV screen (designed by Steph Raposo), the chilling atmosphere hauntingly complemented by Christopher Ross-Ewart’s sound design. Time folds and bends in on itself, with the multiple casting for Abby and Beah allowing for both younger and inner selves to speak to these characters, with shades of things to come for an older Beah. And the ongoing role swapping between the actors playing Abby and the Doctor (Bojanowski and Bonnell) shines a light on the choices health care practitioners have when it comes to their practice: to play a role in the male-dominated arenas of capitalism and Big Pharma, promising low-cost health benefits at unknown personal and societal cost, or working on the front lines of health care among those who society has discarded.

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Krystina Bojanowski & Company. Production design by Kaitlin Hickey in collaboration with Susanna Fournier. Wardrobe and props design by Patrick Peachey Higdon. Video design by Steph Raposo. Photo by Bernie Fournier.

Compelling work from this remarkable cast, as the staging incorporates movement, video and voice-over to tell a story that, like the earlier parts of this trilogy, is both visceral and cerebral, past and present, present and future. Pizano nicely balances Sarah’s wry-witted madam pragmatism with the tender-hearted, concern of a good mother. Bojanowski and Bonnell mine the Doctor’s clinical detachment and sense of social responsibility to great effect. Are the Doctor’s later efforts a move toward redemption—or too little, too late?

The four girls grow before our eyes, from children playing in Sarah’s kitchen into conflicted adults struggling to choose a path in a world where paths are being cut off and replaced with walls—literally and figuratively. Hunter, Bojanowski and Bonnell bring sharp focus and inner conflict to Abby, who becomes an apprentice to the Doctor even as she longs to be a mother—and in the painful light of her new-found medical knowledge and expertise. Evans, Huizi and Dahl are loveable and heartbreaking as the energetic, resilient Beah; the dancer sister who longs to study at the academy—her exhausted, battered feet continuing to create despite the unexpected turns her life takes. Griffith brings both profound vulnerability and power to the deeply wounded, angry Dee; self-medicating in an effort to deal with troubling visions, Dee becomes an addict and an outcast among her own marginalized family, setting her on the path toward a surprising evolution. And Moore’s Cassie is adorable and wise; ever a child, Cassie sees and responds to unfolding events with innocent honesty.

Operating both in and out of time and space, we witness what the Empire has come to following centuries of war and social disintegration—leaving us wondering what, if anything, will rise from the ashes. (During intermission, you can view artifacts in the National Museum of the Empire installation in the upper lobby, outside the theatre.) In the end, through pain, grief and loss, there is resilience and resistance. It is apocalypse with a glimmer of hope. And all with the recognition—both disturbing and reassuring—of our own time and place.

Four Sisters continues in the Franco Boni Theatre space at the Theatre Centre until June 16. Post-show talk backs with the artists are scheduled to follow the 8 pm performance on Fri, June 14 (hosted by Ted Witzel); and the 2 pm performance on Sat, June 15 (hosted by Maria Vamvalis). Advance tickets available online; it was a full house at last night’s final preview performance, so advance booking or early arrival is strongly recommended.

If you’re like me and missed the first two installments of the Empire trilogy, or want a refresh before seeing Four Sisters, you can catch up and listen to the podcasts of The Philosopher’s Wife and The Scavenger’s Daughter on The Empire website, co-produced with Expect Theatre’s PlayMe Podcast.

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Ancestors calling on a hero’s journey through fear to true self in the engaging, powerful 11:11

Samson Bonkeabantu Brown. Set design by d’bi.young anitafrika. Costume design by Samson Bonkeabantu Brown. Lighting design by André du Toit. Photo by Brett Haynes.

 

A.V.O. Collective brings the world premiere of its engaging, powerful production of 11:11, presented as part of Why Not Theatre’s RISER Project 2019, to the Theatre Centre’s Incubator stage. Written/performed by trans-identified artist Samson Bonkeabantu Brown and dramaturged/directed by d’bi.young anitafrika, 11:11 is a bio-mythical monodrama journey, stretching across time, space, and the realms of life and afterlife, as our hero connects with his Portuguese and South African ancestors, and moves through fear to become the man he was meant to be.

In a one-person show that encompasses both broad and immediate personal history, Brown draws out his tale as he gradually constructs a pattern on the floor with white stones. Incorporating storytelling, history, movement, ritual, language and music, he shape shifts in and out of a cast of characters that include the precocious, curious seven-year-old girl he once was and the joyful, prophesying, matter-of-fact South African ancestor he’s about to meet.

Becoming a bridge between past and present, female and male, he connects with the spirit world through dreams and visions—and gradually the messages become clear as the little girl who experiences strange dreams and headaches, and is shunned in the schoolyard, grows up and comes to learn that there’s nothing medically wrong with her. She is a receiver, a prophecy made flesh, a shape shifter.

In a world where white men divided up a continent they claimed as their own, and forced their alphabet onto environment-based African dialects—and, later, Western medicine onto African descendants—how does our hero reconcile his connections to both the colonized and the colonizer? And, through the pain of the struggle for true identity, and the ancestral pain of apartheid and displacement, he comes to realize the complex—and even contradictory—aspects of identity and experience that have combined to create him.

1111 by Samson Bonkeabantu Brown (featuring Samson Bonkeabantu Brown) photo by Brett Haynes #2
Samson Bonkeabantu Brown. Set design by d’bi.young anitafrika. Costume design by Samson Bonkeabantu Brown. Lighting design by André du Toit. Photo by Brett Haynes.

Brown, who recently wrote for/performed in the RARE Theatre/Soulpepper production Welcome to my Underworld, is a compelling and entertaining storyteller. Engaging, bold, unashamed and vulnerable, he invites us along on his journey—part autobiography, part personal mythology, part history lesson, part supernatural revelation—as he connects with his roots and finds his true rhythm. From the child-like playfulness of a little girl to the wry-witted wisdom of an elder, the fear, confusion, joy and humour Brown expresses throughout resonate in a deeply profound, intimate way. And I know I wasn’t the only one in tears at the end.

11:11 continues in the Incubator at the Theatre Centre until June 1, with performances on:

Tuesday, May 28 – 6:00PM
Wednesday, May 29 – 9:00PM
Thursday, May 30 – 6:00PM
Friday, May 31 – 9:00PM
Saturday, June 1 – 6:00PM

Tickets available online, in person at the box office, or by calling 416-538-0988.

Memories of grade 6 & the search for identity in the brave, endearing, immersive ERASER

Clockwise from top centre: Christol Bryan, Marina Gomes, Yousef Kadoura, Tijiki Morris, Nathan Redburn & Anthony Perpuse. Set & costume design by Christine Urquhart. Lighting design by Rebecca Vandevelde. Photo by Sam Gaetz.

 

Eraser Theatre brings the world premiere of its immersive production ERASER, presented as part of Why Not Theatre’s RISER Project 2019, to The Theatre Centre’s Incubator stage. Created by the ensemble, along with director/choreographer team Bilal Baig and Sadie Epstein-Fine, ERASER invites the audience into the world of the six performers’ grade 6 memories and fantasies, weaving their individual experiences together as their young student selves navigate their tween lives and struggle to figure out who they want to be.

The endearing, brave, high-energy ensemble features Christol Bryan (Whitney, the Queen Bee), Marina Gomes (Tara, the Know-it-all), Yousef Kadoura (Jihad, the Follower), Tijiki Morris (Afroze, the New Kid), Anthony Perpuse (Eli, the Space Cadet) and Nathan Redburn (Noah, the Sad One). As you enter the theatre space, you’re given a lanyard that bears the name and image of one of the students; this student will be your guide throughout the experience, and you’re invited to join them in their space before the action begins.

ERASER - Anthony Perpuse
Anthony Perpuse. Set & costume design by Christine Urquhart. Lighting design by Rebecca Vandevelde. Photo by Sam Gaetz.

I was put on team Eli (Perpuse), and we joined him in his room, hanging out and getting to know him before the start of the new school year. A gayby kid of Filipino heritage, nearly 12-year-old Eli has two moms—with one mom’s brother being the sperm donor for the other mom’s pregnancy. He’s a chill, affable, curious kid who loves to hang out in his room, stretching and playing video games, especially Pokémon; and he’s got a nostalgic side, favouring games he played as a kid (i.e., an even younger kid).

Audience members following a character* become that student’s group of friends, their confidantes, their posse—and we follow them through the sixth grade minefield of gym and math class, the cafeteria and playground, class presentations, a game of Truth or Dare, and a school dance. Each character reads as an archetype for someone you surely knew—or maybe even were—in grade 6 yourself; interesting dynamics emerge, and theories and rumours abound. How did Noah’s brother die? What’s the deal with the new kid? Who has a crush on whom? Who’s failing math?

The remarkable ensemble invites us in as they open their hearts, minds and sixth grade experiences to us. The six individual stories are woven together with scenes, movement and audience interaction—with engaging and moving results; and the appearance of their teacher, Miss Hall, is indicated with the footstep sounds of her heels. Bryan’s Whitney may be the alpha kid on the playground, but her confident, take-charge demeanour masks the profound sense of frustration and oppression she, the only Black kid in the class, feels over being singled out for discipline when the whole class was involved. Gomes’s A-student Tara relishes learning and academic success, and dreams of becoming an important political figure—while, underneath it all, she just wants to belong and have a nice, cute boyfriend. Kadoura’s Jihad, who wears a prosthetic leg, seems happy to follow his friends, yet he’s the one they call upon to approach the new kid; he has a big, open heart and a supportive network, but you get the sense that he’s struggling with his place in the world.

Morris’s Afroze, a white girl raised in Pakistan, is navigating both culture shock and being the new kid in a group of kids who’ve grown up with each other. Struggling to make friends as her classmates treat her like some strange, exotic creature, she holds the familiar comforts of home close as she works out a way to fit in to this new world. Perpuse’s laid back Eli reveals a pensive, sensitive soul struggling with math class—and wondering why his friend Noah is ignoring him after they got so close over the summer. Sometimes, Eli needs to give himself a time out from it all, craving a solitary moment so he can sort things out in his head, or let his pent-up frustration safely erupt. And Redburn’s Noah desperately wants his life to just get back to normal after his brother died this past summer; reaching out, then pulling away from his friend Eli as he grapples with grief, loss and attraction.

If you’re an adult audience member, you may find yourself becoming that kid you were in grade 6—or at least remembering what it was like. The emerging hormones and curiosity about sex, the gossip and note passing, the mortifying shyness at the school dance, the joyful fantasies of future success, and fears of failure or having your most secret desires made public. Some of it comes to matter deeply, some of it doesn’t. And while each audience member will experience the show in their own personal way, everyone will take away something from the experience.

ERASER continues in the Incubator at the Theatre Centre until May 14, with performances May 10, 11 and 13 at 7:00, and matinées on May 9, 11 and 14 at 2:00 (with a 30-minute talkback following matinées). Tickets available online, in person at the box office, or by calling 416-538-0988.

*There is seating for those with mobility issues; they will have a good vantage point—and, in some cases, the action will come to them.

The incendiary aftermath of lives in distress in the powerful, theatrical After the Fire

Louise Lambert, Jesse Gervais, Sheldon Elter & Kaitlyn Riordan. Set & costume design by Alison Yanota. Lighting design by Kaileigh Krysztofiak. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Punctuate! Theatre and Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts, in association with Native Earth Performing Arts and The Theatre Centre, opened the world premiere of Matthew MacKenzie’s powerful, theatrical After the Fire at The Theatre Centre last night. Directed by Brendan McMurtry-Howlett, assisted by Theresa Cutknife, the play follows two couples in the aftermath of the Fort McMurray fire—the personal, environmental and economic devastation of the disaster sparking volatile dynamics and personal revelations within the group. And a stark reminder of how precious and fragile our environment is—and how we need to examine our relationship with the land and water.

The pleasant, transporting scent of sage, sweet grass and tobacco wafts over us as we sit, in the round (rectangle, actually), a recognition of the four corners—North, South, East and West—and an Elder’s opening night prayer and reminder to respect, protect and hold sacred the water and the land. Mother Earth’s gifts have been razed by flames in Fort McMurray; the set (designed by Alison Yanota) a post-apocalyptic wasteland, a large pile of wood chips and ash dominating centre stage, with a menacing tentacle-like structure hovering above. Like a dead tree dripping crude oil, its shadow resembling a dinosaur skeleton in the red light (lighting design by Kaileigh Krysztofiak). And a touch of normalcy and Canadiana:  a box of Timbits and Timmies coffee cups sit atop the ash pile.

Laura (Kaitlyn Riordan) and Barry (Sheldon Elter) lost their home in the Fort McMurray fire; and they and their daughter are currently living with Laura’s younger sister Carmell (Louise Lambert), who has recently split up with her husband Ty (Jesse Gervais), and her two kids. Carmell is a local girls’ hockey team coach and Laura is their trainer; both have daughters on the team, bff cousins. Still reeling from the personal and community disaster of the fire, they’re on a mission tonight after the hockey game: the men are digging a hole out in the scorched forest and the women are en route to the tailings pond to dispose of something.

Riordan does an excellent job of driving the urgency of their situation, quashing Laura’s distress with determination and comic observation; tightly wound, fastidious and prim—the “responsible” older sister. A perfect foil as Laura’s “wild” younger sister, Lambert brings a world-wise, no-fucks-given edge; Carmell has dealt with some serious shit in her life, including her addict ex. And although the two are polar opposites and drive each other crazy, there’s a solid bond of sisterhood despite their differences. As the men take turns digging the hole, we see another pair of opposites emerge. Elter gives a solid, compelling performance as Barry; silent and pensive, and seething underneath it all, Barry’s found himself in a place of deep reflection. Re-examining his relationship with his Indigenous heritage and to the land since the fire, he’s particularly sensitive to the condition of the local flora and fauna. Gervais’ energetic, chatty man child Ty is a bundle of nervous recovering addict energy; unashamedly unapologetic for working in the oil industry, there’s more than meets the eye. Ty also demonstrates heart-felt honesty and care, and go-to resilience—a result of his inward exploration and recovery process.

Trying to keep it all together in the face of a dire situation, hot on the heels of their world actually on fire, each character is forced to deal with the fire burning out of control in his/her life. The Fort McMurray fire, possibly caused by humans, tripped off a series of responses and actions beyond the disaster itself, and renewed reflection and debate on environmental protection vs. economic benefits. As these characters take stock of their place in and personal impact on the world—on both a small and large scale—we’re reminded how a small spark on an individual level can create huge, far-reaching consequences that impact many.

After the Fire continues at the Theatre Centre to January 19; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416-538-0988. It’s a short run, so get on it.

Top 10 theatre 2018

For obvious reasons, I haven’t checked out other reviewers’/blogger folks’ lists—so I don’t know what they’ve been saying—but is it just me or was this year’s top 10 list an especially challenging task? Seems to me that we had an extra large embarrassment of riches with this year’s theatre productions, so I’m cheating with a larger than usual honourable mention list this year.*

Top ten theatre productions for 2018 (in alphabetical order):

Dry Land – Cue6

George F. Walker Double Bill (Her Inside Life & Kill the Poor) – Leroy Street Theatre/Low Rise Productions/Storefront Theatre

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – Soulpepper

Maggie & Pierre – timeshare productions 

The Message – Tarragon Theatre 

The Monkey Queen – Red Snow Collective

The Nether – Coal Mine & Studio 180 Theatre

Peter Pan – Bad Hats Theatre & Soulpepper 

The Pigeon – Alumnae Theatre FireWorks Festival

Punk Rock – Howland Company 

 

Honourable mentions:

Category E – Coal Mine Theatre 

A Christmas Carol – Three Ships Collective & Soup Can Theatre 

Little Gem – Toronto Irish Players 

Pearle Harbour’s Chautauqua – Theatre Passe Muraille 

The Royale – Soulpepper 

Secret Life of a Mother – Theatre Centre

Vitals – Theatre Born Between 

What I Call Her – In Association & Crow’s Theatre 

*Including shows I covered in life with more cowbell this year. As I was employed by Nightwood Theatre, either on staff or freelance, I have not reviewed their shows this year.

A photo album of family, love & memento mori in the profoundly moving, nostalgic, candid Dividing Lines/Líneas Divisorias

Beatriz Pizano & Julia (projected photo). Scenography by Trevor Schwellnus, with associate lighting designer Rebecca Vandevelde. Costume design by Andjelija Djuric. Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh.

 

“They say blood is thicker than water —
I say, love is thicker than blood.”

Aluna Theatre premieres Beatriz Pizano’s Dividing Lines/Líneas Divisorias, a photo album of family, love and memento mori; written and performed by Pizano, and created with director Trevor Schwellnus and composer/sound designer Brandon Miguel Valdivia, and running now at The Theatre Centre.

Losing her mother when she was a toddler, Pizano was adopted by her Aunt Julia and Uncle Jorge after her “Marlboro Man” father took off, leaving her and her two siblings behind—and a deep and lasting connection evolved with her new parents. Years later, after Pizano has moved to Canada, when an aged, widowed Julia drifts away in a lost, confused haze of dementia, she keeps her promise, returning home again and again to be with Julia during her “Calvary.” Weaving a personal history of distant and recent past—from her years growing up with Julia in Columbia to travelling back and forth from Canada during Julia’s final years, to and from hospital and nursing home; Pizano shifts from romantic nostalgia to harsh, heartbreaking life and death reality. And then, a chance meeting with a doctor at the nursing home—there to perform euthanasia on another patient—and an act of love, mercy and personal sacrifice to make a decision for a loved one who is unable to do so.

dividing lines
Beatriz Pizano. Scenography by Trevor Schwellnus, with associate lighting designer Rebecca Vandevelde. Costume design by Andjelija Djuric. Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh.

Incorporating photographs and props, projected on a row of overlapping burlap legs that flare out and merge together on the floor, we see an evolving collage of life and family—from the broad strokes of wide-ranging world events to the God-is-in-the-details moments and wisdom of shared lives. The storytelling, relayed in English and sometimes Spanish, is visually rich; full of a lust for life, liberty and equality; and resonating with the music of childhood and the revolution—and, ultimately, with hope and closure. Pizano gives us a deeply personal, candid, raw and romantic—at times interactive—performance; balanced with a cheeky sense of irreverence where religion is concerned, and a revolutionary bohemian spirit when it comes to class and politics.

Part personal memory play, part confessional, part memorial, Dividing Lines/Líneas Divisorias reminds us that the one thing that’s certain in life—and we all have in common—is that we die. What would you do for a loved one who’s lost to the world, incapacitated and in pain—to set them free?

Dividing Lines/Líneas Divisorias is in its final week, closing on December 2. Advance tickets available online or by calling The Theatre Centre’s Box Office at 416-538-0988.

Check out this CBC piece on Dividing Lines/Líneas Divisorias, including Matt Galloway’s interview with Beatriz Pizano on Metro Morning.

A warrior’s heroic journey in the wondrous, enchanting, multidisciplinary The Monkey Queen

Diana Tso and Nicholas Eddie. Scenic design by William Yong. Costume design by Robin Fisher. Lighting design by Rebecca Picherack. Projection design by Elysha Poirier. Photo by David Hou.

 

The Theatre Centre presents the world premiere of Red Snow Collective’s wondrous, enchanting, multidisciplinary The Monkey Queen, by Diana Tso, directed and choreographed by William Yong. A feminist re-imagining and counterpart to the well-known, beloved traditional Chinese story The Monkey King, from Wu Cheng’En’s 16th century epic Journey to the West, The Monkey Queen is mytho-biographic—part autobiography, part mythology. Part one of a trilogy, the journey takes the artist east, in search of her spiritual and ancestral roots; running parallel to the warrior’s search for enlightenment in a series of challenges and quests.

A multidisciplinary, multimedia piece of storytelling, The Monkey Queen weaves personal anecdotes from Tso’s life into the Monkey Queen’s heroic quest as artist and warrior travel their respective paths towards enlightenment and meaning. From the moment you set foot in the Incubator space, you feel transported to a place outside of time and space. The haunting, otherworldly music (composers Nick Storring and Brandon Valdivia) echoes like the sound of the spheres—soothing, hypnotic and mysterious—as the snow white set reflects the blue light (lighting design by Rebecca Picherack) from five branchless tree-like structures (emerging from the ground or descending from the sky?) that will change colour throughout. As the lights come up, you can see tufts of fluffy white snow along the ground, and waves of white origami flowers that seem to float along the upstage wall (scenic design by Yong). At times, images related to the action are projected (projection design by Elysha Poirier) on the upstage wall; conjuring up skeletal dragons, vast mountain ranges and a vast star-filled night sky.

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Diana Tso and Nicholas Eddie. Scenic design by William Yong. Costume design by Robin Fisher. Lighting design by Rebecca Picherack. Projection design by Elysha Poirier. Photo by David Hou.

Performers Tso, who plays herself and the Monkey Queen, and Nicholas Eddie, playing her friend and a multitude of other characters—male, female, old, young, demon, god—tell the tale with movement, music and text; using their voices, posture and motion to sharply define and shift between characters. As the Monkey Queen, Tso is proud, fearless and determined as the female warrior bounds across the stars, shape shifting in the blink of an eye; and pragmatic as she comes to terms with mistakes in judgement stemming from her power and emotions. Eddie transforms from the mysterious old shaman, mentor to the Monkey Queen, to fearsome demons and dragons, to a charming, handsome prince. The performances are playful and brave, with a mischievous edge; sculpted with supple, powerful and expressive movement—all tempered with a sense of gravitas in the face of insight, enlightenment and penance.

The effect is magical; and as the tale unfolds, you may find yourself feeling like a child at story time. And despite the multimedia tech, most of the work is done by the performers—this is storytelling at its fantastic, imaginative best. And while this is a tale for children of all ages, girls will be especially gratified to see that they can be heroes too; particularly when they learn that Tso’s inspiration for writing the piece was so she could play a hero who was originally written and cast as a man.

The Monkey Queen continues at the Theatre Centre until December 2; please note the 7:30 pm curtain time. Running time 65 minutes, followed by a 15-minute Q&A with the artists. Tickets available by calling The Theatre Centre’s Box Office at 416-538-0988 or online.

In the meantime, check out the What’s On TOnight? Take Five interview with Diana Tso.