Speaking truth to power in raw, real, fierce & funny Sound of the Beast

Tamyka Bullen (onscreen) & Donna-Michelle St. Bernard in Sound of the Beast—photo by Michael Cooper

 

Hear ye, hear ye

let it be known,

No one on my block walks alone.

 

Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) closes its 2016-17 season with Donna-Michelle St. Bernard’s (aka Belladonna the Blest) Sound of the Beast, co-directed by Andy McKim and Jivesh Parasram, with ASL components by Tamyka Bullen, and featuring composition and sound design by David Mesiha. Sound of the Beast opened in the TPM Backspace last night.

Inspired by the story of Tunisian rapper Weld El 15, whose artistic freedom of speech was muzzled by police and government, and part of St. Bernard’s 54ology (her commitment to create a performance piece from each country in Africa), Sound of the Beast combines rap and spoken word with lived experiences for an up-close, profoundly personal and resonant performance. Complementing St. Bernard’s storytelling is a projected performance of Tamyka Bullen’s poetry, performed in ASL with English surtitles (projection design by Cameron Davis). And a series of radio voice-overs (Glyn Bowerman), updating us on news of an “incident” in a “priority neighbourhood,” provide a bleak commentary on the clueless, one-sided and white-washed view of mainstream media.

Autobiographical, observational and replete with first-hand lives lived in an environment of racism, mistrust and injustice, words and stories that we may only have read or seen on the news come to life. Urgent. Shocking. In front of us. What is the most shocking is that stories of oppression and injustice are not shocking, but part of our everyday lives.

Sound of the Beast
Donna-Michelle St. Bernard in Sound of the Beast—photo by Michael Cooper

A compelling and engaging storyteller, St. Bernard shifts easily from pointed remarks and calling out prejudice, to casual and conversational moments. She puts forth hypothetical scenarios and asks us how we would respond; making us active participants as we silently think about the choices in front of us. And during two poignant and charged scenes, she speaks to her imaginary young son; guiding him on how to behave, speak and even set his facial expressions in order to stay safe out there when confronted by the authorities. At times speaking to us as friends, she takes us in and along on her journey—her research on Weld El, her personal experiences—genuine, infuriating, heartbreaking, hilarious. Shifting from a stand-up storytelling vibe, to in our faces or in emcee performance mode, St. Bernard moves through the space with ease and fluidity, with professionalism and personality. Singing and speaking with strength, emotion and moving beats, her job is to tell it—and she brings it big time.

Speaking as a Deaf woman born into a “hearing Indian-Guyanese Hindu-Christian family”—and living in a “hearing, straight Eurocentric Christian patriarchal country,” Bullen’s poetry is beautiful, moving and revealing. Highlighting the intersectionality of experiences of oppression and prejudice among the Black and Deaf communities, she points to how heavy unemployment and underemployment leave marginalized people struggling to get by in a system that “operates for so long based on ignorance and hate.” Writing of poverty, PTSD, the immigrant experience and her relationship with the earth, Bullen reminds us of the ever present need for mindfulness, awareness and compassion—and how we are all we are all born of the same Mother Earth.

Coiled on the floor and ready, the microphone is St. Bernard’s weapon and bridge; and the black hoodie she dons at the opening of her performance and sheds at the close is her storytelling cloak. If you are not black or marginalized, you can only glean so much from what you see and hear in the news about these lived experiences. Of being constantly under surveillance because of the colour of your skin and the neighbourhood you live in. Of being questioned by law enforcement for no reason. Of being misunderstood and not knowing what you’re supposed to say. Of unarmed youth being shot by police. Sound of the Beast brings it in closer. Come and hear for yourself.

Speaking truth to power in raw, real, fierce and funny Sound of the Beast.

Sound of the Beast continues in the TPM Backspace until May 7; book tickets online or call 416-504-7529. Advance booking strongly recommended—it’s a powerful show and an intimate space.

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll sing along in your heart with the brilliant, hilarious & deeply poignant Stupidhead!

Katherine Cullen & Britta Johnson in Stupidhead!—photo by Michael Cooper

 

Better late than never to the party, as I finally got out to see Katherine Cullen and Britta Johnson’s SummerWorks hit Stupidhead! A Musical Comedy, directed by Aaron Willis—now in its final week in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Mainspace.

Written and performed by Cullen and Johnson, who also collaborated on the lyrics, with music by Johnson, Stupidhead! is a part musical, part stand-up, part personal storytelling journey of Cullen’s experience living with dyslexia.

Stupidhead! is Cullen’s childhood dream of being in a musical come true. And, despite her lack of training, experience and self-reported ability, she was determined to make it happen; and recruited her good friend Johnson to help her write the music. Johnson joins her onstage, accompanying her on piano and back-up vocals—reacting to Cullen’s performance throughout, sometimes cracking up along with the audience.

Pointing out that dyslexia affects people differently, Cullen has no trouble with reading and writing—and as a child enjoyed escaping into writing poetry, and stories about the adventures of a silly koala and rabbit. Diagnosed at a young age, Cullen relates her struggles with math, organizational skills and directions, finding herself mentally lost at school and physically lost in her own neighbourhood—and, above all, labelled. And that label put her in the position of having to deal with ignorance and lack of compassion from others, making her sense of otherness feel even more isolating and humiliating, and becoming a part of her identity.

Her anecdotes about trying to fit in are both hilarious and moving—from her grade three poetry contest nemesis (now a CFL football player), to being lost on her own street, to two weeks in a puppet camp in Vermont as a young adult and her love of Jesus Christ Superstar—all delivered with genuine feeling and gusto. While it’s a show about the “glamour of failure,” it’s also a show about throwing off the chains of shame and isolation. In the end, Cullen avoids tying it up neatly, but emerges from the darker moments of her experience into a place of hope and determination.

Stupidhead!
Katherine Cullen in Stupidhead!—photo by Michael Cooper

Cullen shines onstage. An engaging, genuine and charming performer, she’s gutsy and kick-ass, but also vulnerable and fragile. As she schools us on dyslexia, she gives us the straight goods about what it’s like to live inside her head. And she gives ‘er with the music, putting her all into performing the songs, from belted out numbers to gentle, heartfelt ballads. She and Johnson make a terrific duo. Johnson is pretty damn funny herself; and there’s a lovely tender moment of compassion and understanding between them that rings with friendship and love. And their anthem of “don’t give up!” brought tears to my eyes.

With big shouts to set designer Anahita Dehbonehie and lighting designer Jennifer Lennon for the cool and beautiful neurosciencey environment.

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll sing along in your heart with the brilliant, hilarious and deeply poignant Stupidhead!

Stupidhead! continues in the TPM Mainspace, closing on Apr 2; book in advance online or call 416-504-7529. Check out Hallie Seline’s interview with Cullen and Johnson for In the Greenroom.

And here’s the trailer:

 

 

Getting to the truth, & touching on the why, about violence against women in the thought-provoking, chilling SMYTH / WILLIAMS

Deborah Drakeford, Lynette Gillis & Kim Nelson in SMYTH / WILLIAMS—photo by Yuri Dojc

War and violence against women not only have similar social, cultural, and religious supports, they are mutually reinforcing. These supports allow societies to tolerate conditions in which a third of women and girls can be treated violently, without mass outcry and rebellion. When we challenge the attitudes and norms that enable violence against women, we are also helping to confront the conditions that support war.—Reverend Susan Thistlethwaite (included in the program notes for SMYTH / WILLIAMS)

Trigger warning: This post reviews a verbatim theatre production based on the transcripts of a police interview with a convicted serial killer rapist.

One Little Goat Theatre Company opened its all-female staging of the Ontario Provincial Police (O.P.P.) transcript of Detective Jim Smyth’s interview of stalker and serial killer Russell Williams in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Backspace last night. SMYTH / WILLIAMS was devised and directed by Adam Seelig.

Staged in a dramatically rendered police interview room (set by Jackie Chau and lighting by Laird Macdonald), including two microphone stands, two chairs and two copies of the transcript, the set also includes a drum kit, situated up centre, behind a pile of cedar chips on a floor that depicts a map. The transcript is a notable prop, not only for its occasional and specific use by the two actors (Deborah Drakeford and Kim Nelson), but for the extent to which it’s been redacted—in some parts heavily so—and those portions of the conversation between Smyth and Williams are filled in on stage by drum solos (Lynette Gillis).

The over seven-hour interview, which took place on February 7, 2010, has been pared down to about 90 minutes in this staged verbatim performance, with Drakeford and Nelson switching back and forth between characters, both playing Smyth and Williams at various points in the interview. The trajectory of the conversation begins with Williams being questioned as a person of interest in multiple crimes in the Ottawa and Belleville areas, to his arrest as evidence becomes available and search warrants executed on his homes, to his confession.

The cast is to be commended for their specific, respectful and focused performances of this difficult, disturbing material. Drakeford and Nelson establish a compelling dynamic between Smyth and Williams. Smyth is presented as the classic “good cop,” conducting the interview in a respectful, methodic but gentle way. Williams is the strong, silent type; a military man of few words who serves his country and appears to cooperate in the interest of serving his community in this investigation. The result is a pairing of strong feminine and masculine energies, with the interview shifting from more easy-going conversation to urgent strategizing as new information surfaces during the course of the investigation.

I was a bit baffled at first as to how the drum solos were going to work in the context of filling in redacted sections of the transcript (this info provided by Drakeford and Nelson at the beginning of the play; they also hold up their copies, showing the large blacked-out portions of the text in these instances). Drums are a primal, beat-driving percussion instrument; and Gillis is a skilled musician, drawing out the larger redactions with kick-ass precision. It’s an interesting and innovative piece of staging for what cannot be said—and one can only imagine that the redacted sections contain the more horrific details of Williams’ crimes. As the confession unfolds, there is an increasing Riot Grrrl vibe to Gillis’s performance—the drums beating out in anger and protest.

The production has not been without controversy. Terra Dafoe, a friend and neighbour of Jessica Lloyd, one of the women Williams abducted, raped and murdered, is at the forefront of a group that’s spearheaded a protest against the presentation of SMYTH / WILLIAMS, which they argue is a non-consensual and re-traumatizing production that sensationalizes violence against women. Dafoe was present at the opening last night, handing out a one-pager that states their case and includes a link to their Lead Now petition. Here’s a sampling of interviews from both the production (via News 1130) and the protest (via CBC).

Full disclosure: I was wary of seeing this production. Although I’m a big fan of TV crime procedurals, SMYTH / WILLIAMS is not a TV crime procedural. It’s real life. This is not fictitious, made-up dialogue—this conversation really happened, between a real detective and a real rapist/murderer. The women Williams stalked, harassed, raped and killed were real people. And, like those protesting the production, I was concerned about the details that would be revealed, as well as the traumatic effect of the subject matter. I decided to see it because I was curious as to whether such a production would have anything of value to say about violence against women. And, naively, I was hoping to find a ‘why.’ Why did he do it?

What I saw was a production that does not serve up salacious details—in fact, the disturbing details are kept to a minimum and what is included is presented in such a way as to show Williams’ apparent detachment from his actions, as well as the atrocity of those actions, when the actors peer out from their male characters and speak as women. Ironically, the turning point for Williams comes as he learns that search warrants are being executed on his homes—and he becomes deeply concerned about the negative impacts on his wife and the Canadian Armed Forces. Whether his concern came from a place of love and honour, or from a place of losing his grip on domination and control, it appears to be what ultimately spurred his confession. And an even bigger question mark is why he did what he did. Even if Williams knew, he wasn’t saying.

While I agree that seven years may be too soon for a theatrical examination of this case, I also have to wonder how one puts an arbitrary time limit on loss, grief and that deeply troubling ‘why.’ Theatre is a medium that helps us to explore all aspects of humanity and human experience—from the gods to the monsters—and I believe SMYTH / WILLIAMS and its opening night audience treated this real life piece of the more horrific side of humanity with respect and dignity.

The quote included at the beginning of this post, taken from the program notes, connects the dots between war and violence against women. While not a fulsome answer to the ‘why,’ it does give us a glimpse into the workings of a social infrastructure that supports ongoing violence against women and girls; and one from which a man like Williams emerged. I believe that widespread outcry and rebellion are growing, and that such push-back is amplified by the grief and rage incited by crimes like these, as well as the election of misogynists to high office.

There was no applause after the cast left the stage. No curtain call. A moment of silence for several moments followed before the audience gradually began hushed conversation and exited the space. This was not a reflection on the performances. Like the production, the audience wanted to treat the memories of the women that Williams harmed and murdered with respect and dignity—and in this way, the production and the petition are in agreement.

Getting to the truth, and touching on the why, about violence against women in the thought-provoking, chilling SMYTH / WILLIAMS.

This is not a production for everyone. If you decide to see SMYTH / WILLIAMS, there are some important questions you need to ask yourself. Why are you going to see it? Do you think the production contributes to the conversation about violence against women in a meaningful way? And if you happen to cross paths with Dafoe or another protestor, treat them with respect, hear what they have to say and read the hand-out. Free speech goes both ways—and both the protest and the production have important things to say.

SMYTH / WILLIAMS continues in the TPM Backspace until Mar 12; book in advance online or call 416-504-7529.

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.

Childhood friends grow up, lose touch & take a wacky trip out of bounds in big fun, big-hearted Playday Mayday

caitlin-howden-mike-hughes-colin-munch-anders-yates-matt-goldberg-photo-by-john-gundy
Caitlin Howden, Mike Hughes, Colin Munch, Anders Yates & Matt Goldberg in Playday Mayday – photo by John Gundy

Remember playing Twister, Operation, Risk? Ever have an imaginary friend, pretend you were in space, turn your hand into a firearm? When you were a kid, was there a place in your town or neighbourhood you weren’t allowed to go – a place that was out of bounds?

Uncalled For does it all – and then some – in their thoughtful comic return to childhood games and fantasy in Playday Mayday, running now in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Mainspace, produced in association with the Toronto Sketch Comedy Festival. Written and directed by Matt Goldberg, Mike Hughes, Dan Jeannotte, Jacynthe Lalonde, Colin Munch and Anders Yates, the cast features Goldberg, Caitlin Howden, Hughes, Munch and Yates.

Five friends, once inseparable as they played together around their coastal town, have grown up and apart with adult busy-ness and responsibilities. After all those years of meaning to keep in touch, they gather at the edge of a cliff, awkwardly trying to reconnect at water’s edge. Then, something weird happens. One by one, they each lose their cellphones, watching with horror as the devices fall into the water of high tide below. Bruce (Munch) gets called into work, while the others wait for low tide to venture down. Down into out of bounds (OOB) to retrieve their phones. And then, something magical happens.

OOB is a world of eternal childhood, where grown-ups rekindle their sense of fun and play – and the four friends (Goldberg, Howden, Hughes and Yates) launch into games. Childhood games with an adult twist, like corporate Twister, a deadly game of 20 questions, hand gun arms dealer, a slimy amphibian imaginary friend with an agenda, and a unique version of musical chairs that features hip hop and period dance moves (choreography by Holly Greco and Stephanie McKenna). Oh, and the audience gets to play too – but you’ll have to go see for yourselves.

Meanwhile, Bruce has been working at the games call centre when his boss Mr. Wolf (Hughes) announces that there’s a situation in OOB. Concerned about his friends, Bruce volunteers to go down to save them. Of course, he ends up joining in on the fun and games. Which become not so fun when Mr. Wolf threatens to leave the five friends stranded, with the incoming high tide fast approaching.

Awesome work from the ensemble. Stand-out moments include a spacewalk with a twist; an impressive display of tongue-twisting alliteration in a courtroom scene; and an intergalactic space battle that goes horribly astray, but not for the reasons you might think. Playing together again and banding together against Mr. Wolf, friendship reignites with loads of big fun on the edge of reality.

With shouts to Lalonde for the cool production design, where everyday cast-off object become the stuff of imagination, including red hoodies.

Five childhood friends grow up, lose touch and take a wacky trip out of bounds in the big fun, big-hearted Playday Mayday.

Playday Mayday continues at TPM till Dec 4; check here for show dates/times – please note the 7:30 start time for evening performances. Get your advance tix online at Toronto Sketchfest or Arts Box Office, or call 416-504-7529.

Keep up with all your Uncalled For shenanigans on Twitter and Facebook.

Former high school pals reunite to solve an old, gruesome mystery in the dark, macabre, thoughtful Swan

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Bria McLaughlin & Michelle Chiu in Swan – photos by Cesar Ghisilieri

Finish what you start.

Little Black Afro Theatre joins forces with Filament Incubator for a production of Aaron Jan’s Swan, directed by Jan and dramaturged by Lucy Powis; and opening last night to a packed house in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Backspace.

As we enter the theatre and settle into our seats, the playing space (Aram Heydarian, who designed the costumes), sound (Kevin Feliciano) and foggy, atmospheric lighting (Samuel Chang) aptly set the tone for this disturbing tale of violence. Three piles of feathers line the apron. Centre stage is a wooden deck-like structure – and above it, a murder of black birds hangs like a menacing Hitchcockian mobile. Underneath the hum of chatting audience members, you can hear the gentle sound of lapping water and birds.

Returning home to Hamilton after a 10-year absence, writer Joey (Bria McLaughlin) is on a mission. Ten years ago, the night of her high school prom, an injured swan was brutally killed and dismembered at Cootes Paradise (a wetland on the west side of Hamilton Harbour), and the perpetrator was never found. She and a group of friends had tried to solve the mystery back then, but came up empty and gave up.

Despite her older sister Bill’s (Michelle Chiu) skepticism, Joey gets the gang back together in an awkward sort of reunion. Once a tight group of lesbian friends, they formed an environmental group at their now decommissioned, abandonned school in an effort to affect positive change in their city: Rachel (Isabel Kanaan), Piper (Christine Nguyen) and Ron (Angela Sun). The fifth member of the group, Jenna Lynn (Marina Moreira) went missing the night of the prom. And the papers made a bigger deal about the swan.

A horrific trail of clues – photographs of their local hang-outs, each one accompanied by growing numbers of bird carcasses – leads them around the city as they hunt for the swan killer. As they grow weary of their fruitless efforts, suspicion arises. Is the killer among them? Loyalties come into question as memories of some ugly interactions emerge, including Jenna Lynn’s expulsion from the group. All is revealed in the disturbing ending, as mystery turns supernatural.

Excellent work from this cast of women in this spooky, quick-paced tale of otherness and search for the truth. As Joey, McLaughlin is a born leader; an inspiring, determined and cunning negotiator with a lot of smarts and a quick wit, Joey has struggled through her own life-changing injury and has made a modest name for herself as a writer. As Joey’s big sis Bill, Chiu brings a nice combination of cynicism and wariness; Bill thinks Joey and her friends are nuts for trying to solve this case, but she’s also concerned for her sister’s welfare and longs to build a brighter future for what’s left of their family.

Kanaan gives Rachel a great sense of inner conflict; once the class over-achiever, type-A Rachel is in a rut. Ten years after high school, she’s still working as a lifeguard at the local rec centre – and re-opening the case of the murdered swan has sparked her dulled ambition. Nguyen’s Piper is a quirky delight; a lanky athlete with a huge appetite. The peacemaker of the group, she just wants everyone to chill and get along.

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Angela Sun, Isabel Kanaan & Christine Nguyen in Swan

As Ron, Sun is the hasbien of the group, who went on to a traditional, “respectable” heterosexual marriage complete with kids and church activities. Sun gives her some deep tones, though; as we learn that Ron is good at keeping secrets and forgetting things, as well as putting up with some clueless everyday racism – dressed up as cultural interest – from her husband. Moreira’s Jenna Lynn is a lovely combination of bashful and forceful; coming late into the group, it’s Jenna Lynn who takes them in a more effective direction as they comb the community page of the Spec (the Hamilton Spectator) for local problems to solve.

All are outsiders by virtue of their ethnicity, colour and/or sexuality. An all are adrift in lives interupted; seeking identity, and a sense of belonging and purpose. Like the characters in Jan’s Rowing, there’s a feeling of being trapped in a city that doesn’t want them and has nothing for them – even as they struggle to make the best of it and make something of themselves. If they could just solve this mystery, things will turn around for them. And, like it’s sister play Tire Swing, Swan is a dark tale of memory, traumatic experience and mystery.

Former high school pals reunite to solve an old, gruesome mystery in the dark, macabre, thoughtful Swan.

Swan continues in the TPM Backspace till Nov 13; get your tix online or call 416-504-7529. Please note the 7:30 curtain time for evening performances.

Toronto Fringe: Xenophobia gone viral in a brutal worldwide dystopia in the beautifully choreographed, evocative Far Away

michela michael

PreShow Playlist is running a remarkable production of Caryl Churchill’s Far Away during Toronto Fringe, directed by Megan Watson and choreographed by Patricia Allison – and running in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Mainspace.

Xenophobia is a widespread, global disease and has become the default response in this dystopic world, where humans, animals – and even the elements – have perceived alliances and enemies. Joan (Michela Cannon) comes to live with her aunt Harper (Alix Sideris) and uncle, and sees things happening outside in the night that she doesn’t understand. Later, we see Joan working in a factory, where she becomes friends, then lovers, with Todd (Michael Ayres); and where their artistic gifts are put to a deadly purpose. When they arrive at Harper’s house as a couple, Harper questions Todd’s allegiance and the pair’s intentions. The tension is high and the paranoia excruciating, with enemies and traitors expected around every corner, the killing of any man, woman, child or animal is justified – even the river itself is regarded as suspicious.

In this beautifully crafted physical theatre production, movement conveys emotion, memory, activities and secrets, and carries equal weight to the dialogue; complementing and enhancing the spoken component of the script. The cast does excellent work here, combining words and movement as the characters balance on a razor’s edge. Sideris is both chilling and nurturing as Harper; with a grim sense of resolve, her dark commitment to the cause of her side is contrasted by the positive, rationalized spin she puts on her position. As Joan, Cannon is a bright innocent with a positive edge; the energy of her youthful questioning and wariness turns to lethal productivity and an eye towards a future with Michael. Ayres gives Michael a lovely sense of playfulness and curiosity; he seems to be the most open to reaching out for connection and questioning the truths held by those around him.

With shouts to the design team: Sorcha Gibson (set and costumes) for the eerie clothesline-like rows of white masks, hanging like the faces of the dead across the stage; Kathy Anderson (sound) for the haunting music and atmospheric sounds of this world; and Chris Malkowski (lighting) for the dramatic highlights throughout.

Xenophobia gone viral in a brutal worldwide dystopia in the beautifully choreographed, evocative Far Away.

Far Away continues at the TPM Mainspace until July 9. For ticket info and advance tickets/passes, check out the Fringe website.