Preview: A friend in need in Cue6’s powerful, intimate, intense Dry Land

Mattie Driscoll. Photo by Samantha Hurley.

 

Funny how it’s easier to share a secret with someone you barely know—and ask them to help you execute a critical decision. Dora award-winning Cue6—who brought us pool (no water)—presents an intimate and intense Toronto premiere of Ruby Rae Spiegel’s Dry Land. Directed by Jill Harper, this powerful and timely story of female friendship, abortion and perseverance previewed to a packed house at The Assembly Theatre last night and opens tonight.

Set primarily in the girls’ locker room of a Florida high school, we witness the evolution of the relationship between swim teammates Amy (Veronica Hortiguela) and new girl Ester (Mattie Driscoll). Both grappling with issues of sexuality, identity and the future, the tough-talking, sexually experienced, popular Amy and the introspective, naïve, socially awkward Ester are an unlikely pairing, to say the least. But Amy can’t bring herself to tell her mother or even her BFF Reba (Reanne Spitzer) about her unwanted pregnancy, so she turns to the new girl for help. Meanwhile, Ester is facing the pressures of being scouted by a university swim team—and dealing with her own desires and demons as she makes decisions about her future.

The stakes go up with each strategy Amy concocts, with Ester acting as a sounding board, personal assistant and devil’s advocate. Compelling, layered performances from both Driscoll and Hortiguela in this odd couple friendship. Driscoll rounds out the mousy Ester with hidden reserves of strength, determination and chutzpah; and Hortiguela deftly navigates the conflicted Amy, who masks her profound sense of vulnerability with cruelty and a “slut” image. Amy pushes Ester away when things get too real, too close—and only in the end does Amy realize how much she cherishes the relationship.

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Mattie Driscoll, Reanne Spitzer & Veronica Hortiguela.

Spitzer gives us a great comedic turn as Reba; a bubbly, irreverent and sharply observant gossip queen, Reba’s presence adds some much needed comic relief. The two male characters—university student Victor (played with likeable, awkward affability by Jonas Trottier), the son of a friend of Ester’s mother who hosts her during her university try-out, and the high school Janitor (Tim Walker, in a nicely understated, protectively watchful and largely silent role)—are secondary witnesses and assistants to the events that unfold. Amy and Ester are in the driver’s seat for their actions and the trajectory of their future—and the tight friendship that unfolds between them proves that old proverb “a friend in need is a friend indeed.”

With women’s reproductive rights constantly being challenged south of the border; and the sex ed curriculum here in Ontario being knocked back into the previous century, Dry Land is a candid, timely look at some serious feminist issues—particularly those facing women in their teens.

Dry Land continues at The Assembly Theatre until September 22; get advance tickets online or at the door (cash or credit card).

In partnership with Planned Parenthood Toronto, Cue6 will be presenting two post-performance talkbacks on September 13 and 20 to discuss the play and how it relates to sexual health challenges faced by youth in our current climate.

 

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Portents & prophecy as science meets spirit (or does it?) in compelling The Queen’s Conjuror

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Tim Walker, Joshua Browne & Sochi Fried in The Queen’s Conjuror – photos by John Gundy

Circlesnake Productions opened its production of Joshua Browne and Alec Toller’s The Queen’s Conjuror in The Attic Arts Hub (1402 Queen St. E., Toronto) on Thursday, directed by Toller. I caught the show last night.

A new star has recently appeared in the sky and Queen Elizabeth I (Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah) wants to know its meaning – particularly if it has any bearing on her reign. Scientist, magician and astrologer John Dee (Tim Walker) has been tasked with discovering the star’s meaning. He enlists the aid of scryer Edward Talbot (Joshua Browne), who is able to commune with spirits – primarily an angel called Uriel (John Fray) – who speak to him and supply him with visions.

Dee and his wife Jane (Sochi Fried) invite Talbot into their home, and find that he’s able to translate a series of strange symbols that appeared to Dee in a vision – and they begin to connect the pieces of a prophecy that seems to relate to the new star.

Their work is confounded by the torture Talbot endures during his sessions with the spirit world, as well as the suspicious, ever watchful eye of Lord William Cecil (Fray), the Queen’s advisor, who’s been set as a watchdog over the project. Working relationships evolve into friendships, and come to include Talbot’s wife Joanna (Roberts-Abdullah). How far will they go to complete the puzzle? And are Talbot’s spirits angels or demons?

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Joshua Browne & John Fray as Uriel

Lovely work from the cast in this intimate period drama, full of eerie spiritualism and ritual, signs and symbols, and the ancient science of divining from the stars, along with a touch of political intrigue. Beyond the quest for the meanings of stars and visions, The Queen’s Conjuror is about how people interpret the information they’re given – and how their subsequent actions impact on their lives.

As Dee, Walker mines the layers of a curious, learned and sharp-witted man with a passion for the truth and an eye on the Queen’s court. Possessing a logical scientific mind, he is capable of both kindness and cruelty in his pursuit; his resolve only shaken when their endeavours touch his life in a negative way. Browne gives Talbot a great combination of humility and entitlement; a gifted scryer, the price he pays for messages and visions is searing physical and emotional pain. And even he wonders if his spirit messengers come from God or the Devil. Fried’s fiercely intelligent and ambitious Jane is in the unique position of being her husband’s professional equal; a partner in his scientific and academic pursuits, she displays a quixotic passion that outstrips Dee’s. And her concern for, and care of, Talbot during his moments of collapse reveal notes of tension – of something more, something shared.

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Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah as Elizabeth I, with Tim Walker & Sochi Fried

Roberts-Abdullah’s Elizabeth I is regal and warm, imperious and magnanimous; she giveth and she taketh away with dispassionate efficiency. As Talbot’s wife Joanna, she is an observant, self-possessed and creative woman juggling her own work as a poet with her household duties; a nurturing, neglected wife and mother fighting for her marriage. As Uriel, Fray is menacing and manipulative; whispering secrets into Talbot’s ear and observing him as cruel child regards a distressed bug he’s been torturing. And his Cecil is a chilly and cunning authoritarian beneath the polite, charming courtier.

Portents and prophecy as science meets spirit (or does it?) in the compelling period drama The Queen’s Conjuror.

The Queen’s Conjuror continues at The Attic till Nov 20. You can get your tix in advance online – recommended, as it’s an intimate space; perfect to be a fly on the wall as the story unfolds and lives are forever changed.

SummerWorks: Prairie Home Companion meets The Twilight Zone in hilariously absurd, satirical dystopia Plucked

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Banjo-playing rooster-man masterminds a fiendish scheme to amass great wealth by turning women into chickens and selling their chicken-lady eggs.

This is the bizarre world in which we find ourselves in Rachel Ganz’s Plucked, in its Newborn Theatre production directed by Carly Chamberlain; now running in the Theatre Centre Mainspace for SummerWorks.

Yep, we’re down on Jerry’s (Tim Walker) farm, where father-in-law Rooster (Tim Machin, doing double duty as music director) has hatched a plan to turn his daughter Abigail (Sochi Fried) and granddaughter Fourteen (Qianna MacGilchrist) into chickens so he can sell their eggs and make buckets of cash – and he succeeds in turning Abigail with Jerry’s help. Also assisting is Mud (Faisal Butt), anthropomorphized mud that’s become Rooster’s minion. But have no fear, Harley the hunky farm boy (Tyrone Savage), in love with Fourteen, has a plan to save her from Rooster and Jerry’s scheme, then run away together.

It’s an absurd story told through hilariously outrageous bluegrass music and narration (led by Rooster) and scenes of crazy action that include Harley’s “borrowed” tractor (a tricycle) getting stuck in the mud (held by Mud). Not for the faint of heart, misogynist and socially unacceptable language (Abigail was “the fat lady” before she turned; and Harley is called a “retard”) peppers the lyrics and dialogue – with a purpose. Beyond the insanity of this politically incorrect backwoods dystopia is some cutting satire that sends up a fearful and greedy patriarchal society – one that exerts extreme control over its women and their reproductive organs, as well as the men it judges to be less than a ‘real man.’

The cast does a remarkable job with all the insanity. Machin is a diabolical delight as Rooster, the man turned farm foul who’s taken his cock of the walk status to extreme lengths. Always a treat to watch, Walker is hilarious as the numbskull Jerry; he likes to think he’s in charge, but he’s really just a dumbass bully following Rooster’s orders. Fried does a lovely job with Abigail’s conflicting feelings; mortified but defiant in her new chicken-lady body, she refuses to lay eggs. Great physicality and some beautiful, poignant moments with her daughter Fourteen. MacGilchrist’s Fourteen is a feisty, defiant force to be reckoned with; it is she who drives the plans to get away with Harley – giving the impression that, ultimately, it’s love and not a man that will save her. Savage is adorably dim but determined as Harley; a male Daisy Duke in cut-off jeans and plaid flannel, he is a genuinely kind and gentle man with a good heart who would do anything for Fourteen. Butt gives an entertaining performance as Mud, Rooster’s wise-cracking sidekick; he also does a mean percussion.

As you’re laughing at the craziness of it all, you’re also feeling uncomfortable. The absurdity reveals nuggets of truth that we don’t have to look far to find – and that is what’s truly disturbing.

Prairie Home Companion meets The Twilight Zone in the hilariously absurd, satirical dystopia of Plucked.

Plucked continues at the Theatre Centre Mainspace until Aug 14.

SummerWorks: Beautifully layered exploration of relationships, class, the struggle for order & mental illness in Complex

complexBumped into actor Tim Walker at the Lower Ossington Theatre on the weekend and found out about Complex, written by Rebecca Applebaum and directed for SummerWorks by Christopher Stanton in partnership with the Koffler Centre of the Arts – and I’m really glad I did.

Set in modern-day Toronto, the title makes multiple references: the Chalkfarm apartment that Darren (Mazin Elsadig) shares with his mother Althea (Beryl Bain); complex number theory, which Darren is playing catch-up on with tutor Sarah (Emily Piggford); and the relationships between Sarah and her live-in boyfriend Jonah (Tim Walker), who’s living with OCD, as well as Darren and his mother, who is suffering from severe depression after the death of her mother – and, as the play unfolds, between Darren and Sarah.

The story in Complex features stark contrasts of class divide, illustrated by the assumptions Sarah makes about Darren’s neighbourhood, activities and relationship with his mother, and about mental illness – both Sarah and Darren struggle to understand the conditions of their respective loved ones. While Sarah and Darren long for order in their lives, Jonah and Althea occupy a different world, grappling with their own inner demons and realities.

Excellent work from this cast! Bain is heartbreaking as the bereft Althea, lost in her grief and confused by her son’s anger and frustration at her debilitating desolation; and Elsadig does a lovely job balancing Darren’s youthful energy with the more adult burdens of looking after his mother – and the conflicting emotions therein. Piggford’s Sarah, like Darren, is frustrated with her loved one’s mental condition, even as she struggles to be supportive and understanding; and she does a great – at times comic – job of capturing the behaviours of an educated, privileged young adult trying to be chill with a low-income teen from a troubled neighbourhood. Walker’s Jonah is a good guy with an infuriating condition, obsessed with the apartment’s locks and fully aware of Sarah’s frustration, and trying to stay positive as he embarks on a group therapy program at CAMH.

Shouts to the design team: set (Laura Gardner), lighting (Siobhán Sleath) and sound (Lyon Smith) for creating the high-energy – at times overwhelmingly busy – urban atmosphere for Complex; the scrim-covered flats, built on PVC pipe frames and sprayed with graffiti, are particularly clever, delivering visual impact and creating cool shadow effects, as well as doubling as set pieces.

Complex is a beautifully layered exploration of relationships, class, the struggle for order, math theory and mental illness.

The show continues at the Lower Ossington Theatre until Sun, Aug 17 – check here for dates/times.

Toronto Fringe: Punch drunk with laughter in Theatre Brouhaha’s Punch Up

_r1a6215Kat Sandler and Theatre Brouhaha bring it again big time with the dark comedy Punch Up, written and directed by Sandler, playing now at the George Ignatieff Theatre as part of this year’s Toronto Fringe.

Stand-up comic/comedy writer Pat’s (Colin Munch) life is in the toilet, his wife/comedy team partner has left him and is now starring on a hit TV show using their material – which he wrote! And his stand-up act sucks. Then, he gets kidnapped by lonely guy Duncan (Tim Walker), who needs Pat to teach him how to be funny so he can win the love of the saddest girl in the world, Brenda (Caitlin Driscoll).

Playing the edge between tragedy and comedy, the Punch Up cast is so much awesome. Munch does a hilarious job with Pat’s stand-up meltdown, his comic rant turning to rage, revealing a man who’s hit rock bottom, his feral energy refocusing to solving Duncan’s problem to gain his freedom calmed as he’s literally chained to a typewriter. Walker’s Duncan is a loveable nerd, full of child-like naiveté, wide-eyed and willing to go to extreme lengths for a woman he’s just met and fallen in love at first sight with. (And, having recently finished a run of Kate and Sam Are Not Breaking Up with Cue6, Walker has become the go-to choice if your show needs a sweet nerd who kidnaps a celebrity for a good cause.) As Brenda, Driscoll is adorably troubled, afraid to love but longing too – her sharp humour softened by a glimmer of optimism when she accepts Duncan’s dinner invitation.

With shouts to the fun set design of Duncan’s place – aka “Pee Wee’s murder basement.”

So. Much. Funny! And some sad. Punch Up kills.

Punch Up continues its run at the George Ignatieff Theatre until July 13 – check here for exact dates/times. Strongly suggest advance tix on this one – this is a very popular company and the place was packed yesterday afternoon.

 

Cue6 takes us to the edge of funny & disturbing – Kate and Sam Are Not Breaking Up

kate & samCue6 Theatre Company continues to push the edge of hilarious and disturbing with its current production, the Canadian premiere of Joel Kim Booster’s Kate and Sam Are Not Breaking Up, directed by Jill Harper and running at Fraser Studios.

The Kate (Karen Knox) and Sam (AJ Vaage) of the title are the teen movie stars of Ghost forest, a fantasy series that finds a young ghost hunter falling in love with his supernatural prey. Their on again/off again off-screen romance has just ended, to much tabloid coverage, and Kate’s life appears to be spinning out of control as she gets her own headlines as Hollywood’s bad girl de jour. Bill (Tim Walker) and Becky (Rebecca Liddiard) are a pair of overzealous fans who decide to execute a bizarre couple’s therapy intervention on the two young celebs – by kidnapping them and holding them hostage in Bill’s apartment. Relationship revelations emerge – and not just for Kate and Sam.

Adeptly shifting between the action in Bill’s living room and scenes from Ghost forest, this dark comedy takes a stab at the cult of celebrity, teen fantasy fiction and fandom – and this cast nails it big time. Knox’s Kate is sharp and edgy, her fuck-you attitude dissolving to show a genuine, savvy and severely confused young woman. Vaage is a sweetie as Sam, a sensitive romantic who’s trying to stay real, and who appears to be more like his film character than Kate. Walker brings a hilariously nerdy sense of hesitation and wonder to 30-something fanboy Bill, a mall cop on disability who lives vicariously through his movie heroes; and Liddiard’s Becky is a big ball of teen fangirl exuberance and quirky, sometimes cruel, edge – extremely passionate about and devoted to her favourite fantasy series and willing to go to great lengths to protect it.

Big shouts to set (Christine Groom) and props design (Jenny So) for the fanboy living room, complete with sci-fi/fantasy figurines – still in their original packaging – mounted on the walls; a rack of weapons on top of the shelf that houses the movie collection; and the signed Ghost forest movie poster, taking pride of place in the centre of it all. I also loved the intermission music – an evocative fantasy movie soundtrack (sound design by Tim Lindsay).
Kate and Sam Are Not Breaking Up is a darkly funny look at celebrity relationships, fandom and intervention. Running until June 21 at Fraser Studios, I’d suggest booking ahead, as seating is limited. In other words, go see this.

 

Absurd family tragedy in The Goat

WARNING: This post contains adult language and content.

Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? (subtitled: Notes Towards A Definition of Tragedy) is one absurd, darkly funny, mind-fuck of a play. And if you hadn’t been aware of the play’s subject before arriving at the theatre, you sure as hell get the idea when you receive the program. The cover is a veritable Kama Sutra of man/goat lovin’ illustrations. I went to see Atic Productions’ run of The Goat, directed by Carter West, at the Tarragon Theatre Extra Space last night.

On entering the theatre space, you see a set composed of white pedestals, each with an empty plate frame – plates are set at the top of the show when the cast sets the stage, the family home – and a pair of white column/lintel entrances, the lintels askew atop uneven columns. Bringing to mind ancient Greek architecture. The pre-show music is a mix of love songs throughout the decades. Love and tragedy are coming.

Martin (Tim Walker) and Stevie (Rosemary Doyle) are a well-off, well-matched and happily married 40-something couple. Their sweet and handsome 17-year-old son Billy (Ben Hayward) has recently come out as gay, and they’re being pretty cool about it. Their domestic bliss is shattered when Martin reveals to his best friend Ross (Benjamin Blais) that he’s been having an affair – with a goat named Sylvia – a confidence that Ross proceeds to share with Stevie in a letter. You can imagine the family discussion that arises from this revelation.

What is interesting about this play is that Martin and Stevie, in addition to being very intelligent, open-minded people, have the sort of relationship in which they can actually have a discussion about Martin’s unusual infidelity – as painful and enraging as it is for Stevie. As the audience, we are presented with the notion and left to our own judgements – about bestiality and adultery, and even unintentional, spontaneous moments of incest and pederasty. Ross is the sole voice of conservative convention in the play, passing harsh judgement on anything beyond a well-hidden affair with another human, preferably of the opposite sex. And yet his hypocrisy shows as he coaxes the details of Martin’s affair with Sylvia – and despite his protestations and crying moral foul, he takes the taboo scenario in with a sense of scandalized glee.

The play is about 100 minutes long with no intermission and the actors – especially the family members – are taken on a physical and emotional roller coaster ride. Martin and Stevie are fun, affectionate and easy in their relationship – and love each other so big – and the hurt of Martin’s affair crashes so hard that every plate in the room lays broken in the end even as Stevie herself crumbles to the floor in agony. Even young Billy, who tries to intervene and is especially protective of his mother, is reduced to a balling mess after Ross returns to poke the wasp’s nest he’s already kicked at.

Walker is lovely as Martin, a good-humoured, gentle and loving man struggling with the onset of middle age and tormented by his desire for Sylvia. He has great chemistry with Doyle, who brings a funny, smart and sexy Stevie – loyal in love but fierce in betrayal. You really believe that Martin and Stevie have a big love for each other. You also believe that Martin really loves Sylvia too – an extremely painful truth for both Martin and Stevie. Hayward is adorably smart-ass as the teenager Billy, an intelligent and good-natured kid who is aware of just how cool his folks are – and he loves them both a lot. He brings a nice sense of Billy’s conflicted feelings  – torn between the child’s response of running away and the man’s response of stepping in to protect his mother. Blais gives us a nice combination of humour and cynicism as Ross, a character who’s really the outsider in this grouping, espousing a socially moralistic attitude towards fidelity and honour – but it’s all okay if you don’t get caught. Except one must stay within one’s own species with an age-appropriate partner and opposite sex is best. Really strong performances all around – you’re constantly wondering what will happen next. What will he/she do now?

As I mentioned in an earlier post, The Goat has a very short run at the Tarragon Extra Space – it closes tomorrow afternoon (Sunday, June 24). There are still a few chances left to see it, though, with matinées today and tomorrow at 2:30 p.m., and an evening show tonight at 8:00 p.m.

For more info, visit Atic Productions at: http://aticproductions.com/