SummerWorks: Confronting white supremacy in the searing, timely, tension-filled White Heat

Tim Walker. Photo by Graham Isador.

 

Pressgang Theatre presents a workshop production of Graham Isador’s White Heat. Based on real events, it takes us into the incendiary, tension-filled conflict between an alt-right podcaster and a digital media reporter in a searing, timely look at the dangerous consequences of white supremacist views, inciting harassment and violence against racialized people, non-Christian religions and LGBTQI communities—and the news media outlets that shine a light on their hateful, bigoted words and actions. Directed by Jill Harper, White Heat opened its three-performance run in Longboat Hall at the Great Hall last night.

Inspired by, and drawn from, work by Scaachi Koul, Aamer Rahman, Manisha Krishnan, Mack Lamoureux, Kim Kelly and The Good Fight, White Heat is told from reporter Alice Kennings’ (Makambe K Simamba) point of view, as she relates the events leading up to and including her meeting with the alt-right voice behind the White Heat podcast, a man known only as The Captain (Tim Walker). Disturbed by the increasing presence, influence and violence perpetrated by white supremacist and Nazi groups—and encourage by her editor to produce pieces with her own distinct voice—Alice writes a piece about punching Nazis. The piece goes viral, and the subsequent blow-back of hate messages via email and social media are shocking, to say the least—and as she’s a Black woman, the messages are sexually violent or tell her to go back where she came from. Of course, The Captain has his say as well, and encourages his listeners to show their appreciation. Then, three bikers with 1488 bandanas masking their faces show up at her office and threaten to stop by her home, shouting “White Heat” as they exit.

Disturbed and frightened, but not backing down, Alice and her editor launch an investigation to uncover the identity of The Captain; and while they find some unsurprising clues regarding his trajectory toward the sneering, bigoted podcaster he is today, the discovery of his family situation puts Alice in a moral and ethical dilemma, forcing her to reconsider whether they should out him.

Outstanding performances from Simamba and Walker in this electric, compelling and important examination of the growing, out and proud movement of white supremacy; and the real and present danger for those they target, and those who oppose and call them out. Simamba gives a fiercely passionate, sharply funny performance as Alice—balancing cerebral and visceral responses as Alice continues to go after this story even in the face of terrifying threats. A dedicated professional who loves her job, Alice is devoted to reporting the facts and is damn good at it; faced his personal information, she finds empathy for The Captain—but will she be able to use that to reason with him? Walker’s Captain is a fascinating and disturbing portrait of an ordinary white guy who’s confused, angry and bitterly disappointed by a series of life-changing events that were largely out of his control. Now he’s feeling oppressed a white male, targeted and blamed for all the bad in the world—and he’s pushing back and looking for someone to blame for his predicament. He’s not an evil man, but a profoundly human, downtrodden and misguided one—and it’s that humanity that Alice tries to reach.

In the presence of conflicting pieces of conventional wisdom that tell us ‘don’t feed the trolls’ and ‘stand up to bullies’, in this case you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Pushing back against alt-right and Nazi bullies can escalate their push-back and grow their audience—and hate-filled words and threats can easily manifest as violent actions against the communities they target and those who call foul.

White Heat continues in Longboat Hall at the Great Hall for just two more performances: tonight (August 12) at 9:30 p.m. and August 14 at 6:00 p.m. Tickets available online or in person at the box office; it’s a very short three-show run, and last night was packed, so advance booking strongly recommended.

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.

 

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.