Alice through the looking glass into Brazil in darkly funny, absurdly mind-bending The Trial of Judith K.

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Scott McCulloch & Stephanie Belding in The Trial of Judith K. – photo by John Gundy

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. – Director’s Note

Thought For Food opened its production of Sally Clark’s The Trial of Judith K. in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Backspace last week, directed by Tyler Seguin, assisted by Tamara Vuckovic. I caught the show last night, in a performance that featured a post-show talkback with Clark.

A gender-switching stage adaptation of Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial, The Trial of Judith K. is set in 1980s Vancouver, the surreal world of the story taking on the unique flavour and hard-working, hard-playing hedonism of that decade. Judith (Stephanie Belding), a 30-something professional accounts manager at a bank, wakes one morning to discover she’s being arrested – for what, she is not told. The bizarre legal debates, interrogations and meetings that follow turn her life upside down. It’s like she’s being punked and everyone else is in on it, their smug assurances of “it’s common knowledge” leaving her out of the game. What follows is a crazy, sharply funny, sometimes deeply disturbing journey through the most fucked up legal system you’ve ever seen.

As playwright Clark said during the talkback, comedy works better when it’s fast – and the ensemble does a bang-up job of it, with most cast members playing multiple roles as they roll out this edgy, absurd tale set in this bizarro world. Belding gives a powerful, sexy and funny performance as Judith; a wry-witted and irreverent, but organized and put-together professional with a can-do attitude whose life is thrown into utter disarray as she attempts to unravel wtf is going on with the charge against her.

Belding’s cast mates are all excellent multi-taskers, performing each role with high energy and enthusiasm, no matter how big the line count. Toni Ellwand does a great turn, going from Judith’s befuddled landlady Mrs. Block, to her office nemesis, the jealous Voight, to the reckless and dangerous party girl Stella; she has an extremely poignant moment as Block, a somewhat smug veteran of the legal system who gets a rude awakening about her case. Patrick Howarth (Inspector/Ted/Flogger) is an especially sexy beast as the charming, bad boy, possible serial killer Ted; deathly irresistible with a soft spot for a certain kind of woman. Helen Juvonen (Lang/Theodora/Girl 2) stands out in her roles as Judith’s timid secretary Lang, and particularly as hooker turned lawyer Theodora; whip smart, languid and ruthless, with a flair for the dramatic and a jaded, pragmatic acceptance of this fucked up world, there’s a hint of Marlene Dietrich about her. Andrew Knowlton (Biff/Milly/Tracy/Brazier) is hilarious as Biff, one of the court-appointed officers sent to arrest Judith, and as Brazier, the ridiculously cheerful, classic 80s sporto pain-in-the-ass client Voight turfs over to Judith, much to Judith’s dismay. Scott McCulloch (Clem/Magistrate/Timmy/Pollock) is especially compelling as Pollock, an artist and legal system insider who professes a desire to be of assistance to Judith, all the while attempting to barter information for sex – a prime example of the diabolically funny combined with the truly cringe-worthy elements that run throughout this play. Cara Pantalone (Maria/Deedee/Nun) does a great job going from Judith’s comic, tacky sister-in-law Deedee to the imperious, mysterious, parable-telling Nun; the Madonna to Theodora’s Whore, with religion serving the divine truth as the law doles out the profane.

During the talkback that followed, Clark mentioned that the piece was commissioned in the 1980s, originally as a one-woman show, and the idea came up to treat The Trial as a comedy. An early draft was even more Alice in Wonderland than the version we see today – and Clark was inspired to draw upon a serial killer case that was underway in Vancouver at the time. Responding to a question about Judith’s reaction to seeing the men in her bedroom at the top of the play, and how audience reception to that moment has changed over time, she spoke about the gender reversal in this adaptation, changing the situation of women throwing themselves at a man (from the novel) to men throwing themselves at a woman. While the reversal of attention takes on a different tone in Judith K., the sexual politics are still there – and it’s still a struggle for sexual dominance – in this case, with an 80s feminist sensibility. In response to a query about the shifting audience reaction to authority, Clark pointed out that the law is a metaphor, a higher power, in the play – and the court is life. It receives you when you’re born and dismisses you when you die. And the doorkeeper in the Nun’s parable represents one’s belief system – and how it can distract and compromise away from one’s life. Kafka foresaw Orwell in this dystopian world – and you pretty much have to laugh to keep from crying.

With shouts to the design team for bringing this wacko world to life and conveying a taste of the 80s in this small, narrow playing space: David Poholko (set), Miranda VanLogerenberg (costumes), Jareth Li (lighting) and Alex Eddington (sound, featuring an awesome 80s pre-show soundtrack).

It’s Alice through the looking glass and into Brazil in Thought For Food’s darkly funny, absurdly mind-bending production of The Trial of Judith K.

The Trial of Judith K. continues till Feb 14 in the TPM Backspace. You can get advance tix online or by calling 416-504-7529 – or purchase at the door.

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Interview with actor Françoise Balthazar – upcoming all-female Julius Caesar

Francoise headshot 1Françoise Balthazar is a Toronto-based actor who took on the role of Richard III in the Toronto Fringe (2006) all-female production Richard 3, Queens 4 (The Deadly Game), directed by Jennifer Parr. Now, in collaboration with Parr and many of the same cast members, Balthazar is playing Cassius in the 16Endean Collective’s all-female production of Julius Caesar, running for 11 performances at Red Sandcastle Theatre from June 11 – 22. I had the chance to interview Françoise Balthazar over email about the production – and doing these intense, violent plays with an all-female cast.

LWMC: Hi, Françoise. Thanks for taking the time to talk about Julius Caesar. You, Jennifer Parr and most of the cast worked together in an all-female version of Richard III in a Toronto Fringe 2006 production. What made you decide to tackle Julius Caesar – and when did the idea take root?

FB: Toni Ellwand, our producer/actor, who is portraying the role of Brutus, saw a production of an all-female Julius Caesar in England that greatly impressed her and which received outstanding reviews. Toni then met our director Jennifer Parr at a theatre gathering just before Christmas, and she shared her interest about mounting a Toronto production of Julius Caesar. Jennifer Parr, a Shakespearean director and scholar, was very keen on the idea and offered to direct the show. It has been an unusually fast process from concept to production.

LWMC: The thing that strikes me about all-female productions like this is that they balance out our perspective of human nature and behaviour – and we see that human beings, no matter what their sex, gender, etc., are capable of a wide range of action and reaction, including violence. Richard 3, Queens 4 explored violence as a means to gain power and position. How did the company go about exploring the relationship between violence and retribution in Julius Caesar?

FB: As actors, we had to explore the personal motivations behind every conspirator’s reasons for wanting to assassinate Caesar, which ranged from pure justice for the good of Rome, to vengeance against Caesar’s tyranny and, as in Cassius’ case, a mixture of personal envy and hatred for Caesar and tyranny itself to wanting to reestablish the legitimacy of the Roman Republic. One of the methods the conspirators used to explore all these issues was a short series of workshops in the Michael Chekhov technique given by Rena Polley, who is an actor and certified teacher in the Chekhov technique, exploring group dynamics and high stakes situation.

LWMC: And it’s all mixed with ambition and a desire to do what’s right, so it’s all very grey in Julius Caesar, and many of the characters who are acting with a righteous sense of retribution don’t have entirely pure motives. How did the company navigate those grey areas, along with the layers of deceit and betrayal?

FB: We began by delineating every character from a historical point of view, both as individuals and as members of Roman society at this specific moment in time. Then, as a company, we explored all the interconnecting personal relationships and the stakes involved in the revolutionary choices that so many of the characters make.

LWMC: Brutus is Caesar’s friend and a respected Roman – and Cassius believes his participation in the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar will add credibility to their cause and garner good public opinion. Cassius engineers Brutus’s involvement, to the point of fabricating notes of support from the public. And, even though he’s using Brutus, it’s clear that Cassius loves and values him a great deal. How did you approach these contrasting – and contradictory – sides of Cassius?

FB: Cassius is a very ambitious extremist, and his primary driving force is to make sure that Caesar is eliminated at any cost, including forging notes of support to ensure that Brutus commits to the conspiracy. Cassius also has a deep abiding love for Brutus because he is virtuous, just and a noble Roman. Cassius’ worth is recognized and validated by Brutus, which makes him all the more precious to him. Having a deep understanding of Cassius’ psychological drives and creating a backstory of this character, along with the insights drawn from the Michael Chekhov workshop that the company attended, allowed me to integrate these contrasting elements of Cassius.

LWMC: When someone commits an act of violence, even for a good cause, they are forever changed. Did that factor into the exploration of the play in this production?

FB: Yes, absolutely. From the beginning of our process, Jennifer Parr our director urged us to explore the question we see at the heart of the play and our production: Is it ever lawful to kill a Tyrant? And what happens if you do?

And, specifically, from Cassius’ perspective, the murder of Caesar liberates him and his fellow conspirators to become heroic figures in the fight against tyranny.

LWMC: Did the ensemble discover anything new about Julius Caesar throughout the process?

FB: Yes, the incredible amount of love and loyalty between characters, whether husband and wives, friends and fellow revolutionaries, and also the unexpected amount of comedy and humour in a play about such a serious topic.

LWMC: I imagine some personal discoveries also emerged. What can you tell us about that experience?

FB: Yes, it’s the first time that I’ve worked with Shakespeare’s First Folio text to such a degree, and I fully realize now how invaluable the clues that Shakespeare presents are incredibly useful to the actor. And, amazingly, speaking this empowering visceral dialogue that is usually reserved for men is a thrilling experience, and makes me feel more bold, expansive and powerful as a performer.

LWMC: What do you hope audiences will take away from this production of Julius Caesar?

FB: We hope they come away feeling that this play speaks to us now, as urgently as it did to Shakespeare’s audience, and that the question of how to change our society in extreme times is never an easy one.

Experiencing the play with an all-female cast, on a thrust stage surrounded by the audience, also brings a new perspective and fresh take on the story, the characters, and the ideas.

LWMC: What’s up next for you?

FB: At the present moment, I’m pouring my heart and soul into this production. Ask me again in three weeks’ time!

LWMC: Anything else you’d like to share?

FB: I’m hoping to take away the learning I experience in playing the complex, powerful and commanding role of Cassius into my future work as an actor. Also, I work as a voice-over artist and am very passionate about creating characters solely through the use of the voice. The virtue of playing Cassius potentially contributes to my work in animation voice-over, which calls for the ability of treating with a broad range of characters, the sophisticated use of breath control, and possessing a great vocal range.

LWMC: Thanks, Françoise!

The 16Endean Collective production of Julius Caesar ensemble includes (in alphabetical order): Françoise Balthazar, Catherine Bruce, Rosemary Doyle, Toni Ellwand, Ellie Ellwand, Elva Mai Hoover, Marcia Johnson, Llyandra Jones, Margaret Lamarre, Lise Maher, Maria Syrgiannis, Deborah Verginella, Andrea Verginella-Paina and Trudy Weiss. Julius Caesar runs at the Red Sandcastle Theatre June 11-22 (preview on June 11 and opening on June 12).