Questions of perception, assumption & expectation in the powerful, riveting, provocative Actually

Tony Ofori & Claire Renaud. Set design by Sean Mulcahy. Costume design by Alex Amini. Lighting design by Steve Lucas. Photo by Joanna Akyol.

 

The Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company, in association with Obsidian Theatre, opens its 13th season with Anna Ziegler’s Actually, directed by Philip Akin, assisted by Kanika Ambrose; and running in the Greenwin Theatre at the Meridian Arts Centre (formerly the Toronto Centre for the Arts). Two Ivey League freshmen, a Black male student and a Jewish female student, make a connection that becomes sexual in nature—and each has a very different experience and account of the night they spent together. Powerful, riveting and provocative—featuring compelling and genuine performances—this timely two-hander takes you on a see-saw ride of belief, empathy and understanding; highlighting perceptions, assumptions and expectations based on race, gender and class.

Excited, terrified and determined to do well, Amber (Claire Renaud) and Tom (Tony Ofori) arrive at Princeton for their first year of studies. She’s quirky and awkward, with romantic notions of sex and limited experience; he’s got swagger and game, with a sexually active lifestyle and a commitment to sowing his youthful wild oats. Opposites attract on common ground as the two make a connection; and attraction brings them together in Tom’s bed.

During their encounter, Amber finds that something changes for her; and their initially sexy fun times experience becomes uncomfortable and unwanted. She relates how she attempts to put a stop to it by getting off the bed, saying “Actually…” Tom believes she was into it, and later remembers nothing from her verbal communication or body language that would have suggested otherwise. Amber comments on the night to a friend, and the response prompts her to report the incident to the university, which launches a sexual misconduct investigation and hearing. Amber believes she was raped, and Tom is shocked and mortified by the allegation.

As their individual and collective stories unfold, the audience goes from being confidante—as we hear about their lived experiences with family, sex, desire, what inspires them—to university hearing panelist as they make their statements. Both had a lot to drink on the night in question. Both feel like outsiders with much to prove, anxiously navigating their first year at a prestigious school, along with raging 18-year-old hormones, and a culture of sex and partying. Not the best conditions for making good choices. Both live with body issues: Amber with the pressures of traditional feminine beauty standards; and Tom with the everyday racism and prejudice that accompany the colour of his skin. The seriousness of Amber’s rape charge lands particularly hard on Tom—a young Black man living in a world stewed in toxic, ongoing systemic racism. And Amber’s initial tacit consent that night, going to his room for the purposes of sex, combined with her behaviour earlier that evening, puts her credibility in question.

Compelling, genuine and nuanced performances from Renaud and Ofori in this vital, timely piece of theatre. Renaud brings a big spark of light, energy and pathos to the adorkable, hyper-talkative Amber; a young woman desperately treading water to stay afloat in a new world of classes, assignments, squash practice and obligatory partying. Amber finds herself wanting and not wanting at the same time; pressed forward by social media-driven peer pressure, she engages in activities and behaviour even when her heart isn’t really in it. Ofori’s Tom is a complex portrait of a confident, frank young man who wants to do his family proud; Tom is the first of his working class family to attend university, let alone at an Ivey League school. There’s a sensitive soul beneath the swagger, expressed through Tom’s love of classical music and piano playing—where he finds a space to be free.

It would be grossly simplistic to call this a “he said/she said” story. As you vacillate between believing and sympathizing with one, and then the other, in the end you may find yourself believing both of them. And if both are right, on which side of this 50/50 situation will the feather land in the final decision? In this age of #MeToo and #consent, and with all of these complex and intersectional variables to consider, audiences will no doubt come away with questions, conversations and reflections. This story is a prime example of why sex, sexuality and consent need to be taught in elementary and secondary schools.

Actually continues in the Greenwin Theatre at the Meridian Arts Centre (formerly the Toronto Centre for the Arts) until September 29. Advance tickets available online by clicking on the show page calendar.

ICYMI: Check out assistant director Kanika Ambrose’s Artist Perspective piece for Intermission Magazine.

Second City serves up the fun with a trippy mashup of holiday classics in Twist Your Dickens

Ever wonder where the misfit toys went after Santa took them off the island? How about that original ending to A Charlie Brown Christmas that the network execs didn’t want you to see? And how Oliver Twist became an activist?

Wonder no more, my friends. For this holiday season, Second City presents Twist Your Dickens. Written by former The Colbert Report writers Peter Gwinn and Bobby Mort, and directed by Chris Earle, with music direction by Ayaka Kinugawa, it’s running right now at the Greenwin Theatre at the Toronto Centre for the Arts.

If you’re looking for a straightforward comedic retelling of A Christmas Carol, you ain’t getting it here. Starring Seán Cullen and Patrick McKenna, and featuring award-winning Second City alumni Jason DeRosse, Nigel Downer, Sarah Hillier, Karen Parker and Allison Price, Twist Your Dickens plays with sketch comedy and improv as it weaves other classic holiday favourites with Dickens’ famous Christmas tale, twisting and turning the storytelling—and the fun—in wacky, unexpected ways. Think secret Santa at the Fezziwigs’ office Christmas party; Tiny Tim’s sleepover; Oliver Twist’s orphan protest.

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Karen Parker, Sarah Hillier & Patrick McKenna in Twist Your Dickens – all photos by Paul Aihoshi

Leading this wacky band of performers, Cullen gives us a deliciously nasty and darkly funny Scrooge; callous and money grubbing, with hints of the Grinch, he has a game, child-like quality—which comes in handy on his journey with the ghosts. McKenna does a fabulous job, juggling several supporting characters, including the woebegone Jacob Marley; the chains he forged in a miserable life linked with confessions shared by audience members, inspiring a round of hilariously bizarre improv. McKenna also does a hysterically hyper-cheerful (or is he?) Fred, Scrooge’s nephew; he does a mean Jimmy Stewart George Bailey too.

Rounding out the ensemble is a fine group of sketch comedy/improv performers. DeRosse is Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s put-upon but faithful clerk (or is he?); he gives a stand-out performance as Linus in the alternate ending for A Charlie Brown Christmas, as the gang reacts to his speech at the school Christmas pageant. Karen Parker plays Mrs. Cratchit, Bob’s supportive wife who can barely stand to tolerate Scrooge—and has some interesting suggestions on that score. And she shines with the song stylings of Ruby Santini, delivering her own personal, hilariously inappropriate take on classic Christmas songs during a recording session (featuring McKenna as her baffled, stressed out producer). Hillier plays Tiny Tim, with a decided twist; this kid may be schlepping along with an ill-fitting crutch, but he’s no wilting wallflower.

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Seán Cullen & Sarah Hillier in Twist Your Dickens

Downer calls out the show’s obvious and not so obvious anachronisms as the Heckler; and does an awesome job as the rad, energetic Ghost of Christmas Past. And Price is hilarious as the drunken party girl Ghost of Christmas Present and the prankster Ghost of Christmas Future.

With shouts to the design team Jackie Chau (set), Melanie McNeill (costume) and Christina Cicko (lighting), and stage manager Andrew Dollar.

Second City serves up the fun with a trippy mashup of holiday classics in Twist Your Dickens.

Twist Your Dickens continues in the Greenwin Theatre at the Toronto Centre for the Arts until December 30. Get your advance tix online; for group discounts (8 plus), call THE Group Tix Company 647-438-5559, outside GTA 1-866-447-7849 or visit the group box office online.

A world in a tea room in the powerful, sharply funny, deeply moving “Master Harold” …and the Boys

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James Daly & André Sills, with Allan Louis in the background, in “Master Harold” …and the Boys – photo by Harold Akin

Obsidian Theatre, in association with the Shaw Festival, brought its production of Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold” …and the Boys to Toronto, opening last night at the Toronto Centre for the Arts Studio theatre.

Directed by Philip Akin, and inspired by Fugard’s childhood relationships with the black employees of his mother’s tea room, “Master Harold” …and the Boys is set in 1950s South Africa, in St. George’s Park Tea Room. It is here that young Hally (James Daly) spends most of his after-school hours, doing homework and hanging out with tea room employees Sam (André Sills) and Willie (Allan Louis). The three have an easy-going, friendly relationship, particularly Hally and Sam; full of witty banter, good-natured teasing and philosophical debates on everything from men of magnitude and social reform, to education and art, to the global vision gleaned from the local black community ballroom dance competition. Darkening Hally’s mood is the possibility that his crippled, alcoholic father will be returning home from hospital – a prospect that pricks resentment over having to help his mother be nurse maid, and keep an eye on the household and tea room cash.

Forced into adult responsibilities early in his life, and now the de facto man of the house, Hally is coming of age during apartheid; and as the action progresses, we see him waver between familiar pal “Hally” and stern boss “Master Harold.” Ironically, Hally – the privileged one in the room – is the most cynical and pessimistic about the world, seeing only ugliness. Meanwhile, Sam and Willie see beauty and possibility; their enjoyment of ballroom dancing a metaphor for harmony. Sam and Willie have hope, while Hally has none. Perhaps Hally has only fear. As the discussion between Hally and Sam becomes more heated, things are said that cannot be unsaid.

Beautifully nuanced, committed performances from the cast. Louis brings a lovable, child-like sense of joy to Willie, who is excited to be competing in the upcoming ballroom dance competition and determined to master the quick step. A simple man of the old school, Willie sees nothing wrong with laying a beating on his girl Hilda when she steps out of line – but at least he’s smart enough to take Sam’s advice to stop it. Sills gives Sam a quiet strength and dignity, combined with a sharp sense of humour. Pragmatic, but forward-thinking, Sam has a quick mind and a precise memory – and he genuinely cares for Hally, even to the point of being an unexpected father figure. Daly plays nicely on the brink of manhood as Hally; with a Holden Caulfield edge about him, Hally is self-involved, smart and arrogant. Playful and familiar at first with his parents’ employees, hints of a little dictator begin to show as he feels increasingly stressed out over his family situation – and during his tantrums, he takes it out on Sam and Willie. In the end, the boy who hadn’t noticed the Whites Only sign on the park bench must decide if he wants to be a man who sits on that bench or walks away from it. And while some things cannot be unsaid, they can perhaps become a source of learning and growth.

The tea room serves as a microcosm of the larger world it inhabits. And though the play takes place in another time and place, it has much to teach us today about everyday and systemic racism, and the subtle and blatant ways in which it creates barriers based on assumptions, fear and ignorance. Go see this production.

With shouts to the creative team for bringing this world to life – and creating a space that’s not only practical for the purposes of the play, but has an inviting aesthetic that makes you want to sit down for a snack: Peter Hartwell (set and costumes), Kevin Lamotte and Chris Malkowski (lighting), Corey Macfadyen (sound) and Valerie Moore (dance sequence).

A world in a tea room in the powerful, sharply funny, deeply moving “Master Harold” …and the Boys.

“Master Harold” …and the Boys continues at the Toronto Centre for the Arts until October 23. You can get advance tickets online; strongly recommended, given last night’s standing ovation.

Toronto Fringe: Coming out in 1977 in the funny, touching Out

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Big Bappis is out and proud at Toronto Fringe, with its production of Greg Campbell’s one-man show Out, directed by Clinton Walker and running at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse.

A coming out origin story, based largely on Campbell’s own experience as a teen in Montreal, we follow 17-year-old Glen as he embarks on his journey of self-discovery with friends Dmitri and Marco. Protesting Anita Bryant, seeing The Boys in the Band for the first time and dancing at their favourite gay club, Glen explores his sexuality, his dance moves and learns what it is to be queer in the late 70s. All the while, he’s closeted to his parents, who suspect something’s up, and his mother’s pleas to “tone it down” so as to not upset his father, who turns to the bottle in times of trouble and takes it out on her. And then, the penultimate coming out experience when Glen and his friends sign up for their gay youth group’s road trip to NYC Gay Pride Day, and Glen’s decision to come out to his folks.

Campbell is a charming and engaging storyteller, weaving cultural milestones with Glen’s personal anecdotes. And while this tale is full of sex, fun and music, he doesn’t shy away from the challenges Glen faces with his family, particularly his father. He gives Glen a lovely sense of wonder and exploration; a sensitive and curious young man, he fearlessly dives into new experiences and men despite the heartbreak and homophobia.

The magic of the movies. The power of disco. The wisdom of The Village People. Coming out in 1977 in the funny, touching Out.

Out has one more Fringe performance at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse: today (Sat, July 9) at 2:15; for ticket info and advance tickets, check out the Fringe website. Then, it’s off to the Toronto Centre for the Arts for Best of the Fringe, with performances on July 14, 16 and 23 (see the link for show times and tickets).

Toronto Fringe: The lighter side of the Autism Spectrum in Aspergers: A Tale of a Social Misfit

Poster design: Cory Falvo
Poster design: Cory Falvo

My last show at this year’s Toronto Fringe took me back to the Tarragon Theatre Solo Room for Autistic Productions’ run of Adam Schwartz’s Aspergers: A Tale of a Social Misfit.

Highly entertaining, this is stand-up delivered from the point of view of someone on the Autism Spectrum. From coming to terms with his diagnosis as a kid – and school bullying and exclusion – to dealing with the challenges of being a socially awkward adult and struggling with meeting women, Schwartz delivers funny and insightful observations about the perceptions of someone living with autism, as well as the rules of engagement he lives by. Taking experiences of losses and wins, and turning them into bits, Schwartz really connects with the audience, making us laugh – and also gently educating us at the same time.

The lighter side of the Autism Spectrum in hilarious, informative stand-up show Aspergers: A Tale of a Social Misfit.

Aspergers: A Tale of a Social Misfit closed yesterday (as did the Toronto Fringe), but keep an eye out for Adam Schwartz. You can also follow Autistic Productions on Twitter.

Also be sure to check out The Best of the Fringe 2015, running July 15-29 at the Toronto Centre for the Arts.

Upcoming Angelwalk Theatre fundraiser extravaganza – Liza & Barbra: Together At Last

There are a couple of amazing one-night only fundraiser shows I must tell you about – please get out and support local theatre. The first one is this musical extravaganza:

Liza & BarbraLiza & Barbra… Together At Last: Saturday, October 19 at the Toronto Centre for the Arts. Created and performed by Jennifer Walls (as Liza Minnelli) and Gabi Epstein (as Barbra Streisand), this 5th anniversary gala fundraising event for Angelwalk Theatre brings two incredible actresses playing two legendary performers live onstage for a cabaret-inspired evening of story and song, with a special appearance by Jeff Madden as Frankie Valli.

The evening’s festivities will include a silent auction, raffle and prizes – plus hors d’oeuvres!

7 p.m. hors d’oeuvres and silent auction; 8 p.m. performance. Tickets $40-$75 ($35-$75 for Angelwalk subscribers; $30 for arts workers). Call: 1-855-985-2787 or book online at: www.angelwalk.ca

So – what are you waiting for? Get on the phone or online, and get yourself hooked up with some tickets to this fabulous fundraising event! You’ll have a blast – and, since you’ll be helping to support local theatre, you’ll feel good doing it.

The evolution of Jonathan Larson – tick, tick… BOOM!

TTB 02 - Parris Greaves, Laura Mae Nason, Ken Chamberland - photo by Vincent Perri
Parris Greaves, Laura Mae Nason, Ken Chamberland – photo by Vincent Perri

Opening nights have an energy unlike any other night of a run. Full of expectation, anticipation, celebration – and last night’s opening of Jonathan Larson’s tick, tick… BOOM! at the Toronto Centre for the Arts was especially so. Co-produced by Angelwalk Theatre and Newface Entertainment, and directed by Tim French with music direction by Anthony Bastianon, this opening was also the first night of Angelwalk’s 5th anniversary season.

The first of only two musicals Larson wrote before his sudden death the night before the first Off-Broadway performance of his other show – the rock musical hit RENTtick, tick… BOOM! is an autobiographical piece, originally performed by Larson in 1990 as a solo show. Playwright David Auburn revised the show to a three-hander after Larson’s death in 1996; vocal arrangements and orchestrations were penned by Stephen Oremus. In tick, tick… BOOM!, we see the evolution of Larson the man and the artist, struggling to write a true rock musical during a time when the only musicals welcomed on Broadway were of the traditional, older music style, or soft pop at best – and we get a hint of the even bigger hit yet to come.

Jon (Parris Greaves) is our host and the main character for this journey. Part narrator and part struggling music theatre writer/composer, he’s also grappling with Father Time; the tick, tick of his own clock getting louder as he draws closer to the public workshop of his musical Superbia and his 30th birthday. Frustrated and ashamed that he has nothing to show for his life’s work – or his life, period – and feeling like time is running out for him, he tells us about his plight in the opening song “30/90”. Boom! His roommate Michael (Ken Chamberland), a former actor turned market researcher on Madison Avenue, is moving up in the world. He’s got a new BMW and he’s heading to a new apartment uptown, away from their Soho slumlord digs and happy to be where he is. He’s also happy to offer Jon a spot at his firm. Jon, not so much. Rounding out Jon’s chosen family is his girlfriend Susan (Laura Mae Nason), a dancer and dance teacher who has the future on her mind. A future that includes Jon, but not NYC.

Born in the early 60s, Jon is painfully aware that – as a junior baby boomer – he’s grown up in a darker and more cynical time than the older folks of his generation. Choices weigh heavily as he tries to reconcile his need for self-expression and artistic creation against financial stability and security (“Johnny Can’t Decide”). And he’s sick of waiting tables just to scrape by (“Sunday”). Attempts at creativity in corporate America feel anything but – and people seem all too willing to do anything for a buck. Things come to a head with Susan – aptly expressed in their duet “Therapy” – and when Michael comes to him with some dire news, Jon realizes that he must make some active choices, not just coast along with the status quo or wait for things to happen (“Why”).

The show features some incredible harmonies – duets and trios – and the cast blends their voices to make those chords resonate beautifully. Powerful ballads “Real Life,” “Come To Your Senses” (a stand-out performance from Nason in the musical workshop within the musical) and, especially, the finale “Louder Than Words” (which includes the lyrics: “Cages or wings? Which do you prefer?”) make this an inspirational, truthful and heartfelt piece of musical theatre. The cast brings the right balance of humour and poignancy to their performances: Greaves as the artist struggling for his work, his soul and connection with his loved ones; Chamberland as his best friend, supportive but choosing another path to make a life of his own, both men wondering if they can still connect now that they’re living such different lives; and Nason as Jon’s loving and loyal girlfriend, hoping that her dreams will match that her lover – and both having to decide whether it’s possible. And Chamberland and Nason are more than up to the challenge of juggling multiple roles, including restaurant co-workers and patrons, Jon’s parents, his agent (both get a crack at her, with hilarious results!) and a lovely actress in Jon’s workshop.

The set (designed by Alanna McConnell) is made up of multi-level playing spaces, including scaffolding and steel stairs, and back-lit panels featuring lyrics from the show’s songs – minimalist and very effective at evoking the sleek, hard urban environment of New York City, as well as housing the live band on either side of the stage under the scaffolding. It puts us in that place, and allows the characters and music to dominate the space. Michelle Tracey’s costume designs set us firmly in 1990 – and Susan’s vintage design dress is well-deserving of “Green Green Dress,” the appreciative song it inspires in the show.

Performed with passion and drive – and three excellent sets of pipes – this small cast expresses some big feelings and ideas; and the personal is made universal by the common desire for connection, meaning and finding a place in the world. Personal expression, and overcoming fear and doubt in order to be true to oneself in the face of conformity and materialism – in a time when a new, invisible enemy has emerged with AIDS – all figure prominently in tick, tick… BOOM! There are shades of RENT here, the evolution of this music and these themes grow into a larger piece yet to come.

Go see tick, tick… BOOM! – running at the Toronto Centre for the Arts until October 6.