Three generations of women navigate life, love & those feelings “down there” in TIP’s hilarious, poignant, intimate Little Gem

Top to bottom: Rebecca De La Cour, Barbara Taylor & Billie Jean Shannon. Photo by Sean Walsh.

The Toronto Irish Players (TIP) opened their production of Elaine Murphy’s Little Gem, directed by Cliona Kenny, on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage to a packed house last night.

Drawing from the old tradition of the Gaelic storyteller (the Seanachai), Little Gem’s commentator device uses a Trinitarian approach—in this case, the story is told from the perspectives of three women: a granddaughter, a mother and grandmother from the same family.

Set in present-day Dublin, we open on Amber’s (Billie Jean Shannon) tale of the fateful night of her Debs (a city-wide high school prom), and the complex emotional dance of relationships with her boyfriend Paul and school teach-like bff Jo. Then, there’s her mother Lorraine (Rebecca De La Cour), a single mom, husband Ray long gone to who knows where, who works in a department store. She’s been forced to go on leave and see a shrink after she loses it on an extremely annoying and vindictive regular customer. And there’s Kay, Lorraine’s ma (Barbara Taylor), a breast cancer survivor and 24/7 caregiver to her husband Gem, struggling with an itch of her own.

Lovely, compelling—and endearingly comical—work from these three actors; each bringing her own brand of outspoken cheek, feistiness and strength to these characters. Shannon gives us a youthful, impetuous, and keen sense of social awareness and observation to Amber. Mouthy and full of teen sass and mortification, Amber’s a master at projecting an image of giving zero fucks, but there’s a tender, loving heart there that also longs to be loved. De La Cour brings a desperate housewife, poignant sense of resiliency to Lorraine. An anxious, exhausted member of the sandwich generation, Lorraine struggles to communicate with her distant teenage daughter, and worries about the well-being of her aging mother and seriously ill father; and she finds that she can’t stress clean away her own sense of loneliness and lack of a definitive life of her own. Taylor is a laugh riot and a force to be reckoned with as the family matriarch. Now in the winter years of life, there’s heat in that tired 60-something body yet—and Kay’s stubborn sense of resolve overcomes any sense of pride or shame as she actively, and at times hilariously, seeks solutions to her problems. Eschewing spoilers, I’ll have to leave it at that—and you’ll have to go see for yourself.

Life goes on for these three women; and unexpected events change the course of the day-to-day, forcing challenging decisions, personal growth, and acts of strength and courage. And, in the process, the lives of these three women—living separately together—are brought together into new and closer bonds of family and womanhood.

Nicely staged, on an effective and minimalist set featuring beautifully rendered charcoal family portraits (set by Bernadette Hunt and Sean Treacy), each character has her own playing area, with each storyteller staying within her own space until these inextricably intertwined lives gradually come closer together during the final scenes.

Three generations of women navigate life, love and those feelings “down there” in TIP’s hilarious, poignant, intimate Little Gem.

Little Gem continues on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage until March 3; advance tickets available online or by calling 416-440-2888. The Irish Players are an extremely popular local community company, so advance booking strongly recommended.

And no worries about thinking this is a “chick play,” the men were laughing as hard as the women. Having said that, it also struck me that, even though Mother’s Day is some months away, this is the perfect girls’ night out for women, their moms and grandmothers.

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Courage, poetry & resilience. Final words & accounts of the 16 executed rebels in the moving A Terrible Beauty: Voices from 1916

irish-rising-post-office

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?

That is heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?

No, no, not night but death.
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead.

And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse —
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Whenever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Easter 1916, by W.B. Yeats

The Toronto Irish Players, as part of their commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Irish Rising, presented A Terrible Beauty: Voices from 1916, an evening of readings and music, assembled and directed by Lucy Brennan, on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage last night.

The evening began with the Irish Proclamation of Independence, read at the top of the stairs near the entrance of the Mainstage before we were invited to enter and take our seats. What followed was a multimedia tribute of 1916 Rising film footage and photographs, and readings of words written by the 16, and accounts from their family, loved ones, attending priests and brothers in arms. All of this interspersed with a cappella music breaks, sung by a single male voice: Mise Eire (Sean Ó Riada), The Bold Fenian Men (Peadar Kearny), The Minstrel Boy (Thomas Moore) and A Nation Once Again (Thomas Davis); and including poetry by W.B. Yeats, Patrick Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh and Joseph Mary Plunkett, as well as an introductory composition by director Lucy Brennan, and verbatim text of the last words and meetings in Kilmainham Jail, taken from Last Words.

With its dramatic readings of quotes, statements, and extracts from letters and speeches by and about the 16 leaders and executed rebels of the 1916 Irish Rising, A Terrible Beauty gives us a glimpse into the lives and dreams of those who were, in the words of the Proclamation (read on the steps of the General Post Office in Dublin by Patrick Pearse on Easter Monday, April 24, 1916) fighting for an Ireland that “guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens and [which] declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all of its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally.”

The 16 leaders and executed rebels included in the evening’s readings included the seven signatories of the Proclamation (Éamonn Ceannt, Thomas James Clarke, James Connolly, Seán MacDiarmada, Thomas MacDonagh, Patrick Pearse and Joseph Mary Plunkett) and nine other executed leaders (Roger Casement, Con Colbert, Edward Daly, Seán Heuston, Thomas Kent, John MacBride, Michael Mallin, Michael O’Hanranhan and William Pearse).

The ensemble did a lovely job with these deeply moving – at times tender, fierce and poetic – final words and first-hand accounts. The humanity and struggles of these men, and the sorrow of their family and those near to them coming to life on stage; the audience rapt in remembrance, responding with sounds of recognition, dismay, the occasional chuckle, and even humming or singing along with the songs. Kudos to the cast, in order of appearance (in some cases, playing multiple roles): Mark Whelan, Alan King, Nora Rafferty, Sheila DeCuyper, David Mackett, Jean Ireton, Danny Sullivan, James Phelan, Catherina Maughan, Alan Hunt, Mairead Clancy, Lucy Brennan, Davis Tyrell and Mark Hill. And thanks to the Toronto Irish Players and Lucy Brennan for the comprehensive and informative program notes.

Courage, poetry and resilience. Final words and accounts of the 16 executed rebels in the moving A Terrible Beauty: Voices from 1916.

A Terrible Beauty: Voices from 1916 was a one-night only event. You can catch the Toronto Irish Players as they continue their run of John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar, on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage until Nov 5.

You can keep up with the Toronto Irish Players on Twitter and Facebook.

Liberty at any cost – hardened life choices in Toronto Irish Players’ Big Maggie

bigmaggie1Saw another marvelous Toronto Irish Players (TIP) production yesterday afternoon – this time, John B. Keane’s Big Maggie, directed by Harvey Levkoe, on now at Alumnae Theatre.

Big Maggie is set in 1960s rural Ireland, where recently widowed Maggie Polpin (Janice Hansen) is delighted at her newfound freedom from a philandering lout of a husband – and doesn’t care who knows it. Her four young adult children, each in various stages of grief, are disappointed when mum takes control of the family farm and general store, not receiving their expected share of the business – and are forced into choosing her way or the highway. For Maggie, her singular goal is to live free and secure, with no one to answer to or for but herself. And she is not above making some ruthless, calculated choices to get there.

Levkoe has a fine cast for Big Maggie, with some particular stand-outs. Janice Hansen gives an outstanding performance as Maggie, the complex family matriarch, full of anger, ambition, desire and unstoppable drive. Maggie has a sharp wit and can be darkly funny, but is also so very lonely – and by choice. Lovely turns from the actors playing the Polpin kids: Ben Clifford as the oldest brother Maurice, struggling to come to a compromise with his mother so he can have a life of his own; Kyrah Harder’s Gert, the youngest daughter and “good girl” of the family, dreams still intact, and longing for her mother’s love and approval; Conor Murphy as the impetuous firebrand youngest brother Mick; and Kate Sheridan as “bad girl” Katie, strong-willed and driven, but no match for her mother. Stephen Flett was a delight, providing comic relief as Byrne, the cemetery monument sculptor and hopeful bachelor. Damien Gulde was very effective as the charming playboy travelling sales rep Teddy; and Rebecca Liddiard gave a strong, layered performance as Maurice’s sweetheart, balancing the introvert/extrovert and mild/fierce sides of Mary.

Shouts to designer Wayne Cardinalli, and the construction and dressing teams, for a beautifully rendered, detailed and practical set that drew us into the Polpin’s world.

Liberty at any cost. In the end, Maggie, with her life-hardened choices, is as much a victim of time, place and circumstance as those around her are victims of her premeditated cruelty – especially her children.

Big Maggie continues its run on the Alumnae Theatre mainstage – until March 8. I strongly recommend you reserve in advance – this past weekend’s performances were sold out.

In the meantime, check out the Big Maggie backstage goings-on via interviews and production photos on the TIP blog, by writer/journalist/blogger Jennifer Hough.

Fierce family tragicomedy – The Beauty Queen of Leenane @ Red Sandcastle Theatre

BeautyQueenTook a trip to east end Toronto ‘hood Leslieville last night to see the opening of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane at Red Sandcastle Theatre. Directed by Wes Berger, this Beauty Queen features an outstanding foursome of a cast: Rosemary Doyle, Lynne Griffin (who Lost Girl fans will recognize from season one ep. “Food For Thought” as Halima, the nice Aswang lady who becomes Lauren’s patient after cooking up a bad batch of foot soup), Paul Kelly and Sean Sullivan. Doyle is also the owner/A.D. of Red Sandcastle Theatre – if you missed my recent blog interview with her, you can read it here.

The first play of McDonagh’s The Leenane Trilogy (which continues with A Skull in Connemara and finishes with The Lonesome West; the latter had a fine production mounted by  the Toronto Irish Players a couple of years ago), The Beauty Queen of Leenane is a story of fierce, often brutally funny, family dysfunction – in this case, it’s a mother (Griffin as Mag Folan) and daughter (Doyle as Maureen Folan) at each others’ throats.

Mag and Maureen are begrudgingly settled into their lives of not-so-quiet desperation in their small rural family home – and their dynamic of mutual sniping and vengeful, petty tortures has a cellmate quality to it. Added to the mix are the Dooley brothers Ray (played by Kelly) and Pato (Sullivan), long-time neighbours and, in Ray’s case at least, family frenemies. And Pato’s recent return from work in England to visit for a family do offers an oasis of possibility for Maureen. Since this is a Martin McDonagh play, no one is as they seem, and plans have a way of twisting and turning. And the darkly funny family dysfunction at the Folan house may be far more complex and feral than it appears.

Griffin and Doyle have excellent chemistry as the feuding mother and daughter. Griffin deftly works the layers of Mag’s girlish charm and passive aggressive, high-maintenance Irish mother – and it’s a pleasure to watch her sly, devilish delight as she plots interference. Doyle does a stellar job, giving us a Maureen who, beneath the bored, put-upon 40-year-old spinster, has a deep well of sexuality, ambition and potentially darker passions bubbling near the surface. Kelly is a treat as Ray, the rough and tough-talking simple younger brother who adores Australian soaps, and provides some much needed comic relief. Sullivan is lovely as Pato, a sweet and gentlemanly bachelor of a certain age – full of longing and youthful enthusiasm, like Maureen – but frustrated and underachieving in a job that’s beneath his ambition.

I’ve really come to enjoy McDonagh’s writing. It’s raw, fierce and discomfiting – and pulls no punches (I also had the pleasure of seeing an excellent production of McDonagh’s The Pillowman, mounted by Rarely Pure Theatre last year). McDonagh’s work is not for the faint of heart. Don’t come out expecting the quaint, cozy Irish of Barry Fitzgerald and “Tura Lura Lural” – there’s nothing wrong with that, but you won’t be getting any of it here.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane continues its run at Red Sandcastle Theatre until February 1,with performances on Jan 24, 25, 28, 29, 30 and Feb 1 at 8 p.m., and a 2 p.m. matinee on Jan 27. Given the popularity of this play, the short run and the intimacy of the space, I highly recommend booking a reservation in advance. You can do so by calling the box office (416-845-9411) or via Rosemary Doyle’s Twitter page.

Production photos by Paul Kelly and Sean Sullivan:

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An excavation of mothers & daughters in Midden

First off, let’s get a big question out of the way – I know it was a big one for me. What the heck is a “midden”? Director Maureen Lukie answers this question in her Director’s Notes in the Midden program: it is a “form of burial mound found in archeological digs, where you can see layers of relics revealing how ancient peoples lived.” The word has also been used to refer to a messy space, as in a child’s disaster area bedroom, and also as a place where witches reside.

In the Toronto Irish Players’ (TIP) production of Morna Regan’s play Midden, “midden” refers to the place where family history is kept “preserved but not whole” – and open to a variety of interpretations when unearthed. The same story is never told the same way twice – and retold moments and events are shaped by individual points of view and rationalizations, and complex, multiple layers of family dynamic.

Yulia Shtern’s beautiful and practical set, the Sweeney kitchen, recently redecorated in anticipation of a daughter’s return, illustrates the sense of layers perfectly. The lower half of the walls is the colour of clay and the upper half is wallpapered with a pattern that appears to be close-up images of the seashore – layers of sea shells and stones washed up along the water’s edge – and the linoleum floor below like clay stones underfoot. The kitchen is ground zero for this multi-generational excavation. Even Ruth’s clothing designs (gorgeous costumes designed by Bernie Hunt) include a family history: Irish lace and three dropped stitches, taught to her by Dophie, so as to avoid the hubris of perfection. Three generations of mothers and daughters, secrets and grudges.

Ruth returns home after a long, somewhat estranged absence in America, now a successful fashion designer preparing to launch her Maiden City collection in Ireland. While she was away, struggling to establish her career, her grandmother Dophie has been struggling with Alzheimer’s, her Ma with looking after Dophie, and her younger sister Aileen with trying to leave home and establish a small transport business with her boyfriend. Ruth is also dealing with an identity crisis, both personal and cultural, and has just fled from her impending marriage to her fiancé Matt. The significant men in each woman’s life, some no longer living, are mentioned but never seen – and it is the women’s relationships, especially among the family, that is the focus here.

The lovely all-female cast features Lucy Farrell (Ruth),  Cliona Kenny (Dophie, Ruth’s grandmother), Barbara Taylor (Ma, Ruth’s mother), Sharon Taylor (Aileen, Ruth’s younger sister – doing double duty as producer) and Jennifer Hough (Mabs, Ruth’s friend and business partner). Farrell does a nice job with Ruth’s internal and external conflicts, trying to reach out and establish connections while keeping her boundaries intact at the same time – as are all the characters here. Kenny gives a lovely nuanced performance as Dophie, haunted by memories of the past that are all too clear compared with her tenuous grasp of the present. Barbara Taylor shows in Ma a woman caught up in the lives of her family, who she loves, but who has given up so much of herself and become embittered in the process – in North America, we’d say she was of the sandwich generation. Sharon Taylor’s Aileen, at turns hurt and rebellious, is also caught – unable to leave home and caught between life with her family and the life she longs for with a business and family of her own. Hough is a spit fire riot as Mabs – Ruth’s touchstone and confidant – juggling a family of her own with work and managing to look on the lighter side of things.

In Midden, as in life, we see – along with Ruth – that “You can go home, but you can’t go back.”

Midden continues its run on the Alumnae Theatre main stage until March 9. Please visit the TIP website for details and reservations: http://www.torontoirishplayers.com/index.php

And congrats to TIP for being named Irish Person of the Year 2013!

Busy times @ Alumnae Theatre

Hey all. Busy times working in theatre in addition to the full-time job this week, and I was in Ottawa visiting friends last Friday/weekend – so haven’t been able to get out to see stuff. Wanted to give some shouts out to the beehive of activity that is Alumnae Theatre, though.

Lots going on at Alumnae this week – with the Toronto Irish Players’ production of Translations continuing its run on the main stage, work on the set for Alumnae’s upcoming production of The Drowning Girls going on up in the studio and callbacks for Alumnae’s January production of A Woman of No Importance going on wherever they can find space. I imagine the New Ideas production folks are around as well, as they get ready to review director submissions and do some match-making with the playwrights.

Here’s what I can tell you about what’s happening right now:

Translations, by Brian Friel – directed for the Toronto Irish Players by Jim Ivers and produced by Geraldine Brown – opened October 18 and runs until November 3. For info and reservations, please visit the TIP website: http://torontoirishplayers.com/

The Drowning Girls, by Beth Graham, Charlie Tomlinson and Daniela Vlaskalic, runs November 16 to December 1 up in the studio. Directed for Alumnae Theatre by Taryn Jorgenson, with assistant director Antara Keelor, this production features actors Jen Neales, Tennille Read and Emily Smith. And a fabulous set by designer Ed Rosing and master carpenter Mike Peck (who, along with Bill Scott, also rigged up the plumbing). Yes – there’s some seriously cool working plumbing in this show! For a peek at this show, take a look here:  http://www.alumnaetheatre.com/1213drown.html

Last night, Ed and I started painting sections of burlap while Mike finished work on the plumbing – and we were joined by producer Andy Fraser and Alum member Joan Burrows, who gave us a hand with starting the burlap installation on the floor. To be continued today and tomorrow, leaving time for the paint to dry before the actors hit the stage late tomorrow afternoon. Will be back with more on this job, including pics, soon.

Happy Friday and have a great weekend, all!

Brutal hilarity in The Lonesome West

You always hurt the one you love.

Martin McDonagh’s play The Lonesome West is a dark comedy about the battling Connor brothers, Valene and Coleman, whose constant petty fighting comes to a head with the death of their father. Playing referee, and trying to shepherd the brothers to some kind of reconciliation and redemption, is young Father Welsh – all witnessed by local school girl Girleen, who works delivering poteen (potent Irish moonshine) around the village.

Directed for the Toronto Irish Players (TIP) by Jim Ivers and produced by Geraldine Browne, The Lonesome West has an excellent cast. Stephen Farrell (Valene) and Ronan P. Byrne (Coleman) are both hilarious and brutal as the squabbling brothers, their family history littered with petty arguments and harsh acts of revenge. Foul-mouthed and childish, and constantly at each others’ throats, they seem to be on the verge of killing each other at any moment. Gregory Cruikshank is both heartbreaking and funny as the lost, alcoholic Father Welsh (who often gets called “Walsh” by his village parishioners), desperately trying to bring peace to the embattled Connor household even as he battles his own demons. The most tender scene in the play is at the beginning of Act Two, when Welsh and Girleen (played by Katherine O’Brien) sit on a seaside bench – the location of several village suicides, including a recent one from the parish – Welsh drunk and despondent, and Girleen a bit older than her years and harbouring a secret crush on the young priest.

Set and lighting designer Rodel Manoy did a lovely job with the Connor home. Peopled solely by men for years, the place is covered in a layer of grime and it is only after the family patriarch’s death that Valene purchases a gas stove, comically positioned inside the fireplace. The shelves are covered with Valene’s huge collection of saint figurines, and furniture and objects are emblazoned with a black “V” – indicating Valene’s ownership.

It’s frank, brutal even in its comedy, with some lovely tender moments – and not for the faint of heart.

The Lonesome West runs on the Alumnae Theatre main stage until March 10. For details and reservations, visit the TIP website: http://torontoirishplayers.com/