Power, identity & politics: Women come out from behind the men in the potent, thoughtful Portia’s Julius Caesar

Nikki Duval & Christine Horne. Set & costume design by Rachel Forbes. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Shakespeare’s women continue to take centre stage this summer—this time, with Shakespeare in the Ruff’s production of AD Kaitlyn Riordan’s Portia’s Julius Caesar, a potent and thoughtful adaptation of Julius Caesar from the point of view of the women in this story. The sharply wrought script weaves the text woven from 17 Shakespeare plays, four sonnets and a poem with new dialogue—and the women behind the men come to the fore as they wrestle with their own issues of identity, power and justice. Directed by Eva Barrie, Portia’s Julius Caesar is currently running outdoors in Toronto’s Withrow Park.

While all of Rome celebrates Caesar’s (Jeff Yung) triumphant return from a successful campaign against the sons of Pompey, his wife Calpurnia (Nikki Duval) confides in her bosom friend Portia, wife to Brutus (Christine Horne), regarding her concerns over their lack of an heir and Caesar’s relationship with the legendary Cleopatra, who she fears may usurp her. Nursing a newborn son herself, Portia is supportive and optimistic for her friend’s chances of bearing a child; but soon finds herself uneasy in her own marriage as Brutus (Adriano Sobretodo Jr.) becomes increasingly distant and absent from their home.

Meanwhile, some in Rome are troubled by Caesar’s desire for a crown, which he hides with false humility; and there are those who fear that the republic may become a monarchy ruled by a boisterous, boasting tyrant. Among these are Servilia (Deborah Drakeford), Brutus’s imperious power-brokering mother and Cassius (Kwaku Okyere), Brutus’s friend—who both fan his deep concerns over Caesar’s popularity and hunger for power. Choosing his love of Rome over his love of Caesar, Brutus joins Cassius and a group of like-minded conspirators in a deadly plan to put a stop to Caesar’s rise to power. Hiding in the shadows to learn what is afoot, Portia catches wind of the plan; now faced with wanting to warn her friend Calpurnia but not betray her husband, she goes to Calpurnia with a story of a dream of Caesar’s bloody statue. Coupled with the Soothsayer’s (Tahirih Vejdani) recent warning, Calpurnia attempts to stop Caesar from going to the Senate on that fateful day—even after Brutus has persuaded him to do so—but fails to convince.

The actions that follow create a heartbreaking rift between Calpurnia and Portia, and make for additional tragedy in this tale of power, propaganda and loyalty. Portia fears for her life and that of her son when Marc Antony (Giovanni Spina) turns the people against Brutus, Cassius and their fellow assassins. Returning home to find Brutus gone, Portia learns that Servilia has secreted their son away to keep him safe. But how safe can anyone be in these chaotic, bloody times? In the end, the living are left to mourn their dead—and judge themselves for their actions in the outcome.

Remarkable work from Duval and Horne as Calpurnia and Portia; friends of their own accord, with a relationship separate from that of their husbands, these women truly love, nurture and support each other. Duval gives a moving performance as Calpurnia; an intelligent woman, well aware of her husband’s station and rise to power, Calpurnia beats herself up for not having children and blames herself for his womanizing. And seeing her friend nurse her baby makes Calpurnia want a child even more. Horne deftly mines Portia’s internal conflict as a contented, happy mother and supportive wife and friend whose reach only goes so far. Portia simply can’t wait on the sidelines when she knows that something serious is afoot with Brutus—and her insistence that he confide in her comes from a genuine desire to help. Longing to not only do their duty, but be real, invested partners to their husbands, Calpurnia and Portia can only respond as events emerge—and do what they believe is right under the circumstances. Drakeford gives a striking performance as the sharp-witted, intimidating yet vulnerable Servilia. Unable to wield direct political power herself, Servilia employs what influence she has to persuade individuals and manage events; and with no female role models at the time, she appears to model her behaviour after that of powerful men—perhaps finding herself at odds with her natural instincts.

The outstanding ensemble also includes a Young Ruffian Chorus (Troy Sarju, Sienna Singh and Jahnelle Jones-Williams); and the male actors also portray the various washerwomen—as women and slaves, they represent the lowest among the 99% in Rome. Okyere’s fiery, volatile, hasty Cassius is the perfect foil to Sobretodo’s cool, diplomatic, calculating Brutus. Spina does a great job balancing Antony’s fired-up warrior and eloquent orator; and, in addition to the enigmatic Soothsayer, Vejdani gives us a playful and seductive Casca, a Roman courtesan in this adaptation whose part in the plot includes distracting Antony from the impending plot against Caesar.

Portia’s Julius Caesar continues at Withrow Park (in the space just south of the washrooms) until September 3, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday (no show on August 27, but there will be a special Labour Day performance on Sept 3); the show runs 110 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets are PWYC at the venue (cash only: $20 suggested); advance tickets available online for $20 (regular) or $30 (includes camp chair rental).

Bring a blanket, beach towel or chair; bug spray also recommended. Concerned about the possible impact of weather conditions on a performance? Keep an eye out on Shakespeare in the Ruff’s Twitter feed or Facebook page for updates and cancellations.

In the meantime, check out this insightful and revealing Toronto Star piece by Carly Maga about the show, including an interview with AD/playwright Kaitlyn Riordan.

Advertisements

Happy feet & hopeful hearts in Alumnae Theatre’s delightful, poignant Stepping Out

_DSC2886
Front: Jessica Westermann Back (l to r): Felicia Simone, Mish Tam, Kay Randewich, Alyssa Quart Cartlidge, Rebecca Grenier, Scott Turner & Lisa Kovack in Stepping Out – photo by Bruce Peters

Alumnae Theatre Company’s got its dancing shoes on as it mounts its retrospective production for the 2015-16 season: Richard Harris’s Stepping Out (originally produced by Alumnae in 1989), which opened on the main stage to a packed house last night. Directed by Executive Producer Brenda Darling, assisted by Liz Best, and choreographed by Alyssa Martin and Jessica Westermann (Act I), with support from dance coach Sandra Burley.

Set in 1980s London in a local church hall, Stepping Out takes us on the year and a half-long journey of one of Mavis’s (Jessica Westermann) tap dance classes, accompanied by pianist Mrs. Fraser (Jeanette Dagger). The class includes seven women and one man: Lynne (Mish Tam), a cheerful and sensitive nurse; Dorothy (Kay Randewich), the sweet, mousy, bicycle-riding mensch of a social services worker; Maxine (Lisa Kovack), a vivacious saleswoman; Andy (Rebecca Grenier), introverted and painfully awkward, but committed to learn; Rose (Linette Doherty), the wry-witted Trini wife and mother run ragged looking after everyone but herself; Sylvia (Felicia Simone), the outspoken, genuine and irreverent youngster; Geoffrey (Scott Turner), the quiet, gentle widower; and newcomer Vera (Alyssa Quart Cartlidge), the wealthy, prim Stepford wife meets Martha Stewart housewife who lacks an internal editor.

_DSC3016
Jessica Westermann, Jeanette Dagger & Alyssa Quart Cartlidge – photo by Bruce Peters

The cast does a lovely job telling the stories of this class and these characters. Stand-outs include Westermann (also the cast dance captain), who brings a warm, saint-like patience and nurturing quality to Mavis, a woman struggling to make ends meet and supporting an unemployed boyfriend; she’s an extremely talented hoofer with broken dreams of her own. Dagger is deliciously abrasive as Mrs. Fraser, the dance class’s stern and fastidious accompanist; a mother figure to Mavis who helps with the administration of the classes, there’s more to her piano talents than just tinkling the ivories for dance students. Kovack’s Maxine is an extroverted gal-on-the-go and former child performer with a can-do attitude; struggling at home with an unruly stepson and absent husband, she too is clearly dancing as fast as she can to beat the blues. As for Grenier’s Andy, still waters run deep; the shy, submissive and plain exterior belies a deep inner strength, fierceness and beauty. And beneath the tough-talking cockiness and everyday vanity, Simone’s Sylvia is a tired young wife who wants a break – and to feel beautiful again.

Ultimately, for everyone involved in the class, it’s not just about dancing – it’s about filling an empty place inside, and finding family and a sense of belonging.

With shouts to the design team: Doug Payne (set designer/lead carpenter), Bill Scott (lighting), Bec Brownstone (costumes), Razie Brownstone (props) and Rick Jones (sound assembly).

Happy feet and hopeful hearts in Alumnae Theatre’s delightful, poignant production of Stepping Out.

_DSC3072
Jessica Westermann stepping out solo – photo by Bruce Peters

Stepping Out continues on the Alumnae main stage until Feb 6. You can get advance tickets online or by calling the box office: 416-364-4170; or you can purchase in person (cash only) at the box office one hour before show time. Special events include a pre-show panel discussion on Sun, Jan 24 from 12:30-1:30pm: “Stepping Out Through the Arts” Can the Arts heal? And on Sat, Jan 30 at 8pm: 80s Dress-Up Night – Should blue eye shadow be banned?

Check out this experiential piece by Toronto Star writer Melanie Chambers on auditioning for Stepping Out. And take a look at the Stepping Out trailer (by Nicholas Porteus):

The power of the quantifiable meets the strength of the immeasurable in HER2

HER2-header-finalWhen you see an image of HER2, you’re struck at how remarkably – and surprisingly – beautiful it is, like a Valentine’s heart with a single foot on point. Feminine. Ballerina-like.

Maja Ardal’s HER2, directed by Kim Blackwell for Nightwood Theatre, opened its world premiere run at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre this week – the play named for the gene that plays a role in the development of a specific type of breast cancer, and set in a human clinical trial for a new drug.

Dr. Danielle Pearce (Nancy Palk) has had success in the lab treating mice, and has the green light and funding to start a human trial. She takes on PhD student Kate (Bahareh Yaraghi) as her research assistant and starts treating a group of specially selected women – women who have run out of treatment options. The play focuses on a subgroup of seven women; they come from various walks of life and ethnic backgrounds, and most are 40 to 60 years old. One is only 19.

HER2 is a multidisciplinary, multimedia production, incorporating projected images (by Denyse Karn) both real and magical – microscopic cells, female anatomy, CT scans, rays of light and photos of the participants – as well as choreographed movement (by actor Monica Dottor) that beautifully and expressively sets the process of examination and administration to motion.

Blackwell has a stellar cast for HER2. Palk brings a nice blend of humanity and wry humour to the prickly Dr. Pearce, a brilliant and ambitious clinician who’s better with rodents than she is with humans. Yaraghi’s Kate is bubbly and wide-eyed with youthful energy, highly intelligent and interested in the medicine, but particularly invested in the people – she is the bridge between the science and the human touch of the trial. Kyra Harper gives an earthy warmth to the pragmatic dairy farmer Frances, the participant with the most aggressive cancer who literally and figuratively becomes the touchstone of the group. Chick Reid gives a lovely layered performance as Naomi, the chilly and sharp-witted academic who finds she needs more than ciggies and scotch to get through this. Maria Vacratsis is irreverently funny and overflowing with positive vibes as Gloria, the group den mother. Diana D’Aquila is beautifully fragile and sweet as the child-like housewife Daphne, a joyfully expressive bundle of collegial dynamism. Brenda Kamino brings the spirit of open-minded wisdom and support to Melissa (Minnie), a natural medicine practitioner, when she’s not a trial participant – always willing to lend a hand and a cup of stinky herbal tea. Monica Dottor is wonderful as the vivacious and stubborn Charlene, an actress and mother of a young child who makes the risky decision of choosing the trial over a hysterectomy in hopes of having more children one day. Olunike Adeliyi does a remarkable job with the complex young Anya, the baby of the group – a hip and tough as nails, scared kid – full of rage, but willing to relinquish her lone wolf detachment to fully participate, and regain a sense of sociability and community. And Ellora Patnaik brings a spunky take-charge sass to Nurse Gabby; excellent at her job, unafraid of drawing boundaries – and full of surprises – as she suffers no fools on her turf, the treatment room.

What these women all have in common – patients and practitioners alike – is drive, fight, courage and hope. And the greatest of these is hope.

With shouts to Julia Tribe’s design: each participant is represented with a pedestal and microscope up along the catwalk, and each has a modular chair and IV pole, which Dottor also includes in the choreography. And a very effective use of voice-over, with a flat and clinical male voice, distant and detached, querying the participants on medical history and trial survey questions.

The power of the quantifiable meets the strength of the immeasurable as science and community join forces in HER2. Seriously – go see this.

In the meantime, take a look at some great profile pieces in the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star and NOW Magazine. You can also check out Nightwood’s YouTube channel for interviews with the HER2 folks – here’s the trailer:

HER2 continues at Buddies until February 1. Last night’s house was packed, so you may want to book ahead online. The production run also features Talkback Wednesdays (Jan 21 & 28) and panel conversations after the matinee performances (Jan 17 and 31). And HER2 has partnered with the Feminist Art Conference (FAC) to include a photography exhibit by Carol Mark.

50 things I’ve learned

cathy - btw book alt photo
Me at my fourth or fifth birthday.

I was inspired by Toronto Star columnist Joe Fiorito’s list of 65 things he’s learned to create one of my own milestone lists. In no particular order:

  1.  It’s better to give. – Zoie Palmer reminded me of this in a tweet she posted today
  2.  People who talk to you about others will also talk to others about you. – can’t recall the origin of this one
  3. Whenever you have the chance, go for a pee and drink water. – Brenda Sharpe reminded me of this during our office party yesterday
  4. Life can’t always be champagne and latkes. – Elisabeth G.
  5. Those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind. – originally thought this was Dr. Seuss, but it’s actually Bernard Baruch
  6. Re-examine all you have been told. Dismiss that which insults your soul. – Walt Whitman
  7. When changing a baby boy’s diaper, get the front flap of the fresh diaper in place ASAP.
  8. You can learn a lot about someone – and yourself – by how they/you untangle a mess of Christmas tree lights.
  9. Prior planning prevents piss-poor performance. – British army wisdom (shared by Stephanie Bitten)
  10. If you don’t act crazy, you’ll go crazy. – Dr. Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce (played by Alan Alda) from the TV show M*A*S*H
  11.  Silence speaks volumes.
  12. Don’t forget to breathe.
  13. In any conversation, listening is extremely important – even more so than speaking.
  14. It’s not a good idea to proofread your own writing.
  15. Always take note of the source of any praise, criticism or information that comes your way; not all sources are reliable, truthful or without agenda.
  16. People are the strangest animals I’ve ever seen.
  17. Trying to organize a group of lively, smart, creative people is like herding cats.
  18. You are what you say you are.
  19. You are not your job.
  20. If someone’s bullying or mistreating you, chances are they were/are bullied/mistreated themselves.
  21. Art is vital to a good quality of life.
  22. Smiling makes you feel better.
  23. Laughing makes you feel even better than smiling.
  24. When shaving your legs, it’s best to not go above the knee.
  25. People, even those you love, will disappoint you. They will also surprise you, in a good way.
  26. Faint heart never won fair maiden.– Elisabeth G., while perhaps not the originator of this quote, reminds me of this always
  27. Better to try and fail than regret not trying.
  28. ‘ Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. – Alfred Lord Tennyson
  29. Be as good a friend to yourself as your good friends are to you.
  30. Lovers may come and go, but good friends – your chosen family – are for keeps.
  31. Don’t be afraid to tell your loved ones that you’re afraid.
  32. Besides death and taxes, the only thing you can count on is that things will change.
  33. This too shall pass. This goes for the good as well as the bad.
  34.  Sometimes, something that initially appears to be a negative can turn out to be a positive.
  35. The body is sexy, but the brain is sexier.
  36. Having a pet to come home to is a truly wonderful thing, especially if you live alone.
  37.  Dark chocolate really does have healing powers.
  38.  So does red wine.
  39. You can never get too many hugs. Same goes for giving hugs.
  40. Having a positive attitude in the day-to-day goes a long way toward staying positive when times get rough.
  41. You and your doctor are partners in the maintenance of your health and well-being.
  42. Finding joy in simple, everyday moments is a really good thing.
  43. When experiencing a conflict with someone, it can be helpful to examine what you have in common.
  44. Be prepared for the worst, and hope for the best – but don’t dwell on it too much.
  45. Don’t pass up the chance to say “I love you.”
  46. Being alone is not the same as being lonely.
  47. When it comes to romance, it’s better to be alone than in a bad relationship.
  48. Make sure to have music in your life.
  49. Be kind to the world and all its creatures, including you.
  50. Be the best version of yourself that you can be.