The power of hope & community to build a dream in the sharply funny, poignant, uplifting Superior Donuts

Photo by Shaun Benson: Robert Persichini and Nabil Rajo in Superior Donuts

Coal Mine Theatre continues its 2016-17 season with the Canadian premiere of Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts, directed by Ted Dykstra, and opening last night to a packed house and a standing ovation at its home at 1454 Danforth Ave., Toronto.

When we first see Superior Donuts, the shop appears to have been abandoned. The shelves are empty, there’s litter strewn across the counter and floor, chairs and stools overturned, and the word “Pussy” has been spray painted in neon orange on the chalkboard green wall. As the play opens, though, we learn it’s been vandalized; and Max (Alex Poch-Goldin), who owns the neighbouring DVD store, is giving his account to police officers Randy Osteen (Darla Biccum) and James Bailey (Michael Blake) after calling it in. We also learn from Max that Superior Donuts owner Arthur (Robert Persichini) has been absent lately, and hasn’t opened the shop in a couple of days, as he mourns the loss of his ex-wife.

Arthur arrives as Max is finishing up with the police, already slow moving and numb as he takes in the damage, eventually realizing he’s missed his coffee delivery, so has no coffee to offer anyone. Left alone to tidy up, he’s roused by an insistent and persistent knock on the locked door; a kid responding to his help wanted notice. Arthur reluctantly opens the door to Franco (Nabil Rajo), a fast-talking young man with seemingly boundless energy; and after an unusual and certainly creative job interview, Franco is hired. Meanwhile, Franco has troubles of his own; bookie Luther (Ryan Hollyman) and his muscle Kevin (Jon Lachlan Stewart) pay him a visit after Kevin sees him working at the shop. Franco has a large gambling debt, and Luther is under extreme pressure from the powers that be—he wants his money now and the clock is running out for Franco.

Superior Donuts is the last of a dying breed of beloved mom and pop stores in an increasingly gentrified neighbourhood, where Starbucks and Whole Foods are popping up and challenging businesses that have been fixtures for years. It’s also an island of misfit toys, with its own cast of quirky, multicultural characters. There’s local regular Lady (Diana Leblanc), a struggling alcoholic with a love of red lipstick; and the outspoken Russian Max, who has big plans for expanding his DVD shop into an electronics empire and wants to buy the donut shop so he can fulfill his dream—these two get free coffee and donuts. We also get to know the two cops: Randy comes from a sports-loving family full of  brothers and cops, and has an eye for Arthur; and James and his wife are Star Trek fans who enjoy cosplay at fan conventions. And, while he’s largely silent with the others, Arthur speaks to us throughout in wistful, heartfelt and nostalgic monologues—personal history anecdotes filled with notes of regret.

Franco is full of ideas for improvement for Superior Donuts, from healthier menu choices to poetry and reading events. He also has ideas for improving Arthur, and sets out to be both style consultant and matchmaker. And he’s just finished writing the great American novel, written long-hand on notebooks and loose leaf over the course of seven years, an opus bound with a string. The kid is full of hope—something that Arthur has long been lacking—and as the relationship between Arthur and Franco grows, Franco’s enthusiasm becomes contagious and ideas start brewing in Arthur’s head about who they can talk to about publishing Franco’s book. He even decides to do something about Randy. Then, his despair, doubt and pessimism get the better of him—and Arthur lashes out at Franco’s youthful industry and optimism.

But when something happens to Franco, Arthur is spurred to action. Confronting Luther and Kevin, with the help of Max and his young relative Kiril (Paul Dods), Superior Donuts becomes the ground for one last fight.

Outstanding work from the cast; each a masterful storyteller as he/she speaks for his/her character. Persichini gives a profoundly moving performance as Arthur, a gentle giant who fled to Canada to evade the draft, returning to take over the family business established by his father the year he was born. Now deeply saddened by the passing of his ex-wife Magda and full of guilt at having lost touch with his daughter Joanie, his life is full of disappointment and regret, leaving him in hopelessness and despair—until Franco enters his life. Rajo is a delightful spark plug as Franco; a mercurial, smart and irreverent young man, there’s more to him than the hip, smart-ass kid he presents. A thoughtful, generous soul, his sense of hope is put to the test. Great chemistry, banter and candor in the Arthur/Franco two-handers.

Leblanc gives a lovely performance as the fragile, bird-like Lady; and the mutual love and care that Lady and Arthur have for each other are evident in some beautifully tender moments between them. Poch-Goldin is hilariously engaging as the blunt Max; he’s a go big or go home kind of guy who says what he thinks—and fiercely loyal. Biccum and Blake make a great pair as the police officer partners Randy and James. Biccum gives Randy some nice, gentle layers beneath the tomboy cop exterior; longing for something beyond her family legacy of sports and being on the job, she likes Arthur a lot but is too shy to go for it. And Blake brings an officer and a gentleman vibe to James; a good sport about the teasing from his friends and colleagues about his love of Star Trek, he’s a genuinely good man, out to serve and protect.

Hollyman brings a great edge of desperation and ruthlessness to Luther; Stewart’s Kevin is classic bad boy from the hood; and Dods is impressive as the ripped Kiril, a newly arrived immigrant with little English and a sweet soul under those abundant muscles.

The power of hope and community to build a dream in the sharply funny, poignant, uplifting Superior Donuts.

Superior Donuts continues to February 26; drop by the Coal Mine Theatre website for ticket info or purchase tickets directly online. Book in advance for this one folks—it’s an incredible show and an intimate venue with general seating. Please note the 7:30pm curtain time for evening performances; box office opens at 6:45pm.

Keep up with Coal Mine Theatre on Twitter and Facebook.

Southern Gothic meets The X-Files (or does it?) in creepy, edgy thriller Bug

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Poster art/design by Jonathan Kociuba

Toronto just got some more Tracy Letts Southern Gothic goodness, this time with a StudioBLR & Kid Switchblade indie production of Bug, directed by Jamieson Child, and opening last night at the Super Wonder Theatre (aka Gallery).

In Agnes’s shitty hotel room somewhere in Oklahoma, Agnes (Lynne Rafter) and her friend Ronnie (Jaclyn Nobrega) shoot the breeze and party with Ronnie’s friend Peter (Todd Preston). Agnes has been receiving multiple crank phone calls, with nothing but breathing on the other end, and suspects it’s her ex Jerry (Luke Gallo), who’s fresh out of two years in jail. Ronnie and her partner are trying to get custody of their kid, and when she leaves and Peter decides to stay, she vouches for him to Agnes. He’s a quiet one, that Peter. Quiet and nervous. But he and Agnes strike up a rapport and she offers him a place to stay, on the floor of her room. The relationship grows and they start to open up to each other, showing the other what’s deep inside. Only, for Peter, it’s not the usual life tribulations. An army soldier gone AWOL from a medical facility, he believes the government is experimenting on him. And his arrival has coincided with a bug infestation in Agnes’s room. Agnes, who is dealing with the heart-crushing loss of her young son who went missing 10 years ago, plus unwanted visits from the abusive Jerry, doesn’t know what to believe. When Dr. Sweet (Ian McGarrett) arrives, claiming he wants to take care of Peter and keep him safe, things start to make sense, but then – this being a Tracy Letts play – it all goes to hell pretty damn quick and hard.

Great work from the entire cast on this bizarre tale of conspiracy theory and paranoid delusion – and, like Agnes, the audience is constantly trying to sort out just what the hell is going on. Rafter gives a beautifully nuanced performance as the damaged Agnes; fragile and self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, she’s checked out of life and into this run-down hotel room, waiting tables to get by. Longing for connection and tenderness, she’s relieved yet terrified about her newfound relationship with Peter. This is Preston’s theatrical debut– and a damn good one at that – as he changes up from music performance (fronting Toronto indie band I Hate Todd) to acting. He turns up the heat on Peter nicely throughout; quiet and child-like at first, his anxiety presents as painful shyness, turning more hyperactive as he gets comfortable with Agnes in his new surroundings – and, like her, he’s longing for connection. Extremely intelligent, but obsessive and manic in his pursuit of the truth about the bugs, there’s a demented common sense to his theories. Really nice work from the supporting cast: Nobrega gives Ronnie a tough, but tender quality; loyal and extremely protective of Agnes, she’s a no-bullshit, direct gal who knows when she’s done all she can. Gallo brings a cagey, menacing edge to Jerry; an abusive brute with an overblown sense of ownership, he blames Agnes for the loss of their son Lloyd even as he uses her for money and as a punching bag. McGarrett is a somewhat spooky puzzle as Dr. Sweet; the doctor seems affable and harmless enough, even helpful – but there’s something off about him. He’s hiding something, but is it what Peter is accusing him of?

With shouts to the design team for creating the seedy, spooky ambiance: director Child (lighting), actor Preston (set design/construction), Michael Zahorak (music/sound) and Drac Child (makeup/costume coordinator).

Southern Gothic meets The X-Files (or does it?) in creepy, edgy thriller Bug.

Bug continues at the Super Wonder Theatre (aka Gallery) until May 27. Ticket info here; it’s an intimate space at the back of the gallery, so you might want to book ahead to avoid disappointment.

In the meantime, check out the show’s teaser vid:

Nasty family schemes go to hell in Coal Mine Theatre’s primal, raw & darkly funny Killer Joe

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Matthew Edison (standing). Seated (l to r): Paul Fauteux, Madison Walsh, Vivien Endicott-Douglas & Matthew Gouveia – photo by Matt Campagna

There’s a mini-Lettsapalooza going on in Toronto right now – and last night, I stopped by Coal Mine Theatre to see their production of Tracy Letts’ Killer Joe, directed by Peter Pasyk.

Chris Smith (Matthew Gouveia) is in big trouble. In deep with drug debts, he owes a mean son of a bitch named Digger $6,000. Chris doesn’t have $6,000. But he has a plan. A crazy-ass plan in which he enlists the aid of his dad Ansel (Paul Fauteux) to hire dirty Dallas P.D. detective Killer Joe Cooper (Matthew Edison) to knock off his no-good, alcoholic mother and get the insurance money. Chris and Ansel aren’t the sharpest tools in the shed – and decidedly not discrete – and it’s not long before Chris’s young stepmother Sharla (Madison Walsh) and kid sister Dottie (Vivien Endicott-Douglas), who’s listed as their mother’s beneficiary, are in on the plan. And because they don’t have the $25,000 they need to pay Killer Joe for his services, they need to come up with a retainer to keep him on board – and Chris and Ansel must decide what they’re willing to sacrifice to that end. Scheme on top of scheme unravels, each one worse than the one before it, and the Smith family displays some Olympic-level dumbassery, seasoned with sex, violence and some evil dark humour. And, of course, things go horribly, horribly wrong. Think George F. Walker meets Fargo in a Texas trailer park.

Killer Joe has a damn fine cast. The stakes are crazy high and the desperation is turned up to 11 with the knob broke off – and these actors really give ‘er. As Chris, Gouveia turns up the heat and pace with practically every scene he’s in, and he’s found the complexity of a man who’s deeply protective of his loved ones, but incredibly careless about putting them in harm’s way. You can see Chris’s mind turning like a hamster wheel, churning out worse idea after bad idea; this may be the first time in his lazy-ass, drug-addled life that he’s ever exhibited some ambition and he’s in it 110% – until second, and even third, thoughts start seeping in, that is. Walsh gives Sharla a saucy, manipulative edge; ruthless and focused in her way, Sharla’s got the chops for sexing her way to what she wants, but lacks the brains to think things through. Fauteux’s Ansel is a hilarious combination of clueless and cowardly; easily distracted by the TV and dumb enough to go along with Chris’s plan for “easy money,” Ansel is deluded in thinking he’s the true head of the household and truly baffled when things go south. Endicott-Douglas brings a spacey, child-like quality to the wide-eyed, Bruce Lee Kung Fu fan Dottie; likely brain-damaged from maternal abuse when she was an infant, she moves through the world at a dreamy, sleep-walking pace – and talks when she sleep walks, comprehending more than others think. Edison is chilling as Killer Joe; a tall, dark and handsome southern gentleman with a deep, gravelly voice and eyes that pierce, killing is commerce to Joe, and human lives are bought and sold with a civil, verbal contract. He’s a stone cold killer and merciless professional – and definitely not a man you want to cross.

With shouts to set/lighting designer Patrick Lavender, costume designer Jenna McCutchen and sound designer Christopher Stanton for their work on creating this filthy, seedy, trailer trash world. You can almost feel the grime on that linoleum and smell the sweat on Ansel’s greasy undershirt. The pre-show thunder is particularly ominous – starting out faint and far away, then getting louder and closer when the action starts. And, as for the ending, you’ll never hear Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces” the same way again.

Nasty family schemes go to hell in Coal Mine Theatre’s primal, raw and darkly funny Killer Joe.

Killer Joe continues at Coal Mine Theatre until Apr 24. It’s an intimate venue and a popular show, so book ahead to avoid disappointment. Please note the 7:30 p.m. start time; the play runs 90 minutes with no intermission and no latecomers will be admitted. The box office opens at 6:45 p.m. and takes cash only at the door.

If you haven’t been out to Coal Mine Theatre for a while, also note that they’ve moved further east on Danforth from their original location; still conveniently located near a Magic Oven and now with their own storefront space (and washroom), it’s at 1454 Danforth Ave, between Greenwood and Coxwell.

And, speaking of Lettsapalooza: Also running in Toronto right now is Alumnae Theatre Company’s production of Letts’ August: Osage County (till Apr 23). You can check out the cowbell post for that show here.

Casual cruelty & family secrets in ferociously funny, devastatingly poignant August: Osage County

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Marie Carriere Gleason (foreground), with Paul Cotton, Kelly-Marie Murtha, Melinda Jordan, Pearl Ho & Andrew Batten – photos by Bruce Peters

Alumnae Theatre Company cordially invites you to attend a family gathering at the home of Beverly and Violet Weston in Pawhuska, Oklahoma.

Alumnae opened its production of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County on the mainstage last night. Directed by Victoria Shepherd and featuring a talented ensemble, this is family dysfunction at its grittiest, no holds barred best.

When the Weston family patriarch (Thomas Gough) goes missing, middle daughter Ivy (Andrea Lyons) – the only child who stayed in town – rallies the family around her ailing mother Violet (Marie Carriere Gleason). Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Carol McLennan) and husband Charlie (Rob Candy) are the first to arrive, and we get a sense of the estrangement that underpins the family dynamic. The Weston’s oldest daughter Barbara (Kelly-Marie Murtha) is the most wanted – but least wanting – to be there; she arrives from Colorado with husband Bill (Paul Cotton) and 14-year-old daughter Jean (Melinda Jordan) in tow. Add to this mix youngest Weston girl Karen (Kathleen Jackson Allamby) and fiancé Steve (Chris Peterson), and cousin Little Charles (Neil Cameron), and the family circus is complete – occasionally witnessed from the outside by housekeeper/caregiver Johnna (Pearl Ho) and Sheriff Deon Gilbeau (Andrew Batten). The atmosphere becomes rife with nostalgia (for better or worse), secrets and schemes as things fall apart and come together only to fall apart again and again.

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Marie Carriere Gleason & Andrea Lyons

Nice work all around from this large, engaging cast. The play runs two and a half hours, plus intermission, but doesn’t feel like it. The Weston family women anchor this story – and the cast is particularly strong here. Gleason’s Violet is a complex puzzle of illness, addiction and survivor; quick to offer unsolicited – and decidedly not feminist – advice to the women in her life, her brutal honesty is shockingly unforgiving. Moments of manipulation and Hollywood-calibre drama queen can turn (seemingly) into flashes of genuine tenderness. Lyons gives a lovely, multi-layered performance as the put-upon Ivy; a character that could easily become a one-dimensional family doormat, she pushes back with a sharp wit and dark sense of humour. She has a pure heart and the patience of a saint, but as the main butt of her mother’s criticism, even she has her limits. Murtha’s Barbara is the picture of a woman on the edge, struggling with a complex set of emotions as her whole world is crumbling around her. The family rock, she strives to keep things together even as she’s falling apart herself – by turns angry, exasperated, protective and acerbically funny, putting out one fire as another appears. Allamby’s Karen is a beautiful contradiction; a high-energy chatterbox, Karen strives for self-awareness and adulthood, but comes off as flakey and deluded, with a poignant, child-like quality to her rose-coloured family nostalgia, born of selective memory. McLennan’s Mattie Fae, like her sister Violet, is a complex woman of contradiction – as cruel in her judgemental criticism (in her case, aimed at her son Little Charles) as she is fiercely protective of her family, including her son. And Jordan brings a precocious, wise child edge to Jean; a self-possessed young film buff coming into herself as she deals with her parents’ relationship issues.

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Pearl Ho & Thomas Gough

Other stand-outs include Gough’s wry-witted, melancholy alcoholic Beverly; a lauded poet and academic at the end of his rope, we only see him at the top of the play, but his presence resonates and stays with us. Batten brings an understated, quiet and boyish bashfulness and sense of anticipation to the Sheriff, a former beau of Barbara’s. And Peterson’s Steve is both charming and skeevy; a smooth operator under that sweet, helpful exterior.

It’s like watching a train wreck – and you can’t look away. The high drama of this family gathering is tempered by sharp-edged, dark humour – which the family uses for both self-protection and sniper attacks – and occasional moments of genuine, loving connection. Nothing brings out a family’s true colours like tragedy.

With shouts to set designer Alexis Chubb’s minimalist, multi-level set, with its inventive and effective multiple playing areas and nooks for the various family vignettes. And to John Stuart Campbell for the sound design and original composition; his song “Can’t Run Far Enough” features vocals by Vivien Shepherd and Ron Smith on harmonica – and haunting, wistful western sounds.

Casual cruelty and family secrets abound in Alumnae’s ferociously funny, devastatingly poignant production of August: Osage County.

August: Osage County continues on the Alumnae mainstage until April 23; check here for ticket purchase/info. Performances include a pre-show chat with the design team at noon tomorrow (Sun, Apr 10); and a post-show talkback with the cast and crew on Sun, Apr 17.

Related trivia/info: Former Alumnae President (and damn fine actor) Dinah Watts is in a London Community Players’ production of August: Osage County in London, ON right now. Lett’s first play Killer Joe is in production at Coal Mine Theatre till April 24 (I’m seeing it on Tuesday). And founder/playwright at Cue6 Theatre Sarah Illiatovitch-Goldman (who was in Alumnae’s production of Wit, and has play We Three running now at Tarragon) is on the Steppenwolf Theater Company’s literary team for the world premiere of Letts’ play Mary Page Marlowe.

Oh yeah, and here’s the awesome trailer for the Alumnae production of August: Osage County (video by Nicholas Porteous):