Neighbour vs. neighbour in the timely, poignant The Land Grabber

The Toronto Irish Players present the North American premiere of James Phelan and Edward F. Barrett’s The Land Grabber, directed by Kristin Chan and opening last night on the Alumnae Theatre mainstage. A farm in 1881 County Kerry becomes a microcosm of the social and political unrest in Ireland as The Land War between tenant farmers protesting landlords’ arbitrary rent increases and evictions erupts. Living in the shadow of The Great Famine and the more recent Little Famine, neighbour is pitted against neighbour when one farmer, bent on expanding local food production, purchases an evicted neighbour’s farm; all legal, but morally abhorrent—and resulting in far-reaching and tragic consequences.

The Land Grabber is a revised version of Barrett’s (Phelan’s maternal grandfather) The Grabber, which was produced at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in November 1918, following revisions suggested by W.B. Yeats. A teenaged Phelan found a hand-written draft of the play and, years later, set about reviving the play in 2013 with the assistance of dramaturge/co-producer Maureen Lukie.

Successful farmer Johnny Foley (Thomas O’Neill) has his eye on an adjacent property and aims to marry off his daughter Mary (Meghan de Chastelain) in order to secure it. Mary has other plans and refuses, supported by her mother Ellen (Kelly-Marie Murtha). A visit from Pat Walsh (Ted Powers), a struggling neighbour at risk of eviction—and an old flame of Ellen’s—prompts assistance from Johnny’s son Billy (Blake Canning), who sets aside his own farm chores to till Pat’s land while Pat heads to the local fair to sell livestock in an 11th hour attempt to save his farm.

Despite his best efforts and successful sale, Pat is too late—and even his wealthy widow sister Kitty (Donna O’Regan) is unable to help—and the Bailiff (Dermot Walsh) arrives to execute the eviction. When Pat refuses to leave his home and the battering ram begins its heart-stopping assault on his front door,* his neighbours come out to protest—all except Johnny—and Pat and his medical student son Bryan (Paul Micucci) are injured as their home comes crashing down around their ears. Unbeknownst to even his own family, Johnny has already made a deal to pay off what Pat owes in rent and take over the Walsh farm. Refusing to listen to the protests of his family or consider alternative political solutions from Pat, who belongs to the Irish National Land League, Johnny goes ahead with his plan to grab Pat’s land.

The Foley family is subsequently shunned and oppressed by their neighbours; and Johnny is oblivious to the pain and suffering his actions have brought on his wife and children. Mary, who had left home to take a governess position, returns to be with her family and has her own decision to make; despondent and at her wit’s end, Ellen becomes a virtual recluse, choosing to worship at home to avoid the stone throwing and spitting; and the spirited, fair-minded Billy stands up for what he feels is right, refusing to side with his father. Meanwhile, Pat has gone into politics to further the cause and is doing well. Unable to sell locally, Johnny is force to travel to other towns. Tragedy ensues, and events threaten Mary and Bryan’s plans to marry when local police (Emmet Leahy and Benjamin Phelan) consider Bryan a suspect in a recent attack on the family. Eventually, Johnny is compelled to reconsider his acquisition of the Walsh farm—but all too late.

O’Neill is a compelling presence as Johnny; arrogant, stubborn and heavy-handed, there’s a world of pain and shame beneath that harsh exterior. Deeply scarred by the Famine and obsessed with making sure no one starves to death again, Johnny is deaf to alternate solutions and blind to the suffering of his own family—who, ironically, he’s most concerned about protecting. Murtha gives a gentle and heartbreaking performance as the loyal, religiously devout Ellen; but even Ellen can only take so much as their world is destroyed by her husband’s short-sighted, selfish decisions. Powers is playfully charming and politically astute as the determined, forward-thinking Pat; committed to a political solution to his fellow tenants’ predicament, he turns lemons to lemonade as he translates his knowledge and experience of farming issues to the political sphere. O’Regan is a feisty treat as the lusty widow Kitty; with a head for business and an appreciation strapping young men, Kitty injects both keen pragmatism and irreverent humour to the proceedings.

It’s a timely production for GTA audiences, given the current climate of high rents, rescinded rent controls and low vacancy rates, combined with frozen wages and a job market that increasingly favours precarious part-time/contract work over more secure permanent full-time positions. Landlords execute suspect renovictions, claiming they or family members are moving in, or turf long-term tenants in favour of opening Airbnb spaces; and tenants fight back with protests, rent strikes and deputations to local government. Desperate times can push people to desperate, sometimes selfish, measures—and also to new, innovative solutions—and hard times bring out the best and the worst in us.

With shouts to the fine design team for their work on this historical drama: Sean Treacy, co-producer Geraldine Browne and Anne Lyons (set); Karlos Griffith (lighting); Dan Schaumann (sound); and Bernadette Hunt (costumes).

The Land Grabber continues on the Alumnae Theatre mainstage until March 2; advance tickets available online.

*The production poster at the top of this post features an archival photo of this kind of  eviction action.

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A hero’s epic journey in the magical, multidisciplinary Kiviuq Returns: An Inuit Epic

Qaggiq Collective ensemble—Animal Den scene. Costume design by Looee Arreak. Projection design by Jamie Griffiths. Lighting design by Rebecca Picherack. Photo by Jamie Griffiths.

 

Tarragon Theatre presents The Qaggiq Collective’s magical, multidisciplinary hero’s journey Kiviuq Returns: An Inuit Epic. Written by the Iqaluit, Nunavut-based collective, and inspired by the legends of the Inuit hero Kiviuq, the multimedia performance is based on stories remembered and shared by Inuit elder storytellers Miriam Aglukkaq (from Kugaarjuk), Susan Avingaq (from Igloolik), Madeline Ivalu (from Igloolik) and Qaunaq Mikigak (from Kinngait)—passed on in the oral tradition. Directed by Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, Kiviuq Returns is performed entirely in Inuktitut, with no surtitles,* incorporating music, dance, movement, mask and projections—immersing the audience in Inuit culture, community and storytelling.

Starring Natar Ungalaq, Charlotte Qamaniq, Vinnie Karetak (last night, understudy Jerry Laisa stepped in for Karetak), Christine Tootoo, Keenan Carpenter and Avery Keenainak, Kiviuq Returns presents five of the hundreds of stories about the Inuit hero. Three actors share the role of Kiviuq (Ungalaq, Tootoo and Laisa), with role exchanges marked by the passing of Kiviuq’s qajaq (kayak) paddle and headband—representing the sharing of power and knowledge among Inuit communities. The four elders who shared these stories are present via video projection, to round out each of the five tales.

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Qaggiq Collective ensemble—Orphan bullying scene. Costume design by Looee Arreak. Projection design by Jamie Griffiths. Lighting design by Rebecca Picherack. Photo by Jamie Griffiths.

Comedy turns to tragedy in the story of the Orphan (Keenainak), turned into a seal for her protection from repeated abuse from bullies by her angakkuq (shaman) grandmother (Qamaniq), who is heartbroken over having to do this. Only Kiviuq (Ungalaq) is spared from retribution while he’s out hunting in his qajaq with the bullies, as he had tried to intervene and stop the bullying. Lost and adrift, his hero’s journey begins.

From the push/pull dynamic of Kiviuq’s (Tootoo) desire to wed a Fox Woman (Keenainak) who just longs to be free (song written by Avery Keenainak and Abraham Etak), to his hilariously bawdy encounter with a den of lusty animals (Carpenter, Laisa, Qamaniq and Ungalaq), to a brush with death when he’s (Laisa) captured by the fearful Bee Woman (Qamaniq), Kiviuq is present and connected to his environment, and the animals and spirit guides that come to assist him. Nicely bookending the five stories, Ungalaq returns to play Kiviuq once more at the end of his journey, where he must stay behind as his Goose Wife (Keenainak) and goslings (Carpenter, Laisa, Qamaniq and Tootoo) fly south and he transforms out of human form to become part of the landscape.

Woven into the Kiviuq stories are a Woman’s Dance; bringing to mind the serious mental health issues faced by our Indigenous population, the woman struggles with a deep internal conflict, eventually overcoming it. And the beautiful Sea Woman Poem (written in English by Taqralik Partridge and translated into Inuktitut by Looee Arreak), featuring Tootoo leading the ensemble. Expressing deep love and respect for the water, the poem despairs at the careless and dangerous environmental damage done by modern-day industry; the movements accompanying the words rippling through each performer. And there’s a song (sound design by Chris Coleman), repeated during each Kiviuq exchange; hypnotic and relaxing, like a lullaby wrapping you in the comfort and safety of home—it stays with you long after you’ve left the theatre.

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Fox elder story. Projection design by Jamie Griffiths. Photo by Jamie Griffiths.

The storytelling is playful, poignant and engaging—having you laughing one minute and breaking your heart the next. The adventure, the shifting landscapes (projection design by Jamie Griffiths), and cast of human, animal and spirit characters keep you on your toes as you let the Inuktitut language wash over you. It’s that ‘kid at story time’ kind of feeling. And the easy-going atmosphere of the relaxed performance format makes for an intimate, enjoyable experience at the theatre. A story for all ages, it’s a welcoming, open door feeling, acknowledging the young and the elders as crucial members of the community.

Kiviuq Returns: An Inuit Epic is in its final week in the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace, closing on January 27; get advance tickets online or contact the box office at 416-531-1827. Last night’s house was packed, so advance booking or extra early arrival at the theatre are strongly recommended.

*The production provides a play guide, available for viewing and download online, and in the printed programs. It is recommended that you review the guide before and after the show, as well as reference it during (lights are brought up during scene changes) to aid in a deeper understanding of the performance.

 

Outrageously fun, horrific good times in Space Opera Zero!

Clockwise, from top left: Eric Woolfe, Lisa Norton & Mairi Babb. Set & costume design by Melanie McNeill, assisted by Emily Butters. Lighting design by Michael Brunet. Photo by producer Adrianna Prosser.

 

Eldritch Theatre returns with more outrageously fun, horrific good times with Space Opera Zero, written by Eric Woolfe and directed by Dylan Trowbridge. Based on Thomas Middleton’s Jacobean tragedy The Changeling, Space Opera Zero! is a space horror erotic macabredy that combines poetic language, a B-movie/pulp fiction sensibility, feats of prestidigitation, 30s slang, mask and puppetry, operatic tragedy and a lesbian/alien love triangle. Space Opera Zero! opened on Friday at Red Sandcastle Theatre; I caught it last night, in an enthusiastic, sold out house.

Our story begins in 1930s America, where intrepid lesbian pilot Emily Trueheart (Lisa Norton) and mad scientist Hjalmar Pomeranki (Eric Woolfe) set off—in a space ship Pomeranki designed—on a mission where no man has gone before. Forced off course, they land on a strange faraway planet, where Emily rescues Princess Jenora (Mairi Babb) from certain death in the jaws of a vicious alien creature—and the two fall instantly in love.

Things are peachy keen until the Princess’s father, the Emperor (puppet, Woolfe), orders her to marry a fearsome tentacled alien (Norton) for the sake and safety of their planet. And while the Princess makes an unsavoury deal with the Emperor’s servant Doggo the Mutant (Woolfe) to get out of the marriage so she can be with Emily, Pomeranki is hatching an apocalyptic plan of his own back at the space ship. Caught in a web of lies and deceit, things go from bad to worse for the Princess; desperate to have things go her way, she enlists the aid of her maid/sex robot Ro-Berta (puppet, Woolfe) to distract Emily.

Will true love find a way in this faraway universe—and will there be any universe left to make sweet nookie in?

Big-time LOLs, twists and turns, and surprises from this engaging, energetic, uber-talented cast. Norton’s Emily Trueheart is the definition of moxie, combined with old-fashioned romantic; taking names and no guff (especially from men), Emily is a pioneer and explorer with the guts of a warrior and the heart of a poet. Woolfe does a stand-out job, juggling multiple hilarious and poignant characters, utilizing mask and puppetry. Notably the verbose mad scientist Hjalmar Pomeranki, who seems a nice enough fellow but has a dark purpose in mind; the reviled, put-upon servant Doggo the Mutant; and the loyal, sex-curious robot Ro-Berta. Babb gives the lovely Princess Jenora a slinky, femme fatale edge; driven to extreme measures to achieve her heart’s—and loins’—desire, the Princess risks painting herself into a corner.

With shouts to the outstanding interstellar design team: Melanie McNeill, assisted by Emily Butters (set and costumes), Michael Brunet (lighting) and Christopher Stanton (sound). And to stage manager Sandi Becker, for keeping it all running smoothly and showing us how to navigate our way through the set to access the washroom.

Space Opera Zero! continues at Red Sandcastle Theatre until December 2; advance tickets available online. It’s an intimate space with limited seating, and a super popular company getting great buzz, so advance booking strongly recommended.

Check out the cool trailer:

Preview: Professional & personal responses to tragedy collide in the darkly funny, deeply human Vitals

Lauren Wolanski. Photo by John Wamsley.

 

After mounting a successful workshop reading of selections of Rosamund Small’s Vitals at Paprika Festival this year, Theatre Born Between (TBB) mounts the play in its entirety in its first full-scale production, directed by TBB co-founder Bryn Kennedy and running at The Commons Theatre. Darkly funny, deeply human and candid, Vitals is an up close look at the collision of a paramedic’s personal and professional responses to the serious, sometimes tragic, situations she’s called upon to attend.

Anna (Lauren Wolanski) is a Toronto paramedic—and a damn good one at that. A fierce, knowledgeable professional who suffers no fools and makes daily split-second life and death decisions, Anna has a strong sense of empathy and understanding for those she’s called upon to help. But her sharp, insightful sense of observation tells her when the tragedy in front of her is human-made—either through malice or negligence; and she has little patience or sympathy for the perpetrators. This goes for her colleagues, some of whom she has great respect for—like Afghanistan war vet Amir—focused, effective professionals she enjoys partnering with. Then there are the scattered, overly talkative, hero wanna-be types like Harry, who she despises. “People are terrible”—but helping people is her job.

Part anecdotal, part confessional, Anna takes us through a series of calls—the aftermath of which varies, depending on the situation. Gore doesn’t faze her, but rape and cruelty are hard to take. And sometimes, for reasons beyond their control, the ambulance just can’t get there fast enough; and she tries to swallow those situations as best she can. Experiencing the best and worst of people as she arrives in their lives during moments of extreme stress, vulnerability and tragedy—the clock ticking and every second counting—some calls get too close and stick. Some calls haunt and tear at her soul; triggering profound, life-changing responses to extreme situations.

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Lauren Wolanski. Photo by John Wamsley.

Wolanski is a brilliant storyteller; complementing the taut, razor-sharp observations of the script, hilarious gallows humour, and engaging, theatrical staging with a sharply rendered performance that weaves in and out of each 911 story with profound candour, intelligence and vulnerability. Rounding out the feisty, hard-ass side of Anna with an abiding sense of empathy and compassion, Wolanski takes us right along this ride with Anna’s deep, personal sense of commitment to the job and her raw personal reactions to the horrific, human mess of it all.

Vitals opens tonight and continues at The Commons (587A College St., Toronto—just east of Clinton) until November 25. Get advance tickets online or purchase at the door (cash only); PWYC/discounted advance tickets on November 21. It’s an intimate space, so advance booking or early arrival are recommended.

Audience warning: This production includes mentions of sexual assault, detailed descriptions of violence and suicide, and strong language. Suitable for audience members 14+. 

 

 

The uniforms of home on faraway grass in the funny, moving The Men in White

Chanakya Mukherjee & John Chou. Set and lighting design by Steve Lucas. Costume design by Lindsay Dagger Junkin. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography.

 

Factory Theatre opens its 49th season with Dora award-winning playwright Anosh Irani’s funny and moving The Men in White, directed by Philip Akin, assisted by Miquelon Rodriguez. Set in both India and Canada, a struggling Vancouver cricket team needs a miracle to put an end to a humiliating losing streak—and one team member’s little brother back home might be just the ticket. Now, the team just needs to agree on the plan and find a way to get him over from Mumbai.

Taken in as a child by family friend Baba (Huse Madhavji, who fellow Saving Hope fans will recognize as neurosurgeon Dr. Shahir Hamza) along with his older brother Abdul following the death of their parents, 18-year-old Hasan (Chanakya Mukherjee) works as a chicken cutter in Baba’s shop in the Dongri neighbourhood of Mumbai. As he executes and dismembers chickens, his heart and mind are set on becoming a professional cricket player and capturing the attention of pretty local pre-med student and customer Haseena (Tahirih Vejdani). These dreams are a stretch, as he’s a relatively uneducated working class orphan living and working in a tough neighbourhood—and his extreme awkwardness has him constantly putting his foot in his mouth around Haseena. On top of that, Haseena has also caught the eye of a cool motorcycle dude with ties to a local gang.

MeninWhite-Tahirih Vejdani, Chanakya Mukherjee, Huse Madhavji photo by Jospeh Michael Photography
Tahirih Vejdani, Chanakya Mukherjee & Huse Madhavji. Set and lighting design by Steve Lucas. Costume design by Lindsay Dagger Junkin. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography.

Over in Vancouver, Hasan’s older brother Abdul (Gugun Deep Singh), who cooks for and lives in the back of an Indian restaurant, has found home with a local cricket team comprised mainly of South Asians. But the team can’t seem to shake a brutal losing streak, and on top of struggling to motivate his players—including on and off the field player Ram (Farid Yazdani) and the athletically challenged Sam (John Chou)—team captain Randy (Sugith Varughese) also finds himself navigating Doc’s (Cyrus Faird) anti-Muslim sentiment as he referees Doc’s outbursts against Abdul. And when Abdul suggests bringing Hasan, a gifted bowler and batter, over to save the team’s tarnished reputation, the team is faced with internal debate and the problem of sorting out how they’d even accomplish such a plan.

As Hasan and the team are both faced with being labelled “losers,” having him join the team appears to be a match made in heaven; and the prospect of having a chance to win for a change injects some much needed excitement and confidence all around. It also makes for some deep soul-searching about religious and cultural tensions, and why they play cricket, as confessions and revelations of hard realities emerge. Some play cricket because it reminds them of home, some play to forget, some play to belong, and some play to rise above the dullness of a workaday life and tragic lived experience.

Stand-up work from the ensemble in this story of family, life and belonging. Madhavji is a laugh riot as the testy Baba; and though he’s highly adept at mercilessly teasing Hasan, Baba has a good, loving heart under that cranky exterior. Mukherjee’s Hasan is an adorkable combination of gritty determination and hopeless awkwardness; particularly in his scenes with Vejdani, whose intelligent and sharp-witted Haseena is matched by her equally barbed retorts—Haseena is no wilting flower and suffers no fools.

MeninWhite-JohnChou, SugithVarughese, CyrusFaird, FaridYazdani, GugunDeepSingh photo by Jospeh Michael Photography
John Chou, Sugith Varughese, Cyrus Faird, Farid Yazdani & Gugun Deep Singh. Set and lighting design by Steve Lucas. Costume design by Lindsay Dagger Junkin. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography.

The men in the locker room walk a fine line between comedy and tragedy as they deal with the underlying personal histories they bring to the struggling team. Yazdani’s devil-may-care bro/ ladies’ man Ram and Chou’s dim-witted, movie aficionado Sam make for some great comic relief. There’s more than meets the eye with these two, as Ram has government connections to assist with bringing Hasan over; and Chou, who’s Chinese and therefore an unlikely cricketer, got into cricket because of an Indian childhood BFF. Singh’s nicely understated performance as the unassuming Abdul mines the fading hopes and dreams of a man who left his home in search of a better life for himself and his brother—only to find broken promises and more hardship. Faird’s tightly wound, resentful, white-collar professional Doc is a perfect foil to Abdul; Doc’s animosity is underpinned by a tragic history and broken heart—and he has more in common with his perceived enemy than he would care to admit. All held together by Varughese’s aggravated but good-natured team captain Randy; despite the idle threats, Randy loves this Bad News Bears bunch of guys—and he has ghosts of his own to deal with.

With shouts to Steve Lucas’s clever and effectively designed set, which neatly splits the stage into Baba’s chicken shop and the locker room. The bamboo and chicken wire of the shop merge with the metal poles and chicken wire (standing in for chain link) of the cricket pitch locker room; Astroturf is incorporated into the checkerboard floor and a projected map of the world dominates up centre.

The Men in White continues in the Factory Theatre mainspace until November 4; advance tickets available online, or by calling 416-504-9971 or visiting the box office (125 Bathurst Street, Adelaide Street Entrance).

 

Love, possession & sacrifice in Gesher Theatre’s mystical, compelling The Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds

Company, with Israel (Sasha) Demidov (bottom left) & Efrat Ben-Tzur (top centre). Set design by Simon Pastukh. Costume design by Stephanie Graurogkayte. Lighting design by Igor Kapustin. Photo by Daniel Kaminski.

 

Show One Productions presents the North American premiere of Gesher Theatre’s production of The Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds, inspired by S. Ansky and adapted by Roy Chen. Directed by Gesher Theatre founder/AD Yevgeny Arye, The Dybbuk is in Toronto for a two-performance run at the Elgin Theatre. Performed in Hebrew with English and Russian surtitles, The Dybbuk is a remarkable combination of comedy and tragedy, mysticism and pragmatism; love turns to possession and the world of these people—living and dead—will never be the same.

When we first meet Khanan (Israel [Sasha] Demidov), he is up on the roof of the synagogue praying alone while the other men pray together below; it is here, during his practice of Kabbalah that he reaches out to the Almighty and confesses his love for childhood friend Leah (Efrat Ben-Tzur). But when Leah’s wealthy merchant father Sender (Doron Tavori) bursts into the synagogue with news, we learn that she has been promised to Menashe (Ori Yaniv), the son of another rich man. Khanan disputes the match and asks for Leah’s hand, a request that is met with rebuke and derision. An orphan misfit, labelled “gimp” and crazy by the other men, Khanan is roughly thrown out of the synagogue.

With his dying breath, Khanan asks the Almighty for forgiveness, but to not be separated from Leah. The dead of the community, including the ghost of Leah’s mother Hanna (Neta Shpigelman) take him in to their fold. Determined to marry Leah, Khanan hatches a plan to disrupt the wedding by possessing Leah as a dybbuk (a restless spirit). Recognizing the spirit that’s possessed her, Leah is torn by her love for Khanan and the impossible torment of being with him under these conditions. When her grandmother Frieda’s (Fira Kanter) traditional remedies fail, the family takes her to Rabbi Azriel (Gilad Kletter) for an exorcism. Revelations and dark family secrets emerge during the battle for Leah’s soul. In the end, both Leah and Khanan realize they can’t be together like this, in this in between world, and they both have some difficult choices to make.

Stunning design and riveting performances make for a compelling journey into this world of the living and the dead—and the space in between. The tight staging incorporates traditional ritual, daily life and the thin veil that separates the living from the dead—infused with an air of supernatural mystery, playfulness and even a bit of irreverence. The stage (set design by Simon Pastukh and lighting design by Igor Kapustin) is dominated by a luminous orb of a moon upstage right and a transparent box-like playing area stage left, highlighting the thin boundary between this life and the next. The accompanying music (Avi Benjamin) and sound design (Michael Vaisburd) complement the otherworldly environment, with snatches of opera; haunting biblical trumpet bursts; and the warm familiar tunes of home from the fiddler (Boris Portnoy). The costuming (Stephanie Graurogkayte) combines early 1900s period apparel with traditional Jewish ceremonial garments; and the dead are differentiated from the living by their white faces, the white makeup ritualistically applied to the newly dead by one of the veteran women dead.

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Efrat Ben-Tzur & Israel (Sasha) Demidov. Set design by Simon Pastukh. Costume design by Stephanie Graurogkayte. Lighting design by Igor Kapustin. Photo by Daniel Kaminski.

Stand-out performances from Demidov and Ben-Tzur, who have lovely chemistry as the conflicted Khanan and Leah. Longing to connect with the Almighty, Khanan also has a deep, earthly desire for Leah; and Leah, viewed as an old maid, struggles with doing what her family expects of her and the call of her own heart—and both must come to terms with the difference between love and possession. Tavori is both menacing and comical as the gravel-voiced, proud and brutish Sender. Try as Sender might to tell the world—and himself—that he only wants what’s best for his only daughter, even he must admit that he had ulterior motives for thwarting the match between Khanan and Leah. Kanter gives Frieda, Leah’s grandmother, a feisty pragmatic edge; deeply ensconced in the old ways, peppered with superstition and a belief in magic, Frieda is the guiding female hand in Leah’s life—preparing her for marriage and ultimately the most broken-hearted as revelations emerge during the exorcism.

Shpigelman is a heart-wrenching picture of love and strength as Hanna’s ghost; heartbroken at having died so young and leaving Leah without a mother, Hanna watches and protects from beyond—her daughter’s possession giving them a brief chance to connect across worlds. And Alexander Senderovich and Natasha Manor supply some much needed comic relief as the ghosts of the Watchmaker Baruch and his wife Rochelle.

 

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Yevgeny Terletzky, Lilian Ruth, Neta Shpigelman, Natasha Manor & Alexander Senderovich. Set design by Simon Pastukh. Costume design by Stephanie Graurogkayte. Lighting design by Igor Kapustin. Photo by Daniel Kaminski.

Going from her father’s house to her husband’s house, a woman in this time and place has little agency over her own life and body; and deeply professed love can easily turn to selfish possession. To varying degrees, this power dynamic between men and women still exists today—and in the face of overwhelming odds, women are still fighting and making hard choices in order to take control of their own future.

 

The Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds has one more performance: today (Sun, Sept 30) at 3 p.m. Advance tickets available online at Ticketmaster.ca (Search by “Dybbuk”) or by calling 1-855-599-9090.

Check out the trailer:

 

 

Culture, identity & the meaning of the blues in Soulpepper’s powerful, entertaining Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Top: Alex Poch-Goldin. Bottom: Marcel Stewart, Diego Matamoros, Beau Dixon, Neville Edwards & Alana Bridgewater. Set & lighting design by Ken MacKenzie. Costume design by Alexandra Lord. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper takes us to 1920s Chicago, where the race, power and creative exploitation collide in a lively, tension-filled recording studio session in August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, directed by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu. This is the first time Ma Rainey has been performed in Canada since 1985, shortly after its 1984 premiere on Broadway.

A faint haze hangs over the dark, empty Chicago recording studio, conjuring visions of musicians and singers smoking between—or even during—takes (set and lighting design by Ken MacKenzie). Gradually, the space is peopled with the steady, quiet pace of familiar routine. Cranky, gravel-voiced studio owner Sturdyvant (Diego Matamoros) and Ma’s put-upon, ingratiating manager Irvin (Alex Poch-Goldin) get set up in the booth and on the floor. Then the boys in the band arrive: the bookish, philosophical piano man Toledo (Beau Dixon); the quiet, no-nonsense bassist Slow Drag (Neville Edwards); and fastidious, practical band leader/banjo player/trombonist Cutler (Lindsay Owen Pierre). Last to arrive is the energetic, stylish Levee (Lovell Adams-Gray), the new whiz kid on the trumpet, arriving late and showing off a new pair of shoes. The band hangs out in the rehearsal room downstairs (downstage), shooting the breeze and rehearsing a bit while they wait for Ma to arrive. The tension is already cooking, as Ma is running late, the play list is ever-changing, and the ambitious new kid—who has his sights set on starting his own band and recording his own music—doesn’t seem to think he needs to rehearse.

When the big energy, take-charge Mother of the Blues Ma (Alana Bridgewater) finally arrives an hour late, resplendent in a green dress (costumes by Alexandra Lord) with her young flapper girlfriend Dussie Mae (Virgilia Griffith) and sharp-dressed nephew Sylvester (Marcel Stewart) in tow, there’s more arguing and scrambling. An irritated policeman (Derek Boyes) has followed them into the studio, charging Sylvester with reckless driving and Ma with assault; Irvin quickly “handles” the situation, then finds himself under orders to arrange for repairs to Ma’s car. And then there’s the ongoing debate over which version of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” they’re going to record: the original or Levee’s version. And Ma wants Sylvester, who stutters, to do the spoken intro on the recording; a decision that’s greeted with thinly veiled annoyed cynicism. Irvin continues bouncing like a ping pong ball between Sturdyvant, Ma and the band, playing peacekeeper, and taking care of all the concerns and issues. Young Levee has eyes for Dussie Mae; Cutler is trying to keep the band on track, especially Levee; and Slow Drag just wants to get it over with and go home. Toledo has his books to keep him company, while Sylvester and Dussie Mae are thrilled to be there—and Dussie Mae has taken notice of Levee’s attention.

Conversations among the band range from the comic to the tragic, from day-to-day shenanigans, to stories of personal struggle and the lived experience of being Black in America. And though she comes off as a diva, Ma is a shrewd businesswoman; she knows what she does and does not have control over. Where she can have a say, you can bet she’ll have it! Commanding respect with her seemingly unreasonable demands, Ma navigates a world where artists—particularly artists of colour—are used up for their creative talents then cast aside; in the meantime, they’re paid a fraction of what they’re worth while white producers, managers and studio owners profit handsomely from their work. And, for Ma and the band, the blues are more than just a money-making music genre—it’s “life’s way of talking.”

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Virgilia Griffith & Lovell Adams-Gray. Set & lighting design by Ken MacKenzie. Costume design by Alexandra Lord. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Outstanding, compelling work from this tight, multi-talented ensemble. Bridgewater shines as the unstoppable, talented Ma—a force to be reckoned with. A large woman with a larger than life personality, Ma is an exacting professional; a fierce mamma bear when it comes to protecting loved ones; and a tender, generous lover. Like most women in her situation, a respected and highly popular artist like Ma has a reputation for being “difficult”—a charge that would never be levelled at a white male artist in her shoes.

Adams-Gray does an amazing job peeling back the layers of Levee. From a traumatized child to a volatile young man, Levee is confident in his talent and eager to make a name for himself as a composer and band leader—but, unlike his more seasoned bandmates, has yet to learn how the game is played. Stewart is a delight as the shy, child-like Sylvester; wide-eyed, and filled with wonder and joy to be in the studio. With Ma’s support and encouragement, and bolstered by his plan to send money home to his mother, we see Sylvester’s self-confidence blossom as he works hard through his speech impediment to do the best he can on the recording.

Though set in the 20s, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom speaks to the situation of artists today. While artists have gained more control over their work and working conditions, the industry still has work to do with regard to cultural and creative exploitation, and assigning labels of “difficult” on women and artists of colour. And we only have to look at Ma and Levee to see that artists must learn to play the game and be at peace over that which they cannot control—or be swept up in the undertow of their own frustrated ambition and expectations.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom continues in the Michael Young Theatre at the Young Centre—now extended by popular demand to June 9. Get advance tickets online or give the box office a shout at: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.