Toronto Fringe: Love, joy & taming dragons in the funny, frank, moving The Clergy Project

A rabbi, a minister and a priest walk into a theatre…

Happy Fringe, guys! I started my Toronto Fringe adventures with the opening of Soulo Theatre’s production of The Clergy Project, directed by Tracey Erin Smith, which played to a sold-out house and a standing ovation last night at First Narayever Congregation.

It’s no secret that I love this show; I’ve seen two previous incarnations, most recently in November 2016 at Revival. For Fringe, the show has a BYOV arrangement—and the show sold out its entire run before it even opened!

City Shul Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, First Unitarian Congregation minister Reverend Shawn Newton and Anglican priest Reverend Daniel Brereton took Tracey’s Soulo Theatre solo show workshop—in a class specifically designed to create a space for members of the clergy to tell their stories. Realizing they had much in common despite their different titles and faith backgrounds, the three clergy took a different path from the usual solo show class presentation at the end of the workshop; The Clergy Project is the fruit of their combined labours, weaving in and out of their three individual personal stories.

From the hilarious faith-specific lightbulb jokes, to recounting the call to ministry, to sharing the challenges they face—including situations not covered in their seminary days—to their reasons for doing what they do, all three share the real-life experiences of their jobs with candor and humour. The combination of personalities makes the show:  the shit-disturbing, kick-ass Elyse; Shawn with the wry wit and a twinkle in his eye; and the cheeky, playful Daniel. The frank, funny, heartbreaking—and ultimately inspiring—storytelling reveals their shared attributes of sass, determination and empathy. And the Fringe version has an additional hysterically funny tale from Daniel about his experience directing his first Christmas pageant!

Delivered with heart, soul, humour, and a genuine desire to connect and share personal stories, The Clergy Project is less about religion and more about the humanity of those who minister—aptly illustrating what Tracey Erin Smith and Soulo Theatre are all about. Like Smith says, “Everyone has a story.”

Love, joy and taming dragons in the funny, frank, moving The Clergy Project.

The Clergy Project continues at First Narayever Congregation until July 16, with performances on July 6, 12 and 13 at 8pm, and July 9 and 16 at 4pm. The run is sold out, but if you get there early, you can get yourself on the waiting list (some folks got in last night). The 90-minute showtime includes a brief post-show talkback.

 

Memory, loss & insight—true stories of living with mental illness in the funny, poignant Stories Like Crazy double bill

After launching Stories Like Crazy with their inaugural podcast at the beginning of Mental Health Week, Adrianna Prosser and Lori Lane Murphy finished off the week with two real-life solo shows that “stomp on stigma and set fire to adult colouring books”: Lane Murphy’s Upside Down Dad and Prosser’s Everything but the Cat. The double bill ran for two nights this past weekend at Red Sandcastle Theatre, with a portion of the ticket sales going to CMHA’s #GetLoud campaign.

Singer songwriter, and member of the Cheap Wine Collective (and Adrianna’s brother), Luke Prosser opened the two evenings with an acoustic set of fiercely passionate, introspective indie originals and a few covers, including an awesome version of “Folsom Prison Blues.” Wrap your ears around his evocative, raspy blues-infused sound on Soundcloud.

Upside Down Dad (directed by Christopher Lane). Part memoir, part homage, Lane Murphy reminisces about growing up in the 70s with Warner Brothers cartoons, navigating teenage milestones and living with a clinically depressed dad who was by all appearances a happy, fun guy. Childhood memories of being goofy and putting on cartoon voices in an attempt to bring her father out of bouts of profound sadness turn into more urgent and impactful moments in adulthood, where she continued to act as caregiver, driving him to treatment appointments and then being by his bedside when he was dying from leukemia.

Running parallel to her experience of her father’s mental illness is the growing realization of her own—from following her dad’s early example of self-medicating with alcohol to her own personal turning point, supported by him to find a healthier way to deal. And her support of his journey adds new insight to her own.

A genuine and engaging storyteller, Lane Murphy takes us from moments of laughter to tears—and some wacky, bizarre moments—as she chronicles her kindred spirit relationship with her dad. And her story highlights how important conversation is to insight, acceptance and healing—denying or ignoring the problem won’t make it go away.

Everything but the Cat (directed by Stephanie Ouaknine). A personal exploration of loss and grief, Prosser tells the story of losing her younger brother Andrew to suicide and her already shaky relationship with her boyfriend on the same day. Profound grief is peppered with second guesses and guilt, and coupled with gut-wrenching abandonment as her Peter Pan boyfriend, who already has one foot out the door, decides he can’t deal with this, or any, level of commitment.

A multi-media solo show that incorporates projected images (original projections by Ouaknine, with additional projections by Jason Martorino), Everything but the Cat includes shadow acting and voice-over work by Maksym Barnett-Kemper Shkvorets, Brad Emes, Hannah Barnett-Kemper Shkvorets, Erik Buchanan, Andrew Hodwitz, Scott Emerson Moyle, Devin Upham, Eden Bachelder, Stephanie Ouaknine, Daniel Legault, Niles Anthony, Gaj Mariathasan, Tammy Everett, AJ LaFlamme, Jason Martorino, Val Adriaanse, Jordi Hepburn and Phil Rickaby. Bringing moments of the story to life in creative and innovative ways—from learning the news of her brother from her dad, to grief-stricken/-propelled experiences of throwing herself into the club and dating scene—the projected images and lit areas evoke time, place and, most importantly, emotional state.

Infusing her story with edgy comedy and sharply pointed observation, Prosser gives a brave, bold, deeply vulnerable and ultimately entertaining performance that not only takes us along, but inside, her journey.

Memory, loss and insight—true stories of living with mental illness in the funny, poignant Stories Like Crazy double bill.

Stories Like Crazy’s evening of solo shows closed last night, but you can hear more true stories about mental health and living with mental illness—opening conversation and busting stigma—on the Stories Like Crazy podcast, hosted by Prosser and Lane Murphy. You can also keep up with Stories Like Crazy on Twitter.

Facing death with dignity, humour & love in the thoughtful, sharply funny, moving A Better Place

a-better-place
Rachel Cairns, Catherine Gardner, Ian Ronningen & Kris Langille in A Better Place – photo by Bruce Peters

LilyRose Productions opened Ramona Baillie’s A Better Place, directed by Barbara Larose, with assistant director Ellen Green, in the Factory Theatre Studio last night. Based on a true story, A Better Place takes us on the 14-month journey of a woman faced with a devastating medical diagnosis.

Stella Russo (Kris Langille) is an active 55-year-old who loves singing in her Catholic church choir and bowling in the community league. Then she learns that she has ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease)—a rapid degenerative neurological disease that attacks the nerves that control voluntary muscles—and her life, and perspective on death, changes drastically. There is no cure and she doesn’t have long to live.

As Stella works to cope with the side effects of chemo treatments and a body that’s no longer working properly, never knowing what’s going to go next and terrified of finding herself unable to breathe, her BFF Dee (Catherine Gardner), boyfriend Bill (Edward Heeley) and doctor daughter Kate (Rachel Cairns) must also come to terms with her ultimately fatal condition. Meanwhile, Kate is struggling with personal issues of her own; her focus on her work at the hospital has come at the expense of her marriage, leaving her musician husband Zack (Ian Ronningen) feeling abandoned.

When Stella decides she wants to die on her own terms, she encounters resistance from her neurologist Dr. Green (Jillian Rees-Brown), who insists she join a support group; and dogma from parish priest Father Perez (Isai Rivera Blas), who will withhold last rites and warns that she’ll forfeit her place in heaven. Her close friends and family have mixed feelings, and her young streetwise choir friend Chris (Ngabo Nabea) is willing to offer assistance, but even he’s only willing to go so far.

Nice work from the cast on this thought-provoking and poignant piece that doesn’t get too down on itself, with a script that’s infused with cheeky, at times dark, humour. Beyond various cast members merely schlepping furniture and props about, the staging has the ensemble gathering to assist in Stella’s transformation from health to disability.

Langille gives a marathon performance as Stella. Navigating the physical and emotional challenges of this devastating disease, Stella is a fighter who makes that final choice in the spirit of living with purpose and dying on her own terms.

Other stand-outs include Gardner’s wise-cracking Dee; a dear, loyal friend when times are tough, even the super positive, supportive Dee must come to terms with a sense of loss as Stella’s condition deteriorates. Cairns gives Kate a great sense of inner conflict; a surgeon who relies on logic and reason, she finds herself forced to feel tumultuous emotion as she braces herself for the inevitable death of her mother and works her way back into her marriage.

Ronningen brings a sweet, open-heartedness to Zack; supportive of Kate’s career, he’s troubled to find himself alone in their marriage—and he can only take so much isolation. And Nabea does a great job in two very different roles; as Chris, in a lovely two-hander scene with Stella as he realizes what she’s intending; and as the cynical bartender Rick, advising Zack to look long and hard at how Kate’s treating him.

With shouts to Rick Jones’ sound design, which features snippets of popular love songs played during the scene changes, with the song selections getting progressively more introspective and melancholy as the play progresses. And to stage manager Margot “Mom” Devlin for keeping it all together and moving along from the booth.

Facing death with dignity, humour and love in the thoughtful, sharply funny and moving A Better Place.

A Better Place continues in the Factory Theatre Studio until Dec 11; get your advance tix online or by calling 416-504-9971.

The run includes three special post-performance presentations:

Thurs, Dec 1: A panel discussion with lawyer Shelley Birenbaum and Dr. Fred Besik, moderated by Mardi Tindal, on the legality and morality of compassionate deaths.

Sun, Dec 4: Don Valley West MP Rob Oliphant, who is also Co-Chair of the House of Commons and Senate Special Joint Committee on Physician-Assisted Dying, joins the director, playwright and cast for a talkback.

Wed, Dec 7: Q&A with the director, playwright and cast.

SummerWorks: Bittersweet, heartbreaking & hopeful true story of mental illness in Bitter Medicine

Bitter-Medicine-dedication1-620x500What happens when your seemingly average, regular family is touched by mental illness and suicide?

Bitter Medicine, a true story written by Clem Martini – based on the graphic novel of the same title by Martini and his brother Oliver – and directed for this SummerWorks production by Patrick Finn, gives a first-person account of the family’s experience, with a particular focus on the relationship between Clem and Oliver (Liv), and told by Clem (played by Brian Smith).

Having lost their youngest brother Ben to schizophrenia and suicide, it is unthinkable that another brother would suddenly find himself living with the condition. And, as Clem tells us at one point in the play, once your family has experienced suicide, it haunts you and results in hyper-vigilance when another family member is diagnosed with mental illness.

Clem and Liv’s story highlights the need for patient advocacy, especially in a society – and even a health care system – that makes assumptions about the mentally ill. And we are also reminded that pharma companies don’t always have patients’ best interests at heart, as illustrated in Clem’s battle to get Liv diagnosed when he became gravely ill; turns out the pharma company that manufactured the meds he was on hadn’t disclosed the possible side effect of diabetes.

Smith is a compelling storyteller, speaking as Clem, as Liv’s illustrations play across the screen behind him (scenography design by Anton de Groot), the family’s loss made poignantly visual when we see one person missing from the original family portrait of six (Ben is gone).

Bitter Medicine is a bittersweet, heartbreaking and hopeful journey of family love and support, and finding a way to live with mental illness.

This was Bitter Medicine’s closing performance in SummerWorks at the Lower Ossington Theatre – but keep an eye out for this show. It’s important that people hear these stories to gain understanding and empathy for the individuals and families living with mental illness – and to not define any person by his/her condition.

SummerWorks: Brave & sharp memoir in Women Who Shout at the Stars

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA straight-talking, no-nonsense cockney woman, a former scullery maid turned nanny. A vivacious, suicidal socialite mother who loves gin and the works of Dorothy Parker. A sensitive and creative young woman, raised, influenced and loved by both of these women.

Women Who Shout at the Stars, written and performed by Carolyn Hetherington, and directed by Kathryn MacKay, with dramaturgy by Judith Thompson, is a journey through the lives and loves of three women, intersecting and weaving together across time and an ocean, played out on the Theatre Passe Muraille main stage as part of SummerWorks.

Told through monologue, anecdote and correspondence, Hetherington’s three real-life characters each shift from first-person to second-person narrative, morphing into each other, at times interacting in dialogue. The stage, with its two arm chairs and side tables, a red silk jacket hanging between them upstage, separate the two worlds of mother Gwen and nanny Edie, with Hetherington crossing between them – and as them – and into her younger self. The atmosphere is intimate, and the audience is taken into the confidences of each woman as thoughts, feelings and secrets are revealed. You feel like you’re sitting across from each of them, sharing a cup of tea or a glass of gin as each reminisces aloud. Now in her early 80s, Hetherington is remarkable in this performance, with its range of emotion and storytelling – not to mention stamina.

These three women have a lot of story to tell – and I wonder how a pared down version would hone the focus of the storytelling. Still, Women Who Shout at the Stars is a bittersweet, sharp – at times archly funny – memoir.

The show runs at the TPM main space until Sun, Aug 17 – check here for exact dates/times.

SummerWorks: Brave, raw & moving story of incest survival in The Devil You Know

the devil you know
Rielle Ritchie & Sarah Irankhah

The L’Amoreaux Collegiate Institute production of The Devil You Know, written/directed by Wendy Krekeler is the Toronto Regional Showcase selection for a SummerWorks/Sears Ontario Drama Festival partnership. The show opened last night for a three-show run at the Scotiabank Studio Theatre in the Pia Bouman School for Ballet and Creative Movement.

Based on a true story, Krekeler and the real-life Rachel started writing the play a year ago as part of Rachel’s process of coming to terms with her abuse – the resulting script giving a voice to her broken silence during the writing of the play and her work on recovery.

The cast of The Devil You Know includes: Darla Biccum, Jonelle Gunderson, Sarah Irankhah, Wendy Krekeler, Karen Lee, Rielle Ritchie and Muhammad Tameem; several of the cast are high school students or recent grads. The play also includes original music by Ritchie – some lovely, haunting and fervent cello and guitar arrangements. And the set design, by Ritchie and Cindy Bang, features some beautifully painted unit cubes (used to create furniture), each with eerie black and white imagery: one an ink blot design that appears bird-like, but also like the face of a menacing man, another two have a bird with eyes on its wings, and the other two a raven and a skeleton hand.

Nice work from the entire cast, with a few stand-outs: Ritchie gives a strong performance as Rachel, who seeks help when her suicidal thoughts get too close to the bone; Ritchie finds a nice balance between Rachel’s vulnerability and strength as she struggles to deal with her abusive home life and subsequent recovery process. Irankhah is solid, warm and nurturing, yet gently challenging, as Rachel’s therapist – everything you’d want a therapist to be. And Gunderson shows a lovely range in her performance as three supporting characters, giving an extremely well-crafted and moving performance as Franka, an incest survivor sharing an account of her experience.

The back of The Devil You Know program has contact info for the Kids Help Phone. Like the incest survivor characters in the play, there are kids out there in the real world – like the real-life Rachel – who need someone to listen and someone to help. And a play like this one helps give those kids a voice – and is eye-opening for an audience. It’s not always an easy play to watch, but it’s a very worthwhile experience.

The Devil You Know is a brave, raw and moving account of one young woman’s struggle to survive incest – respectfully and truthfully told by a fine cast.

The Devil You Know has two more performances: tonight (Friday, August 8) at 7:30pm and Sunday, August 10 at 1:00pm.

SummerWorks preview: A magical, imaginative & entertaining piece of storytelling in Yarn

HERO-Yarn_photo1-small1I spent a lovely evening at the Majlis Art Garden last night, for a preview performance of the SummerWorks production of Alex Eddington’s one-human show Yarn, directed by Tyler Seguin and Helen Juvonen.

It’s a covered outdoor space with chairs set up in a semi-circle around a stage that sits in the nook of what sort of looks like an open-sided garage, but used to be a welding studio. Sitting in the cool summer air before the show started, breathing in the smell of cedar chips and taking in the smiles of fellow audience members as we listened to Eddington’s sound check, I had the opportunity to chat with Trisha, whose home is part of the building, about the space. A seasonal performance space in the Queen West neighbourhood, Majlis Art Garden gets its name from the Arabic word “majlis” – meaning “a place to sit” – the space’s name inspired by the “majalis” of the golden age of 10th century Spain, salon-like gatherings featuring music, dance, poetry, philosophy and debate.

And, then, Eddington begins to spin his Yarn.
My brain loves stories.
My brain loves words…

If Eddington didn’t have me already – and he did – he had me with these lyrics.
Based on a true story, Yarn is the story of a young man’s journey to the Isle of Mull, Scotland in a quest to find his voice. He gets a job as a chambermaid, and plans to spend his free time seeing the sights and composing. Told through song, wordplay, music and digital looping, storytelling and a puppet named Buttercup, Eddington weaves his tale, a one-human cast of several characters, not all human.

Ancient mythology, superstition, wishful thinking and unexpected adventures abound, with Eddington’s goings-on running parallel to that of the young man in the story within his story. As he mixes traditional storytelling and musicianship with modern technology – playing music on both standard and found object instruments – the effect is quite enchanting. And the bodhrán that hangs up centre doubles as a screen for shadow and light play, as well as a looking like a full moon, presiding over the mystic landscape. And I love the purple trombone.

LIfe is what happens when you’re trying to come up with your story.

Yarn is a magical, imaginative and entertaining piece of storytelling. Go see this – check out details for dates/times here. And be sure to check out upcoming arts events at Majlis Art Garden.