Questions of perception, assumption & expectation in the powerful, riveting, provocative Actually

Tony Ofori & Claire Renaud. Set design by Sean Mulcahy. Costume design by Alex Amini. Lighting design by Steve Lucas. Photo by Joanna Akyol.

 

The Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company, in association with Obsidian Theatre, opens its 13th season with Anna Ziegler’s Actually, directed by Philip Akin, assisted by Kanika Ambrose; and running in the Greenwin Theatre at the Meridian Arts Centre (formerly the Toronto Centre for the Arts). Two Ivey League freshmen, a Black male student and a Jewish female student, make a connection that becomes sexual in nature—and each has a very different experience and account of the night they spent together. Powerful, riveting and provocative—featuring compelling and genuine performances—this timely two-hander takes you on a see-saw ride of belief, empathy and understanding; highlighting perceptions, assumptions and expectations based on race, gender and class.

Excited, terrified and determined to do well, Amber (Claire Renaud) and Tom (Tony Ofori) arrive at Princeton for their first year of studies. She’s quirky and awkward, with romantic notions of sex and limited experience; he’s got swagger and game, with a sexually active lifestyle and a commitment to sowing his youthful wild oats. Opposites attract on common ground as the two make a connection; and attraction brings them together in Tom’s bed.

During their encounter, Amber finds that something changes for her; and their initially sexy fun times experience becomes uncomfortable and unwanted. She relates how she attempts to put a stop to it by getting off the bed, saying “Actually…” Tom believes she was into it, and later remembers nothing from her verbal communication or body language that would have suggested otherwise. Amber comments on the night to a friend, and the response prompts her to report the incident to the university, which launches a sexual misconduct investigation and hearing. Amber believes she was raped, and Tom is shocked and mortified by the allegation.

As their individual and collective stories unfold, the audience goes from being confidante—as we hear about their lived experiences with family, sex, desire, what inspires them—to university hearing panelist as they make their statements. Both had a lot to drink on the night in question. Both feel like outsiders with much to prove, anxiously navigating their first year at a prestigious school, along with raging 18-year-old hormones, and a culture of sex and partying. Not the best conditions for making good choices. Both live with body issues: Amber with the pressures of traditional feminine beauty standards; and Tom with the everyday racism and prejudice that accompany the colour of his skin. The seriousness of Amber’s rape charge lands particularly hard on Tom—a young Black man living in a world stewed in toxic, ongoing systemic racism. And Amber’s initial tacit consent that night, going to his room for the purposes of sex, combined with her behaviour earlier that evening, puts her credibility in question.

Compelling, genuine and nuanced performances from Renaud and Ofori in this vital, timely piece of theatre. Renaud brings a big spark of light, energy and pathos to the adorkable, hyper-talkative Amber; a young woman desperately treading water to stay afloat in a new world of classes, assignments, squash practice and obligatory partying. Amber finds herself wanting and not wanting at the same time; pressed forward by social media-driven peer pressure, she engages in activities and behaviour even when her heart isn’t really in it. Ofori’s Tom is a complex portrait of a confident, frank young man who wants to do his family proud; Tom is the first of his working class family to attend university, let alone at an Ivey League school. There’s a sensitive soul beneath the swagger, expressed through Tom’s love of classical music and piano playing—where he finds a space to be free.

It would be grossly simplistic to call this a “he said/she said” story. As you vacillate between believing and sympathizing with one, and then the other, in the end you may find yourself believing both of them. And if both are right, on which side of this 50/50 situation will the feather land in the final decision? In this age of #MeToo and #consent, and with all of these complex and intersectional variables to consider, audiences will no doubt come away with questions, conversations and reflections. This story is a prime example of why sex, sexuality and consent need to be taught in elementary and secondary schools.

Actually continues in the Greenwin Theatre at the Meridian Arts Centre (formerly the Toronto Centre for the Arts) until September 29. Advance tickets available online by clicking on the show page calendar.

ICYMI: Check out assistant director Kanika Ambrose’s Artist Perspective piece for Intermission Magazine.

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Identity, recognition & family in the fascinating, moving, intimate Canadian Rajah

Jon De Leon & Barbara Worthy. Costumes by Jennifer Triemstra-Johnston. Photo by Kelsi Dewhurst.

 

The Canadian Rajah Collective presents the world premiere of Dave Carley’s Canadian Rajah, directed by Sarah Phillips and running in the ballroom at Campbell House Museum; it’s the true story of Esca Brooke, the first-born son of one of the White Rajahs of Sarawak who was whisked away as a small child and into the care of an English vicar and his wife, who eventually settled in Madoc, Ontario. This fascinating, moving and intimate two-hander gives a fly-on-the-wall perspective of the history, memories and motivations observed by Brooke and his father Rajah Charles Brooke’s English wife Marguerita (Ranee Ghita), culminating in a tension-filled and revelatory meeting at her home in England.

Canadian Rajah begins with two individual pieces of personal storytelling as Esca Brooke (Jon De Leon) waits and his white Rajah father’s English wife Ranee (Barbara Worthy*) prepares and stalls in advance of their meeting at her home in England. Each fills in the events that transpired before and after Esca’s birth; and the subsequent discovery of his identity and his pursuit of recognition from her are revealed from very different perspectives.

Esca is a brown boy raised by the white British Daykins in Canada, an object of curiosity and gossip in his adopted country. Earning scholarships and respect in his academic and professional endeavours despite his otherness—and aided by the addition of the second name Brooke—he discovers that his mother was Dayang Mastiah, a Malay princess, and his father was the white British Rajah of Sarawak, Charles Brooke. Ranee was Brooke’s British wife; a “brood mare” and vital source of income to his Rajah title, courtesy of her wealthy family; she also bore him sons. Reminiscences are shared through bittersweet swatches of memory—rife with the excitement and adventure of new worlds, experiences and people; and seasoned with grief, loss, and an unbreakable sense of family loyalty and protection.

Compelling and sharp-witted performances from De Leon and Worthy, who both portray various other characters native to the respective landscapes of these individuals. In a performance that conveys both profound dignity and a heartbreaking sense of pain, De Leon’s Esca is a proud, well-educated man without a country; not looking for fame, fortune or position from official public recognition from the Brooke family, he seeks only to ease the hurt of prejudice and racism experienced by his children—in particular, his daughter Grace. Worthy’s sharply drawn portrayal of Ranee is both playfully bold and mercilessly cunning; ranging from Ranee’s precocious youth as a forward-thinking young woman out for adventure in an exotic new world, to the imperious dowager keeping a close watch and tight rein on her family, with special attention on the political climate at large. Eschewing British culture and social expectations, and relishing her new title and position, Ranee embraces the culture and language of her new home; but the discovery that her husband has a “native” wife and son is too much—and sets off a calculated series of events aimed at protecting her family and their kingdom.

And though these two characters are at odds, facing off in the final scene during their meeting, similar traits and motivations emerge: they’re both survivors of unusual and tragic circumstances, adapting to and thriving in their new homes, and fiercely determined to secure a bright and prosperous future for their children. And while British imperialism and publicly recognized noble status have the upper hand in this scenario—one gets the sense that there were no winners here.

Canadian Rajah continues at Campbell House Museum until February 17; advance tickets are available online—strongly recommended, given the intimate nature of, and limited seating in, the upstairs ballroom venue.

*After Chick Reid came down with pneumonia and was unable to continue with the production, Worthy stepped into the role of Ranee as a last-minute replacement. Reid is recovering and doing well.

 

The oil industry on trial for crimes against humanity in the gripping, intimate Athabasca

David S. Craig & Richard Greenblatt. Set & costume design by Anahita Dehbonehie. Lighting design by Jennifer Lennon. Photo by Samantha Gaetz.

 

Convergence Theatre presents the world premiere of Athabasca, created and performed by David S. Craig and Richard Greenblatt, and directed by Aaron Willis, assisted by Keshia Palm (who also appears as Huan, the Executive Assistant). A gripping two-hander, the audience gets an intimate, fly-on-the-wall perspective as a journalist and an oil industry executive go head-to-head over the environmental and human tolls of fossil fuel production and use. Part of the Toronto Fringe’s Next Stage Theatre Festival, it’s running at 77 Mowat Avenue, Toronto (a Toronto Carpet Factory space), the first site-specific production in the history of the fest.

Oil industry senior executive and gifted lobbyist/spin doctor Tom (David S. Craig) is being golden parachuted out of his position at Sol Oil, a Fort McMurray-based company that’s been touting the benefits its “green” oil production. It’s his last day at the office, and as he pushes back against the ridiculously prohibitive terms of his exit/non-disclosure agreement, he’s visited by Max (Richard Greenblatt), a journalist from The Outdoorsman, who’s there to do a profile piece interview.

Max’s line of questioning, prescribed by Tom’s successor, goes off script and the true nature of his visit is revealed. Max is an environmental activist, driven to extreme measures; and he proceeds to put Tom on trial as a proxy for the oil industry and its crimes against humanity and the environment. The heated debate that follows forces personal and professional revelations and confessions from both men. Will Tom be able to finesse his way out of this and talk Max out of his end game? Will Max realize that targeting one executive and one oil company won’t stop the oil industry’s work—or the public’s appetite for fossil fuels?

Outstanding work from Craig and Greenblatt in this intense, insightful, darkly funny and poignant two-hander—keeping us at the edge of our seats, guessing what these two characters will do next. Craig’s performance as Tom is the picture-perfect embodiment of the slick, smooth talking senior public affairs executive. Flippant, entitled and self-interested, and eloquent in his bullshittery, Tom is forced to really pay attention to the environmental and health impacts of the oil industry—and, more critically, answer for his and the industry’s actions. Greenblatt does a remarkable balancing act with Max, rounding out the desperate nature of Max’s mission with thoughtful, intelligent argument. Armed with an arsenal of facts, figures and pointed questions to put Tom on the hot seat, Max isn’t a bad guy; he’s mad as hell and doesn’t want to take it anymore.

Both Tom and Max present good, solid—although conflicting—points of view. It’s a complex issue with no easy answers. The only thing for certain is that the fragile balance between the economic and environmental impacts of the fuels we produce and use is on all of us.

Athabasca continues at 77 Mowat Avenue until January 20 every night at 7:30 pm except for no show tonight (January 15); good signage and production folks will guide your way. At this point, the run is sold out—so if you don’t already have tix and want to take a chance at the door, best to get there early.

SummerWorks: Art, madness, longing & inspiration in the visceral, cerebral, deeply moving The Red Horse is Leaving

Moleman Productions presents a multimedia, multidisciplinary work in progress with its SummerWorks production of The Red Horse is Leaving; running for three performances in the Toronto Media Arts Centre Main Gallery. Written and co-directed by Erika Batdorf, with excerpts from artist Thaya Whitten’s journals and performance talks, and co-directed and choreographed by Kate Digby, the piece takes us on a thoughtful, moving journey into the playful, pensive and tormented mind of Batdorf’s performance artist/painter mother. I caught the closing performance, along with a sold out house, last night.

Part lecture, part performance art, part fly-on-the-wall experience, the audience is invited into Whitten’s (Erika Batdorf) studio as she faces off with a blank white sheet of Masonite; struggling to manifest her vision, her concept, in colours and brush strokes on a two-dimensional surface. All the while, a Gargoyle (Zoe Sweet) watches, climbing cat-like over tables and chairs—and even curling itself around Thaya—largely unseen but felt; its glowing, lit spine flashing and changing colour along with her breath and pulse.

Cerebral and visceral at the same time, The Red Horse is Leaving also addresses the issues of meaning, ethics, outreach and economics as they relate to art; and the changing landscape of art and artists, and how their work is perceived and received. Back in the 60s, performance art was the big new thing; controversial, revolutionary and exciting. Not so much anymore. Referencing “the red horse”—the subject of Thaya’s work in progress—we get the impression that it represents her muse, her inspiration, her passion. And it’s eluding her.

Beautiful performances from Sweet and Batdorf in this profoundly moving, thought-provoking two-hander. Batdorf’s Thaya is an artist with a curious, sharp and tormented mind; and a playful, tortured soul. Longing for inspiration and connection with her muse and her work, as well as her audience, Thaya struggles to reach out—to the white space before her and the world around her. Sweet is both menacing and adorable as the Gargoyle; moving with precision and grace under and over furniture, and coiling around the artist. Both bird-like and cat-like, it nudges and prods Thaya, offering brushes and even sharing a snack.

Inside Thaya’s secret heart, like her, we realize that longing can be a dangerous and unfulfilling thing—but it’s part of our human nature to strive and struggle to find meaning in our work, our world and ourselves.

With shouts to the design team for their work in bringing this multimedia vision to life: Mark-David Hosale (digital technology and sound, costumes), Sylvia Defend and Joyce Padua (costumes), J. Rigzin Tute (original music composition) and Alan Macy (biosensors).

This was the final SummerWorks performance of The Red Horse is Leaving; look out for the Toronto premier in the Rendezvous with Madness festival Oct 13 – 21.

Department of corrections: The original post had the cast credits reversed; this has been corrected.

Toronto Fringe: Two men reach out for each other in times of division & change in the intimate, tender, layered The Seat Next to the King

Tanisha Taitt directs Minmar Gaslight Productions’ run of Steven Elliott Jackson’s beautifully compelling The Seat Next to the King, winner of the 2017 Toronto Fringe Best New Play contest, now running in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Mainspace.

Opening in 1964 in a public washroom in Washington, D.C., The Seat Next to the King presents an imagined relationship that develops between two men who work for two of America’s most important political figures of the time.

Bayard Rustin (Kwaku Okyere) and Walter Jenkins (Conor Ling) meet and interact in a beautiful, intricate dance of desire, race, politics and confronting one’s true self unfolds in the push/pull of their initial meeting as strangers, shifting to brief moments of genuine connection and sharing as they get to know each other. Bookended by another washroom meeting years later, we see how their lives have changed—for the world and for themselves.

Lovely, connected work from Okyere and Ling. Okyere’s Bayard is outspoken, frank and charming, with keen, sharp powers of observation; despite being shunned by family and friends, Bayard is out. His choice has cost him, and while he doesn’t appear to regret it, there is profound pain and loneliness beneath his joyful, extrovert manner. Ling goes deep into the layers of Walter’s inner conflict; an introverted man, full of desire and shame, Walter longs for a man’s touch, but can’t bring himself out of his double life. And the chemistry between these two men makes their encounters both beautiful and heartbreaking to witness.

Two men reach out for each other in times of division and change in the intimate, tender, layered The Seat Next to the King.

The Seat Next to the King continues in the TPM Mainspace until July 16. With a standing ovation in a packed house at last night’s 11:30pm performance, advance booking is a must for this one.

Sex, death & religion: Pondering life experiences & relationships in thoughtful, sassy, intense FAITH

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Lindsey Middleton & Ben Hayward in FAITH – photo by Mike Cameron

“It was the United Church so it was all like sing these songs, hold hands and get the fuck outta here.”

Theatre By Committee opened its production of Ben Hayward’s FAITH in the Chapel at St. Luke’s United Church (353 Sherbourne St., corner of Sherbourne/Carlton, Toronto – Carlton St. entrance). Directed by Brandon Gillespie, FAITH was the winner of the 2016 Hamilton Fringe Festival’s Best New Play Contest.

FAITH is told in the first person by a troubled teen named Faith (Lindsey Middleton), who regularly breaks the fourth wall to speak to the audience directly as the story unfolds with her scene partner, Grace United Church minister David (Ben Hayward). Part memory play, part coming of age story, we see Faith navigate complicated relationships with the men in her life: God, her father and David – her thoughts and experiences running the gamut from intellectual, emotional and sexual. One of the big questions she ponders: Are we just the sum of our experiences?

Really lovely work from Middleton and Hayward in this intimate two-hander. It would be easy to write Faith off as a cocky, shit-disturbing, attention-seeking brat – and she is that – but Middleton adeptly mines the layers of hurt, longing and confusion underneath this smart-ass, horny, potty-mouthed kid. Mercurial, sharp, and grasping for hope and meaning, Faith can be her own worst enemy. She’s taken her mother’s advice to kick life in the balls on a daily basis a bit too seriously, a choice that has serious consequences.

Hayward does a great job of finding the awkward, somewhat nerdy, older guy under David’s casual, approachable exterior; David is cool for a clergyman, though – and he genuinely wants to do good in his community. He’s a young husband and father to two young daughters – but, like Faith, there’s so much more to David than what we see in his present life. A kind and gentle soul, he too has a complex response to their relationship.

Throughout the play, multiple meanings of “faith” emerge: a young woman’s name, belief in God or some higher power, and trust in another human being.

With shouts to stage manager Hannah Jack and designer Kelly Anderson for making this production work in this small, non-theatre space.

Sex, death and religion. Pondering the meaning of life experiences and relationships in thoughtful, sassy, intense FAITH.

FAITH continues at St. Luke’s Chapel until Oct 30; seating is limited, so you might want to consider booking tix in advance online.

Movie set shenanigans get a dose of harsh reality in sharply funny, heartbreaking & hopeful Stones in His Pockets

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Stephen Farrell & Mark Whelan in Stones in His Pockets – photo by Kathryn Hollinrake

The Irish Stage Company opened its inaugural production in the Alumnae Theatre Studio last week: Marie Jones’ Stones in His Pockets, directed by James Barrett. They’ve been playing to packed houses so far – and last night’s house was sold out.

Stones in His Pockets is a movie shoot within a play. A small farming town in County Kerry becomes the location for the Hollywood film The Quiet Valley, with many of the townspeople employed as extras. A tragicomedy, the play is a both a satirical poke at the romantic American view of Ireland and a look at the harsh realities of a small Irish town, where a dying way of life is being used as the nostalgic backdrop for a big-budget movie. The resulting film shoot environment is plastic and careless, its sincerity put on like a costume, and with an ever watchful eye on the bottom line.

A fast-paced two-hander, actors/producers Mark Whelan and Stephen Farrell are masterful performers, playing a total of 15 characters of varying ages, genders and roles within the film production, the story anchored by extras Jake Quinn (Farrell) and Charlie Conlon (Whelan). Each character is executed with detailed physicality and specific vocal quality, with a bare minimum of costume changes (the removal of a hat or vest), the two actors turning on a dime as they shift from one character to another. And they cut a fine rug as well.

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Stephen Farrell & Mark Whelan in Stones in His Pockets – photo by Kathryn Hollinrake

Charlie (Whelan), an out of towner and former business owner who lost his video store and his girlfriend to a corporate chain outfit, is delighted to be there earning 40 quid a day and free meals. Ever the optimist, he’s got a film script in his pocket that he’s dying to get into the hands of one of the production folks. Jake (Farrell) is more the wry skeptic, taking a cooler pragmatic view of life on set. Recently returned from a failed attempt at life in the U.S., he’s wary of the bitch goddess taking up residence in a place he cares about, among people he loves, many of whom are relatives. And, of course, there’s always more to someone’s story than what you see on the surface. While Charlie is consciously working hard to maintain a positive outlook after coming through past troubles of his own, Jake is adrift; lost and unsure of what to do about his life and his young cousin Sean (also played by Farrell), a troubled and trouble-making teen who once had big dreams of his own and is now addicted to drugs.

This highly entertaining and poignant cast of characters also includes the film’s female lead, Caroline Giovanni (played with fragile, coquettish femininity by Whelan), a delicate, sensual and jaded starlet who struggles with the Irish dialect under the tutelage of her patient and supportive coach John (Farrell). Other film production folk include the ever put-upon, fed up, on the edge of breakdown AD Simon (Whelan); the youthful, driven and eye-rolling AD Aislinn (Farrell); and the aloof, professional task master, director Clem (Whelan). Other characters of note include Mickey Riordan (Farrell), a Puck-like old fella with a glint in his eye, famous in that he’s the last surviving extra from The Quiet Man; Finn (Whelan), Jake’s soft-spoken, turtle-like cousin; and Jock (Whelan), Caroline’s brick shit house, no-nonsense body guard who more than lives up to his name.

While the hopes and dreams of struggling people are being used and manipulated for the good of the production machine, and with tragic results, Stones in His Pockets is not without hope. The one thing that isn’t romanticized about the Irish is the resilience of a people who are genuine, hard-working and imaginative at heart– and who like a good story.

With shouts to sound designer Angus Barlow for the sweeping, romantic Irish soundtrack and jaunty jigs; the Irish Stage Company for its minimalist, but highly effective set and costume design; and to stage manager Sarah Barton for looking after our boys on stage, and reminding the audience to mind the steps, and the stones on set, as we make our way up into the Studio.

Movie set shenanigans get a dose of harsh reality in the sharply funny, heartbreaking and hopeful Stones in His Pockets.

Stones in His Pockets continues at Alumnae Theatre until Dec 12; this is a very popular production, so advance booking online is strongly recommended.

You can find the Irish Stage Company on Twitter and Stones in His Pockets on Facebook.

Department of corrections: Photo credit originally ascribed to Rob Trick; it’s actually Kathryn Hollinrake. The post has been revised accordingly.