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.

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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.

Toronto Fringe: Boy meets girl in three variations in entertaining, thoughtful Meet Cute

tumblr_np8mf5mfiO1uqj540o1_1280Another brilliant two-hander at Toronto Fringe is Erin Norah Thompson Entertainment and V.TAV Productions’ Meet Cute, written by Thompson, and directed by (in order of scene appearance) Ria Tienhaara, Julie Cohn and Adrianna Prosser – running at the Annex Theatre.

It’s a boy-meets-girl story, but differs in the telling, as we see the same scene played out in three very different ways (each with its own director).

Starring Thompson and Jesse Bond, each get to play the aggressor and the object of desire, and an adorably awkward unfolding of mutual affection. (And I’m not telling you anything that isn’t in the Fringe program.) Behaviour and communication are perceived in very different ways – good intentions or otherwise – depending on how these are received. This would be a great workshop piece on issues of consent for high school and post-secondary students.

Excellent work from Thompson and Bond, playing very different versions of their characters in each scene – and finding that line between creepy and endearing.
A guy and a girl meet at a bus stop in three remarkably different variations of the same script in the entertaining and thoughtful Meet Cute.

Meet Cute has two more performances at the Annex: July 10 at 4:00 p.m. and July 11 at 2:15 p.m. If you haven’t booked in advance, I’d advise getting to the venue early.

Magic, heart, comedy & truth in and out of love (again) in 52 Pick-up remount

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Playing one of the four rotating couples in the production, Ruth Goodwin & Alexander Crowther toss the deck into the air in 52 Pick-up

Tell me a story.
Real or made-up?
Both.
Happy or sad?
Both.

These are the opening lines of TJ Dawe and Rita Bozi’s 52 Pick-up – produced by the Howland Company, and directed by Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster and Paolo Santalucia – setting the stage for a random, non-linear piece of two-handed storytelling about the beginning, middle and ending of a relationship. After delighting sold-out houses at last year’s Toronto Fringe, then going on to The Best of Fringe, the production is getting a remount at Fraser Studios.

52 Pick-up has a performance rotation of four couples: two guy/girl, one girl/girl and one guy/guy. I’d previously seen both guy/girl couples: real-life couple Hallie Seline/Cameron Laurie and Ruth Goodwin/Alexander Crowther. The remount features two new actors, replacing co-directors Ch’ng Lancaster and Santalucia, who both acted in the Fringe production: Llyandra Jones and Alexander Plouffe, who stepped in to play half of the same-sex couples (with Kristen Zaza and James Graham, respectively). I saw the girl/girl couple (Zaza and Jones) yesterday afternoon.

For those who haven’t seen 52 Pick-up, it goes something like this. At the top of the show, the relationship has already ended and the couple decide, together, to tell us their story. The order in which the story is told is dictated by the random selection from a deck of cards, tossed into the air, each card containing a word or phrase that defines the scene they’re about to play out for us.

So, between the four rotating couples and the random running order, you’ll never see the same story the same way twice – even with the same couple. The outcome can also result in some happy coincidences, like yesterday when the “Psychic” scene came right after a scene in which psychics were discussed. Each couple makes it clear that they’re telling us a story, winding in and out of scenes and returning to us, the cards on the floor and the box into which the discards go. Speaking directly to us – and like the “How do you know her?” scene – sometimes gently interacting with someone in the audience, the actors charm, engage and move us. It’s like hearing two friends talk about how they met, courted and gradually grew apart before breaking up – and even though the story is told out of order, your mind wants to put it together, like a puzzle, in linear format. And, like most break-ups, there isn’t necessarily a readily definable ‘why’ – and, in many cases, it’s about two people coming to realize that they just don’t fit together.

For those who have seen one of the guy/girl pairings, Zaza takes on the “girl” role and Jones the “guy.” In many respects, it would be more helpful to describe the couple as Person A and Person B. This is not about imposing heteronormative dynamics on the same-sex couples, it’s about showing two personality types come together, and the way the two succeed – or fail – to connect. Seeing a same-sex couple in this show, especially for those unfamiliar with such a relationship, highlights how romantic relationships aren’t so dependent on sex and gender as they are on personal character dynamics, lifestyle issues and wanting the same things from life.

Zaza and Jones have great chemistry, telling us the story of this couple with a playful sense of awkwardness, passion and romantic friction – with great comic timing and emotional connection. This couple is adorably awkward, earnest and committed, from the brief meet cute over the bladder health benefits of cranberry juice to the sniping over how to chop carrots – funny, moving and above all truthful. Jones brings a lovely bashful, soft butch quality to her laid back, home body character, while Zaza is the bubbly, assertive and outgoing femme – and we’re sad to see these two characters part.

52 Pick-up has all the magic, heart, comedy and truth of falling in and out of love. Now, if I can only work out my scheduling to see the guy/guy couple. Go see this – or go see this again. And again.

52 Pick-up continues at Fraser Studios until March 22. Seating is limited, so booking ahead is strongly recommended – you can do so online here (and see the full schedule and what couple is on when).

Toronto Fringe NSTF: Erotic, poetic & truthful evolution of a relationship in Mine

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Jenna Harris & Michelle Polak in Mine

Toronto Fringe kicked off its annual Next Stage Theatre Festival (NSTF) at Factory Theatre last night, the heated beer tent in the courtyard filling up with excited actors, audience and volunteers coming in from our first extreme cold snap of the season.Thankfully, the tent’s bar menu includes some warm boozy concoctions like cider and rum, and tea with a little extra something to take away the bite of winter.

I saw two shows in the Studio last night, the first being Discord and Din Theatre’s production of Jenna Harris’s Mine, a two-hander directed by Clinton Walker, featuring actors Harris and Michelle Polak.

We see the relationship between Beatrice (Harris) and Abby (Polak) unfold through a series of non-chronological scenes, giving the storytelling a tone of excitement and disorientation – much like falling in love. Opposites attract – and the audience is carried along with the tension, heat and heart of their meet cute, their distancing, flirtation, date nights, sexuality and domesticity.

Harris is sweet, cerebral and shy as Beatrice – and Diane Keaton-like with her comic timing and neurotic moments. Polak’s Abby is very much in her body, panther-like and assertive, with a soft butch swagger, and a mouth and heart full of poetry. Pablo Neruda’s I Crave Your Mouth, Your Voice, Your Hair features prominently in the text, the perfect complement – and perhaps even the inspiration – to the passion and desire for possession that plays out between these women.

With shouts to Jenna McCutchen’s set design – love the two pedestals and couch/bed made of books – and Melinda Deines’s sensuous choreography.

Mine is an erotic, poetic and truthful journey in and around the evolution of a relationship – with lovely work from actors Harris and Polak.

Mine continues its run in the Factory Theatre Studio until Sun, Jan 18 – and includes a talkback at The Hoxton after the Mon, Jan 12 show – click here to order tix in advance.