Toronto Fringe: Engaging, immersive storytelling & a bird whispering love letter to mom in charming, poignant Life List

life-list-press-photo-1-credit-andrew-gaboury-medAre you ready for an adventure? Then you must come along on Alex Eddington’s bird watching walking tour Life List at this year’s Toronto Fringe, directed by Tyler Seguin and starting off at the Randolph Theatre.

Wear some good walking shoes and bring binoculars. If you don’t have binoculars, no worries – Eddington has extra and he’s got great tips for those who haven’t used them before. Working in pairs, with binoculars and clip board maps in hand, you’ll set off into Seaton Village (the neighbourhood just northwest of Bathurst/Bloor) as you assist Eddington in his search for an elusive and rare leucistic bird that’s been sighted in the neighbourhood, and drawing a following of fans and protectors. There’s even a debate on what to name it.

As you scan the trees for movement and check the ground for evidence of feathers, and note any sightings on your map, Eddington gives a brief history of how he got into bird watching. Through anecdotes, songs and memories, we learn of his late mother’s love of birds – and how she kept a life list of her sightings in a little silver book, which contains sightings dating back to 1977. Before she died of breast cancer in 2014, she passed her book and her bird watching legacy on to Eddington, who fondly recalls watching with her. Stories of family and beloved pets emerge, in particular a cockatiel named Spike; full of character and definitely part of the family, Spike was also a winged guardian for Eddington.

I first saw Eddington perform during a preview of his SummerWorks production of Yarn two years ago. An entertaining and genuine storyteller/field trip leader, in Life List he adeptly weaves interesting facts and tidbits about our feathered neighbours with childhood memories and stories of family, especially his mother. The tension comes when the time and energy spent on the object of our search becomes challenging, tedious and seemingly fruitless. Where did she go?

Engaging, immersive storytelling and a bird whispering love letter to mom in the charming, poignant Life List.

Life List continues, with its starting point at the Randolph Theatre, until July 10; advance tickets are a good idea for this one – spots are limited and the show has been getting good buzz. For ticket info and advance tickets/passes, check out the Fringe website.

Alice through the looking glass into Brazil in darkly funny, absurdly mind-bending The Trial of Judith K.

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Scott McCulloch & Stephanie Belding in The Trial of Judith K. – photo by John Gundy

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. – Director’s Note

Thought For Food opened its production of Sally Clark’s The Trial of Judith K. in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Backspace last week, directed by Tyler Seguin, assisted by Tamara Vuckovic. I caught the show last night, in a performance that featured a post-show talkback with Clark.

A gender-switching stage adaptation of Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial, The Trial of Judith K. is set in 1980s Vancouver, the surreal world of the story taking on the unique flavour and hard-working, hard-playing hedonism of that decade. Judith (Stephanie Belding), a 30-something professional accounts manager at a bank, wakes one morning to discover she’s being arrested – for what, she is not told. The bizarre legal debates, interrogations and meetings that follow turn her life upside down. It’s like she’s being punked and everyone else is in on it, their smug assurances of “it’s common knowledge” leaving her out of the game. What follows is a crazy, sharply funny, sometimes deeply disturbing journey through the most fucked up legal system you’ve ever seen.

As playwright Clark said during the talkback, comedy works better when it’s fast – and the ensemble does a bang-up job of it, with most cast members playing multiple roles as they roll out this edgy, absurd tale set in this bizarro world. Belding gives a powerful, sexy and funny performance as Judith; a wry-witted and irreverent, but organized and put-together professional with a can-do attitude whose life is thrown into utter disarray as she attempts to unravel wtf is going on with the charge against her.

Belding’s cast mates are all excellent multi-taskers, performing each role with high energy and enthusiasm, no matter how big the line count. Toni Ellwand does a great turn, going from Judith’s befuddled landlady Mrs. Block, to her office nemesis, the jealous Voight, to the reckless and dangerous party girl Stella; she has an extremely poignant moment as Block, a somewhat smug veteran of the legal system who gets a rude awakening about her case. Patrick Howarth (Inspector/Ted/Flogger) is an especially sexy beast as the charming, bad boy, possible serial killer Ted; deathly irresistible with a soft spot for a certain kind of woman. Helen Juvonen (Lang/Theodora/Girl 2) stands out in her roles as Judith’s timid secretary Lang, and particularly as hooker turned lawyer Theodora; whip smart, languid and ruthless, with a flair for the dramatic and a jaded, pragmatic acceptance of this fucked up world, there’s a hint of Marlene Dietrich about her. Andrew Knowlton (Biff/Milly/Tracy/Brazier) is hilarious as Biff, one of the court-appointed officers sent to arrest Judith, and as Brazier, the ridiculously cheerful, classic 80s sporto pain-in-the-ass client Voight turfs over to Judith, much to Judith’s dismay. Scott McCulloch (Clem/Magistrate/Timmy/Pollock) is especially compelling as Pollock, an artist and legal system insider who professes a desire to be of assistance to Judith, all the while attempting to barter information for sex – a prime example of the diabolically funny combined with the truly cringe-worthy elements that run throughout this play. Cara Pantalone (Maria/Deedee/Nun) does a great job going from Judith’s comic, tacky sister-in-law Deedee to the imperious, mysterious, parable-telling Nun; the Madonna to Theodora’s Whore, with religion serving the divine truth as the law doles out the profane.

During the talkback that followed, Clark mentioned that the piece was commissioned in the 1980s, originally as a one-woman show, and the idea came up to treat The Trial as a comedy. An early draft was even more Alice in Wonderland than the version we see today – and Clark was inspired to draw upon a serial killer case that was underway in Vancouver at the time. Responding to a question about Judith’s reaction to seeing the men in her bedroom at the top of the play, and how audience reception to that moment has changed over time, she spoke about the gender reversal in this adaptation, changing the situation of women throwing themselves at a man (from the novel) to men throwing themselves at a woman. While the reversal of attention takes on a different tone in Judith K., the sexual politics are still there – and it’s still a struggle for sexual dominance – in this case, with an 80s feminist sensibility. In response to a query about the shifting audience reaction to authority, Clark pointed out that the law is a metaphor, a higher power, in the play – and the court is life. It receives you when you’re born and dismisses you when you die. And the doorkeeper in the Nun’s parable represents one’s belief system – and how it can distract and compromise away from one’s life. Kafka foresaw Orwell in this dystopian world – and you pretty much have to laugh to keep from crying.

With shouts to the design team for bringing this wacko world to life and conveying a taste of the 80s in this small, narrow playing space: David Poholko (set), Miranda VanLogerenberg (costumes), Jareth Li (lighting) and Alex Eddington (sound, featuring an awesome 80s pre-show soundtrack).

It’s Alice through the looking glass and into Brazil in Thought For Food’s darkly funny, absurdly mind-bending production of The Trial of Judith K.

The Trial of Judith K. continues till Feb 14 in the TPM Backspace. You can get advance tix online or by calling 416-504-7529 – or purchase at the door.

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.