#MeToo from the other side in the sharply funny, provocative Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes

Alice Snaden & Matthew Edison. Set & costume design by Michael Gianfrancesco. Lighting design by Bonnie Beecher. Photo by Joy von Tiedemann.

 

Tarragon Theatre kicks off the New Year with the premiere of Hannah Moscovitch’s sharply funny, provocative #MeToo look at a student/professor affair in Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes, directed by Sarah Garton Stanley, assisted by Eva Barrie. A famous 40-something author and popular professor, grappling with writer’s block and a crumbling marriage, would rather not have the lovely, smart girl in the red coat standing so close to him—but he is irresistibly drawn to her despite the personal and professional ramifications. Questions of the nature of consent, power dynamic, and mixing up admiration and love, come into play as we witness the evolution of the relationship over time.

Jon (Matthew Edison) is a 40-something author and professor. Both famous for his writing and popular among students, he’s feeling out of sorts as he struggles with writer’s block on his current novel, and navigates separation and impending divorce from his third wife. Enter the bright and attractive first-year student Annie (Alice Snaden), who is a big fan. And she lives across the street from him.

Despite his scoffing at youthful sexuality and the middle-aged men who are attracted to it, and his initial discomfort at Annie’s attentions, Jon’s personal and professional resolve melt in the face of his hot mess of a life and a longing to get close to this fascinating young woman who appears to be coming on to him.

The “love story” is narrated by Jon, who speaks about himself in the third person and punctuates events with editorial comments that both admit and rationalize his actions. In this way, the narrative—presented from Jon’s point of view and coupled with surtitles that read like pointed chapter headings (video design by Laura Warren)—takes on the feel of a novel, written from a man’s point of view and ultimately relegating the female character to a roughly drawn, vague love interest. Despite his awareness of the sloppy, dismissive effect this has on writing, Jon proceeds to live this dynamic with Annie.

A few years after the end of the affair, Annie brings forward a perspective that questions the consensual nature of that relationship—given the age difference and power imbalance. As more years pass, Annie finds some closure as she examines their relationship from his point of view.

Razor-sharp, nuanced performances from Edison and Snaden in this thoughtful, provocative and funny two-hander; nicely complemented by Michael Gianfrancesco’s perspectival set of multiple doors, and Bonnie Beecher’s lighting design, adding a luminous sense of discovery and mystery. Edison gives Jon a genuine combination of cockiness and self-consciousness; above all the student drama, sex and stupidity, but wondering if he can still be cool and relate to them, Jon fears becoming a stereotypical middle-aged man who chases after younger women as much as he eschews the behaviour. Using the stresses of his mess of a life to rationalize his affair with Annie, Jon believes she’s coming on to him and that he’s really falling for her—and that makes it alright. Snaden brings an ethereal, wise child edge to Annie; wide-eyed, smart and a brilliant writer in her own right, Annie longs for acceptance, acknowledgment and a sense of identity. Despite Annie’s attention and attraction to Jon, and that she was of legal age, she realizes that she was still the student and he was still her professor.

Jon was in a position of power and could’ve stopped the affair from happening, but didn’t—and what Annie needed wasn’t a lover, but a mentor. In the end, it looks like they both mistook admiration for love. And the middle class isn’t as “nice” as some would expect.

Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes continues in the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace until February 2; advance tickets available online. This premiere is bound to provoke questions and discussions—get out to see it and get in on the conversation.

 

FireWorks Festival: Navigating the media circus in the face of profound loss in the moving, razor-sharp, thought-provoking Grief Circus

Bronson Lake & Alison Dickson. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Paige Foskett. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Bruce Peters.

 

Alumnae Theatre opened its second week of the FireWorks Festival last night, with Crystal Wood’s Grief Circus, directed by Paige Foskett. As moving as it is razor-sharp, this timely multimedia piece holds up a mirror to society’s morbid fascination, involvement and sharing in the death of strangers. A family has lost a beloved daughter and sister, an event that becomes fresh meat for the news and social media feeding frenzy. As they navigate the media circus that follows, mother and sister take very different paths to work through their grief.

Leah (Alison Dickson) speaks to us directly, our host and narrator as we witness scenes—sometimes in flashback—around the events of her older sister Jesse’s (Claire MacMaster) disappearance. Jesse’s body was later found in a ravine, and both Leah and her mother Carol (Bernadette Medhurst) find themselves in the spotlight of an often intrusive, uncaring news media—even confronted by a photographer (Jack Everett) on the steps of their small-town church when they attend Jesse’s funeral. In the aftermath, while Leah finds herself slogging through a callous, click bait world of modern news and social media, bombarded with ignorance and cruelty as she struggles to work through grief and loss, she is appalled to find her mother joining in—writing a book about the experience of losing her daughter, and working with PR folks to book interviews.

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Alison Dickson & Claire MacMaster. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Paige Foskett. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Bruce Peters.

Alternating between past and present, we see a 15-year-old Leah interacting with Jesse, who is her best friend, advisor, confidante and go-to source of info on the state of their parents’ shaky marriage; then a few years later being invited to a party with Jesse and her friends in Toronto, where Jesse disappears after leaving on her own. We see Leah go head to head with Carol over Carol’s making an industry of Jesse’s death; and the battle for Leah’s participation in a television interview, taking place the same day as her first day at university. And Leah has a meet cute with Charlie (Bronson Lake), an awkward but sweet university student; they go on a sort of date, but his motives are called into question when an altered recording of a chat he had with their server (Everett) turns up on the news, showing Leah in the worst possible light as the troubled sister of a famous dead girl.

Lovely work from the cast in this timely, moving and razor-sharp exploration of how news and social media can intrude upon and dishonour the departed, and have a profound impact on their loved ones. Dickson gives a stand-out performance as the whip-smart, introverted, wry-witted Leah; precocious, irreverent and wise beyond her years, Leah can be her own worst enemy as she keeps herself informed about world events—events that spark deep anxiety over the possibility of catastrophe. Conflicted about engaging with the Internet following Jesse’s death, what she finds there only serves to make her journey through grief more difficult.

MacMaster gives an energetic, luminous performance as the bubbly extrovert Jesse; the best big sister Leah could have, she’s super supportive and encouraging—balancing a respect for Leah’s boundaries with gentle pushes outside her comfort zone. Medhurst does a nice job with the conflicted Carol; a mother who’s lost her daughter, she deals with her grief the only way she knows how—honour Jesse’s memory so she won’t be forgotten. Lake gives an adorably awkward performance as the bashful Charlie; somewhat of an introvert himself, Charlie is interested in Leah, but unfortunately not very media-savvy. And Everett offers a great range of news media folk, from the intrusive jerk photographer at the funeral, to serious CTV reporter, to sleazy “journalist”.

Timely, moving and sharply funny, Grief Circus incorporates video and projected social media messaging (video design by director Foskett) to illustrate the scope of the family’s loss of a wonderful, energetic young woman—and the inappropriate, at times heartless, thoughtless and intrusive, response of the public. Strangers turning up at the funeral, or making comments in person or online; and, worst of all, the anonymous social media posters who cast negative, clueless aspersions about Jesse’s character—especially the trolls who say that Jesse had it coming.

Grief Circus continues in the Alumnae Studio Theatre until November 17; get tickets online, by calling 416-364-4170 (ext. 1) or in-person at the box office one hour before curtain time (cash only). There will be a post-show talkback with the director, playwright and cast following the Saturday, November 16 matinée performance.

FireWorks continues its three-week run until November 24, presenting a new show each week. The festival closes with Genevieve Adam’s If the Shoe Fits, directed by Heather Keith (Nov 20-24).

 

The battle for survival & inclusion in an elite Chinese sanctuary in the provocative, darkly funny Yellow Rabbit

En Lai Mah & April Leung, with Amanda Zhou in the background. Set & costume design by Jackie Chau. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Video design by Zeesy Powers. Photo by: Cesar Ghisilieri.

 

Soulpepper presents the world premiere of Silk Bath Collective’s (SBC) provocative, darkly funny, multimedia and trilingual Yellow Rabbit, written by Bessie Cheng, Aaron Jan and Gloria Mok, directed by Jasmine Chen and running at the Young Centre. Set in a post-nuclear apocalypse dystopia, with dialogue in English, Cantonese and Mandarin (with surtitles), contestants are tested and assessed in a life or death competition to gain entry into the Chinese sanctuary Rich-Man Hill. A beautiful oasis from a harsh and dangerous land, competition is fierce and standards are strict—and only those who are deemed worthy are allowed access.

Yellow Rabbit represents the evolution of SBC’s sold-out production of Silk Bath, which debuted at Toronto Fringe and went on to the Next Stage Festival—making history as the first trilingual play at the Fringe. While Silk Bath focused on external stereotyping and oppression of Chinese-Canadians, Yellow Rabbit dives deep into internalized racism and extremism. You have to be the ‘right’ kind of Chinese to get into Rich-Man Hill.

Woman (April Leung) and Man (En Lai Mah) are brought into the testing facility, paired as husband and wife by Rich-Man Hill authorities, as they’ve been identified as a good match to carry on the Chinese race in this post-apocalyptic world. Overseen by Mother (Amanda Zhou), assisted by Child (Bessie Cheng), Woman and Man must pass a series of tests and challenges designed to prove their excellence—and ultimate worth—as ideal Chinese citizens; and the assessment process is a life and death prospect.

Hounded and hunted in the outside world, Chinese survivors are willing to risk anything to get into Rich-Man Hill. Contestants are fitted with collars, which Mother and Child use to manipulate and discipline with painful shocks. In between challenges, contestants view propaganda videos (by Zeesy Powers) showing Mother and Child enjoying a loving, trusting relationship in a breath-taking, verdant landscape highlighted by a refreshing waterfall. The Woman and Man both have secrets they’re keeping from Mother, but share with each other in an attempt to connect and work together to get through the trials. Meanwhile, Mother and Child find they don’t agree on the standards Mother has set; the more narrow-minded, old-school Mother is much more stringent on who is deemed worthy, while Child is more progressive and desires more modern, forward-thinking parameters.

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Amanda Zhou & Bessie Cheng. Set & costume design by Jackie Chau. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Video design by Zeesy Powers. Photo by: Cesar Ghisilieri.

Great work from the ensemble, balancing the dark humour with the disturbing nature of the situation. Leung and Mah have great chemistry as Woman and Man; both are strong-willed and determined, but realize that they must try to get along and work together, as all the tests are applied to them as a pair. Both deeply troubled and conflicted, the secrets that Man and Woman harbour speak to the core of their identity; and it’s heart-breaking to watch them try to be something they’re not in order to pass the tests and survive. Zhou gives Mother an ethereal air of mystery—a combination spiritual and community leader spouting wisdom and guidance; but beneath Mother’s nurturing exterior is a harsh and unforgiving authoritarian. Cheng’s Child is an innocent, devoted follower and assistant to Mother; but even Child’s loyalty goes only so far—and, despite her more modern-day views, her model is still based on the totalitarian regime already running Rich-Man Hill.

Extreme standards and isolation breed fear and contempt for outsiders and those not deemed the ‘right’ type of Chinese. And with such strict rules for entry and fewer potential contestants at her disposal, Mother risks weakening the community she’s supposed to be protecting.

Yellow Rabbit continues for its final week at the Young Centre, closing on December 1. Get advance tickets online or call the box office: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188. Advance tickets are a must; if a performance appears to be sold out online, check again—as some tickets may be released close to or on the day of.

Adventures in arts & culture in Nuit Blanche Toronto 2014

Arts adventures continued last night at Nuit Blanche Toronto 2014, as audiences roamed the night to view and engage with various arts and culture exhibits around the city.

A lot of the exhibits I saw (along with pals Lizzie Violet and Zoltan Hawryluk) were part of the Night Circus series. Here’s what we saw last night, followed by a slide show:

All Together Now – Group Exhibition @ Hart House. Video and live performance with choirs, featuring LGBTQ choir Singing Out, among others.

Queen’s Park was rockin’ with a cosplay rave vibe, with a DJ, fire juggling and eating, peeps in animal costumes and clowns. Dancing, music and a fun, energetic atmosphere.

8th Wonder – Michael Oatman and Brian Kane @ Union Station

A very cool interactive light box installation (will see if I can find title/artist).

Un/natural History: Drowning Captiva 2014 – George Bolster

The Melodious Malfeasance Meat-Grinding Machine 2014 – Dana Sherwood

Night Suite – lightsweetcrude

Big Top Grand Stand 2014 – SuttonBeresCuller

Cascade – Ananadam Dance Theatre, Brandy Leary, Eamon MacMahon, James Burton

Impressions – Mina Vedut, Alice Song, Andrea Ng, Alice Chen @ Wychwood Barns

Hive (2.0) – Hopkins Duffield @ Wychwood Barns

Dried Beans Models of the Universe from the Department of Household Sciences and Advanced Proverbs – John Shipman @ St. Matthews United Church (which also included a helping of very tasty vegetarian chili)

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Transformation, inspiration & glam rock in Lisa Anita Wegner’s STARDUST: Life on Jupiter? opening night

july29_lawegnerI dropped by The Black Cat Gallery (2186 Dundas Street West) last night for the Transformation at Lisa Anita Wegner’s opening of STARDUST: Life on Jupiter?, on until August 6 (no worries about what it says on the poster – I confirmed the date with Wegner).

Described as a Transformation/ Projection/Live Art Making/Live Collaboration project, here’s what the Haus of Dada Laboratory had to say about this exhibit:

A one-of-a-kind event, Stardust: Life On Jupiter? incorporates the focus on re-birth, redemption, transformation, and search for truth through the adoption of personae that has been a key part of Lisa Anita Wegner’s art practice in her journey to reclaim her life from the personal darkness into which she was plunged six years ago.

Friends, family and Ziggy fans alike hung out together in an intimate, casual atmosphere, sharing a drink and chatting as Wegner’s transformation happened in the middle of the room as Ziggy videos played on the wall behind her. The hair colour came two days earlier, the eyebrow waxing that afternoon (along with a mani-pedi). Stylist Wanda MacRae (who freelances as a makeup artist and colourist, and just got a new gig at Parlour Salon at their Queen Street East location) used a straight razor to shape Wegner’s hair into a Ziggy mullet, then hair spraying to get the volume up front on top. After a break, Wegner returned to the chair, her white lab coat now covering her costume, so Wanda could do the makeup. Hair and makeup were followed by ceremonial milk consumption and a cosmetic dusting with white face powder – a nod to Ziggy’s diet of milk and cocaine.

Then, the reveal. It’s quite remarkable how much like Ziggy she is. Confetti and noise makers announced the emergence from the transformative process.

Here are some images from the STARDUST: Life on Jupiter? opening night event, transformation process:

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Wegner will be at The Black Cat Gallery every day (from 2 – 6 p.m.) for the duration of the exhibit, as she continues to explore the project live and in real-time. The process will culminate in a closing night event (Aug 6 at 7 p.m.), featuring a special, one night only “Stardusted” version of Wegner’s Queen of the Parade installation (a collaborative work with fashion designer Vanessa Lee Wishart, which appeared during Toronto’s Nuit Blanche 2013 and ArtRageous in Motion).

In the meantime, you can also find Wegner on Facebook, Twitter and on her YouTube channel.

And check out the first interview I did with her.