Hope & regret in the Village Players’ bittersweet, nostalgic The Glass Menagerie

Jacob Klick, Deena Baltman & Claire MacMaster. Set design by Alexis Chubb. Costume design by Livia Pravato-Fuchs, assisted by Marcella Pravato. Lighting design by Jamie Sample. Photo by John Ordean.

 

The Village Players open their 2019-20 season with Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, directed by Victoria Shepherd and running at the Village Playhouse. A deeply autobiographical play, in memory of a beloved sister, it’s the story of a family’s struggles of identity and survival in a world mired in the Depression with another World War around the corner—bittersweet, nostalgic, and full of hope and regret.

Tom Wingfield (Jacob Klick) is both narrator and participant in this tale as he invites us into the world of the small St. Louis apartment where he lives with his mother Amanda (Deena Baltman) and sister Laura (Claire MacMaster). The Wingfield patriarch has been absent some 16 years—a “telephone man who fell in love with long distance”—his ever watchful, smiling face aglow in a frame on the living room wall. It is 1937, and America has been struggling through the Great Depression, with WWII a couple of years away.

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Deena Baltman & Claire MacMaster. Set design by Alexis Chubb. Costume design by Livia Pravato-Fuchs, assisted by Marcella Pravato. Lighting design by Jamie Sample. Photo by John Ordean.

Profoundly restless and bored with his job in a shoe factory warehouse, Tom finds escape and second-hand adventure in the movies and in books; and squirrels himself away at work during lunch breaks, writing poetry. At home, he snatches brief moments of solitude and reflection as he smokes on the fire escape; and hatches a plan to join the Merchant Marine and get away for some real adventures. Meanwhile, a desperate but hopeful Amanda—ever navigating the challenges of keeping the body and soul of the family together—longs for a successful and happy future for her children, even as she criticizes and directs their actions. Retreating into moments of nostalgic reverie as she recalls her days popularity and hosting numerous beaux in the rural south, she is clearly troubled; a fish out of water—and out of time—in their urban Delta home. And the painfully shy Laura—who would likely be diagnosed with social anxiety today—prefers her rich world of imagination and light. Self-conscious about her limp and anxious about how others see her, she finds sanctuary from an outside world that is too overwhelming to bear as she escapes into her glass collection.

Concerned that her daughter’s fragile, anxious soul is unable to manage a career as a secretary, Amanda shifts focus onto finding Laura a suitable husband, and enlists Tom’s aid to find a beau for Laura. He invites co-worker Jim (John Shubat), a former high school golden boy known to both Tom and Laura, over for dinner. Laura had a crush on Jim in high school, and the hopes and dreams of this gentleman caller are met with a frank and unexpected reality check.

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John Shubat & Claire MacMaster. Set design by Alexis Chubb. Costume design by Livia Pravato-Fuchs, assisted by Marcella Pravato. Lighting design by Jamie Sample. Photo by John Ordean.

Nice work from the cast in this snapshot of familial hope, regret, loss and disappointment; moments of humour and tenderness bring take the edge off the brutal frankness and disillusionment of this world. Klick’s Tom is a study of restless detachment; dutifully bound to ensuring the family’s security as the man of the house, Tom is boiling inside—busting to get out and away, and to a life of his own. Baltman brings a desperate edge of optimism to Amanda, a woman whose life vacillates between memories of better times and the harsh realities of present-day existence. Longing for the gentler, civilized days of her bygone youth—a world that no longer exists—Amanda’s gay, energetic girlishness belies an exhausted, lost middle-aged woman grasping for purchase and hope in world she neither understands nor wants.

MacMaster adds a hint of irreverent spunk to the otherwise fragile, introverted Laura. Losing herself in a world of light and magical creatures, Laura finds a sense of safety and belonging from the world outside their apartment. And Shubat’s Jim is the picture of affable charisma and confidence, tempered by the world weariness of a young man who peaked in high school. Jim has high hopes for the future; aiming for a career on the ground floor of television, he represents hope for the Wingfield family; and a high-energy, forward-thinking future where popularity and showmanship are bound to succeed.

In the end, all of these characters are misfits in his/her own way; lost and searching for a way to be in a changing modern world. And, to varying degrees, each is struggling to keep the pain of disappointment from turning into the paralysis of discouragement. The world seems to be made for the popular and confident, with higher value placed on the traditional markers of status and success than on more imaginative and unique qualities—where unicorns are encouraged to be just like the other horses.

With shouts to the design team for their work on bringing this world of fading memory to glowing life. Alexis Chubb’s homey domestic set, revealed by the opening of sheer curtains, nicely complimented by Jamie Sample’s lighting design; John Stuart Campbell’s sound and music design, incorporating popular music of the time and haunting, crystalline original compositions (featuring Vivien Shepherd on vocals) as it conjures the music hall across the alley and complements the emotional tone; and Livia Pravato-Fuchs’ (assisted by Marcella Pravato) period costumes, transporting us to both 1937 and Amanda’s youth.

The Glass Menagerie continues at the Village Playhouse until September 28. Advance tickets available online or by calling 416-767-7702.

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A legendary & mostly true screenwriting miracle in the hilarious Moonlight & Magnolias

Martin Buote, Rob Candy & Ryan Bannon. Mural by Elaine Freedman. Lighting design by Dustin Woods-Turner. Costumes by Lisha Mohan. Photo by Graeme Hay.

 

The Village Players presents Moonlight and Magnolias, the mostly true story of how the final screenplay for Gone with the Wind was written—the 80th anniversary of the iconic film’s release is later this year, on December 15. Written by Ron Hutchison and directed by Michael Hiller, the play follows the hilarious crazy miracle of the writing process, with producer David O. Selznick, director Victor Fleming and writer Ben Hecht holed up in Selznick’s office, under the gun to re-write the script and get production back up and running.

After clearing the major hurdles of finding his Scarlett O’Hara and shooting the burning of Atlanta, Selznick (Martin Buote) has put the brakes on production. He’s got multiple versions of the script, and he’s not happy with any of them. Intending to use bits and pieces from these scripts, along with dialogue from Margaret Mitchell’s book, he calls in screenwriter/script doctor Ben Hecht (Ryan Bannon) and pulls director Victor Fleming (Rob Candy) off of The Wizard of Oz to help him conjure a Hollywood miracle and re-write the script in five days. Selznick’s career is on the line, father-in-law Louis B. Mayer is breathing down his neck, and Vivien Leigh is getting antsy about the break in shooting—and Hecht hasn’t read the book!

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Ryan Bannon, Martin Buote & Rob Candy. Mural by Elaine Freedman. Lighting design by Dustin Woods-Turner. Costumes by Lisha Mohan. Photo by Graeme Hay.

Selznick locks the three of them in his office and, with the assistance of his secretary Miss Poppenghul (Céline Gunton), they live on bananas and peanuts* as Selznick and Fleming act out scenes from the book while Hecht types them out. Hilarity, doubt and anger ensue, complete with bickering over content, Fleming and Hecht sniping at each other, Hecht calling out the insanity of trying to make slave owners likeable—not to mention the systemic anti-Semitism of American society—with Selznick desperate to keep things on track, the clock ticking as he loses money with production on hold. Devolving into a hallucinatory, exhausted mess, the three men crawl to the finish line of the final scene. Then another argument erupts over the ending.

Great work from the cast in this zany, improbable tale—funny ‘cuz it’s true (mostly). Buote gives a passionate performance as Selznick, nicely balancing drive, determination and desperation. This is a life and death situation for the producer; and he’s dedicated years of his life to the project-determined to stay true to Mitchell’s book, despite all the naysaying. Candy makes a likeable cad as the pompous, ambitious Fleming, who’s delighted to be released from babysitting the grossly misbehaved munchkins on The Wizard of Oz. Together, Buote (Scarlett) and Candy (Ashley, Melanie and Prissy) do hilarious characterizations as they act out Gone with the Wind. Bannon’s the perfect devil’s advocate as the talented smart ass Hecht; the social conscience in the room, Hecht isn’t comfortable normalizing racism in this movie. Possessing a deep sense of social awareness, Hecht calls out Selznick, a fellow Jew, on the parallels of systemic oppression. All nicely supported by Gunton’s perky, intrepid and dedicated Miss Poppenghul—who, while happy to cater to her boss’s every whim without complaint, reveals her shock and disdain at the news of an incident of abusive behaviour perpetrated by Fleming.

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Céline Gunton & Rob Candy. Mural by Elaine Freedman. Lighting design by Dustin Woods-Turner. Costumes by Lisha Mohan. Photo by Graeme Hay.

The lengths to which storytellers will go to get the story right, despite all the odds—risking personal and professional failure to see a project through to its completion, without compromise or apology. A legendary tale behind a legendary film—and the small cast of creative characters behind the scenes.

With big shouts to the small army of Village Playhouse volunteers who worked behind the scenes to put this production of Moonlight and Magnolias on the stage, featuring stage manager Margot Devlin at the helm, keeping the show up and running from the booth.

Moonlight and Magnolias continues at the Village Playhouse to February 2; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416-767-7702.

*Mindful of peanut allergies, the production uses fake plastic peanuts.

Dangerous desires, conflicting memories & a questionable verdict in Village Players’ dark, haunting Tainted Justice

Katherine Anne Fairfoul, Chris O’Bray & Rob McMullan. Set design by Alexis Chub. Costume design by Livia Pravato-Fuchs. Lighting design by Jamie Sample. Photo by Dave A. Fitzpatrick.

 

Did an American drifter or family secrets kill the town innkeeper? The Village Players opened their production of Don Nigro’s Tainted Justice, directed by Victoria Shepherd, at their home in the Village Playhouse last night.

Set mostly in 1914 Cape Breton, Tainted Justice criss-crosses time and space, taking us through memory and past events to such varied places as the Klondike and Winnipeg in the years leading up to 1914. Estranged from her mother Tena (Katherine Anne Fairfoul) and uncle Bill (Rob Candy), Pearl (Jess L. Callaghan) returns home to Cape Breton looking for answers. Haunted by the events surrounding her innkeeper father Ben’s (Dennis Mockler) death, Pearl is determined to learn the truth—especially regarding evidence brought to light during the subsequent trial against the inn’s American guest Frank (Chris O’Bray), who was defended by Pearl’s cousin Jim (Andrew Batten), a local celebrity lawyer. Frank was found guilty and executed. What was the nature of her mother’s relationship with the accused? And who was really responsible for her father’s death?

Through a series of conversations, moments and witness stand testimony, we learn that Frank wasn’t a stranger to Bill or Tena when he arrived in Cape Breton. But there are conflicting accounts of when and where they met him—and the coincidences of Frank just happening to meet up with them in various locations across the U.S. and Canada are dubious to say the least. As the story unfolds, we see a seedy, dark underbelly emerge among this close-knit family in this quiet town—revealing hidden suspicions, and hinting at forbidden relationships and dangerous desires. Only Jim’s quiet, sweet wife Maudie (Peta Mary Bailey) and the calm, steady Crown prosecutor Hearn (Rob McMullan) seem to be immune from the dark influences of lust and family loyalty at all costs.

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Andrew Batten & Peta Mary Bailey. Set design by Alexis Chub. Costume design by Livia Pravato-Fuchs. Lighting design by Jamie Sample. Photo by Dave A. Fitzpatrick.

This play has everything: greed, lust, murder, family secrets. And Shepherd and the cast do a great job weaving past and present, memory and dream, and complex relationships in this true Canadian crime drama. Stand-outs include Batten’s cocky but amiable Jim; a gifted defender and eloquent orator, Jim’s drinking habit and laissez-faire approach to life mask a deeply troubled soul. O’Bray does a lovely job, both charming us and keeping us guessing about Frank; a mercurial, cheeky and well-read man with a flair for storytelling, Frank is a teller of tall tales at best and a con man at worst. A drifter and opportunist with a non-violent criminal record and at least four wives back in the States, like Jim says, Frank’s not the kind of guy you’d want marrying your sister. But is he a murderer?

Fairfoul’s Tena is a seductive cypher, also keeping us on our toes. Intelligent and beautiful, Tena is an ambitious businesswoman whose deepest desires run beyond real estate. There’s an edgy desperate housewife vibe and a dark air mystery about her. Did she bewitch Frank into doing her bidding? And Candy’s Bill is a complex combination of affable generosity and raging jealousy. Bill clearly loves his sister Tena very much and would do anything for her, including introducing her to the man who would become her husband (the murdered innkeeper Ben). But what exactly is the nature of that relationship—and are those feelings mutual?

With shouts to the design team for their work on bringing the past and present worlds of this haunting period crime drama to life on the small Village Playhouse stage: Alexis Chubb (set), Livia Pravato-Fuchs (costume), Jamie Sample (lighting) and John Stuart Campbell (sound and music composition). And to director Shepherd for orchestrating the multiple interwoven scenes and relationships as the characters traverse time and place.

Tainted Justice continues at the Village Playhouse until March 24. Advance tickets available online or by calling 416-767-7702. In the meantime, be sure to check out the promo video on the show page, featuring director Victoria Shepherd.

 

An exclusive murder mystery weekend gets real in the darkly funny, surprising A Party to Murder

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Clockwise from bottom: Trevor Cartlidge, Liam Doherty, Lawrie Hopkinson, Haley Vincent, Michael Hunter & Madeleine Spadafora in A Party to Murder – photo by Dave Fitzpatrick

You are cordially invited to an exclusive murder mystery weekend this Halloween at a secluded upscale cottage at a secret location.

The Village Players are currently running A Party to Murder, by Douglas E. Hughes and Marcia Kash, directed by Rob Woodcock, at their home the Village Playhouse (Bloor St. West, a bit east of Runnymede). It’s the second show of their all-Canadian season; I caught yesterday’s matinee.

We open on a melodramatic Agatha Christie-esque scene of whodunnit, part of a by invitation only game hosted by mystery novelist Charles (Liam Doherty) at Hadfield House, his lush cottage retreat on a private island on Cassandra Lakes, Ontario. The area, we learn, is infamous for its ties to the mysterious case of the Phantom Five, five business titans who went missing 25 years ago.

Among Charles’ guests are business mogul Elwood (Michael Hunter) and his much younger companion McKenzie (Madeleine Spadafora); Valerie (Lawrie Hopkinson) and Henri (Haley Vincent), sisters who’ve inherited their family utility business; and former football star Willy (Trevor Cartlidge), now confined to a wheel chair after a car accident.

The one who guesses the murderer wins a lavish prize, furnished via the sizeable entry free all guests are required to pay. When Elwood is pronounced the winner and decides to exact a favour from each of the others, things get tense and interesting – especially when Elwood turns up dead soon after.

Now faced with an actual murder mystery, the group is stuck on the island with no phone or cell service; they must wait until the water taxi returns to pick them up the next day. And when a journal linking the cottage to the Phantom Five is discovered and a second member of the group drops dead, the stakes get even higher.

Like the novelist host in the play, A Party to Murder is inspired by the works of Agatha Christie (who receives homage via the large photograph featured prominently on the upstage wall) – full of twists, turns and surprises. And loads of whodunnit fun.

Really nice work from the cast in this exciting tale of intrigue and murder. Doherty gives British expat Charles a dry, Coward-esque wit. A novelist of some repute and a sharp observer of human behaviour, he’s an extremely affable host, arranging everything himself, including cooking the gourmet meals. While we first see her as the humble housemaid in the mystery role play, Hopkinson gives Valerie a decidedly dragon lady edge; a powerful CEO with a shrewd business mind and a wry wit. Vincent’s Henri is the polar opposite of Valerie, with some interesting layers; anxious and wary, there’s an inquisitive mind and a drive for the truth under that submissive exterior. And her role play medium character has hilarious hints of Madame Arcati.

As Elwood, Hunter brings a self-satisfied, near sociopathic, sense of entitlement and aloofness; a jealous, possessive man with a quick temper, he relishes his power over others. Spadafora’s McKenzie is a great combination of lady of leisure and survivor; a professional model and personal ornament to Elwood, her life isn’t as fairytale as it appears. And Cartlidge’s Willy may be a cocky, wise-cracking jock, but his intensely negative reaction to the prospect of being under Elwood’s thumb gives pause, as does his ongoing gallows humour.

One gets the feeling that everyone has a secret – but is it a lethal one?

With big shouts to the design team for the gorgeous environment and atmospheric effects, complete with a secret passage, a storm, flickering lights and fabulous outfits: Katherine Bignell-Jones (set), Sue Gilck (sound), Dustin Woods-Turner (lighting), Rosemary McGillivray (props) and Jennifer Newnham (costumes).

An exclusive murder mystery weekend gets real in the darkly funny, surprising A Party to Murder. My friends and I had a great time.

Party to Murder continues at the Village Playhouse until Nov 26; check here for full performance date/time info. Tickets can also be purchased 45 minutes before curtain time at the box office; or you can call to reserve: 416-767-7702.

You can keep up with the Village Players on Twitter and Facebook.

Secrets, schemes & stamps in sharp & darkly funny Mauritius

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Derek Perks (foreground), with Douglas Tindal & Rebecca De La Cour in Mauritius – photo by Bill Michelson

Sometimes a stamp isn’t just a stamp.

A pair of rare postage stamps becomes a catalyst for hopes, dreams and desires in The Village Players’ production of Theresa Rebeck’s Mauritius, directed by Michael Hiller, which opened at the Village Playhouse last night.

Estranged step-sisters Jackie (Rebecca De La Cour) and Mary (Tina McCulloch) are reunited following the death of their mother, and discover Mary’s grandfather’s stamp collection as they sort through their mother’s things. The two have very different perspectives of both the stamps’ ownership and destiny. When Rebecca’s attempt to get the stamps appraised is rebuffed by the owner/operator of Phil’s stamp shop (Douglas Tindal), Phil’s friend Dennis (Derek Perks) comes to her assistance. He finds the collection extremely interesting – interesting enough to contact the wealthy and shady Sterling (Robert Woodcock), an extreme stamp aficionado, to broker a deal.

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Derek Perks & Robert Woodcock – photo by Bill Michelson

The Mauritius script has a Walker meets Mamet flavour – and the cast does an effing nice job of it. Tindal is dishevelled and Sphinx-like as stamp expert Phil; his shop, like its owner, is frozen in time (somewhere around the 70s) and understated in its seediness (set by Nadia Dziubaniwsky). Perks is delightfully wiry and wily as the fast-talking, likeable scoundrel Dennis; a smooth operator, and adept at sizing up people and situations, there’s more to Dennis than meets the eye. De La Cour’s Jackie is a tough cookie; assertive and brave, yet full of hurt and longing – and grasping at hope – under that brash exterior. Woodcock is a remarkable presence as Sterling; physically, psychologically and intellectually menacing, with a soft underbelly invoked by the stamps, his object of obsession and desire. And McCulloch brings some nice, complex layers of propriety, nostalgia and fierceness to Mary, who is deeply conflicted within her family dynamic and personal attachment to her grandfather’s stamp collection.

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Tina McCulloch & Rebecca De La Cour – photo by Bill Michelson

Each character’s response to the stamps reveals what he/she values: money, freedom, history, possession and legacy.

Secrets, schemes and stamps in The Village Players’ sharp and darkly funny Mauritius.

Mauritius continues at the Village until Jan 30; show dates/times and ticket info here. You can keep up with the Village Players’ goings-on on Twitter and Facebook.