Family, class, denial & the monster within in the disturbing, revealing Orphans

Tim Dowler-Coltman, Diana Bentley & David Patrick Flemming in Orphans—photo by Shaun Benson

Coal Mine Theatre closes its 2016-17 season with Dennis Kelly’s Orphans, directed by Leora Morris—opening last night in their home at 1454 Danforth Ave.

Helen (Diana Bentley) and Danny’s (David Patrick Flemming) quiet date night dinner at home is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Helen’s brother Liam (Tim Dowler-Coltman). He’s let himself in with his key to their house and is covered in blood that turns out to not be his, but that of an injured young man he tried to help the next block over. An obvious victim of violence, the kid subsequently fled and a visibly shaken Liam made his way to his sister’s.

As the three agonize over what to do, Helen is concerned that involving the police will get Liam in trouble, given his criminal record, unsavoury choice in mates and a knack for bad luck. Helen and Danny’s ‘nice’ middle class neighbourhood has been beset by gangs of lads; one of which recently accosted Danny. With their polite, liberal values, they don’t like to point fingers at the adjacent estate (i.e., social housing), and influx of Middle Eastern and South Asian immigrants, but harbour mistrust and fear of those outside their own people. No one feels safe out there after dark, not even Liam. Orphaned when she and Liam were kids, and having navigated a life in care as they struggled to stay together, Helen is now a mother to a young son (Cody Black), who is at his grandmother’s for the evening, and in the early stages of pregnancy. Disillusioned and fearful of the world she’d be bringing this new life into, she’s seriously considering whether she wants to stay pregnant, given their situation.

What follows is a chilling evolution from Good Samaritan to cover-up—and Danny must decide how far he’s willing to go to help his brother-in-law. Do they engage in passive sins of omission and turning a blind eye, or active sins of lies and participation?

Outstanding work from the cast in this chilling story of underlying racism, classism and violence. Dowler-Coltman’s performance as Liam is both poignant and disturbing; a big, sweet lug of a guy, Liam has a wide-eyed, child-like simplicity with a menacing underbelly. Bentley’s Helen is a heartbreaking, complex portrait of protective sister, and disheartened wife and mother; at her wit’s end over what to do about her pregnancy, and now her brother, there is ferocity and bite under all that heartbreak. Flemming’s performance of Danny’s journey is perhaps the most revealing; coming from a more privileged and sheltered class, Danny walks through the world with blinders on. The illusion of safety in his home broken, and his insular life disrupted forever, his eyes are opened over the course of this night—and he finds some darkness of his own.

With shouts to Black, who makes a brief appearance as Helen and Danny’s adorable, cuddly and sleepy son Shane.

What desperate acts will circumstance, fear and mistrust push everyday people to? Orphans reminds us that the monster we need to fear may be even closer than our own front door.

Family, class, denial and the monster within in the disturbing, revealing Orphans.

Orphans continues to April 30; drop by the Coal Mine Theatre website for ticket info or purchase tickets directly online. Advance booking strongly recommended—it’s a gripping show and an intimate venue with general seating. Please note the 7:30pm curtain time for evening performances.

Keep up with Coal Mine Theatre on Twitter and Facebook—and keep an eye out for their fourth season in 2017-18.

Fathers & sons on a journey of growth & forgiveness in the entertaining, deeply moving Métis Mutt

Native Earth Performing Arts continues its 2016-17 season of compelling Indigenous theatre with Sheldon Elter’s Métis Mutt, directed by Ron Jenkins, at Native Earth’s home in the Aki Studio.

Métis Mutt began as an eight-minute piece at NextFest 2001, inspired by teacher Ken Brown and the vocal masque style of solo show. Since then, it’s grown into a 90-minute feature, was a hit at Edmonton Fringe, subsequently adapted for high school audiences, and has toured Canada and New Zealand. The Native Earth production marks the show’s Toronto premiere.

A semi-autobiographical piece of storytelling that combines stand-up, music, monologue and multiple character vignettes, Métis Mutt is part memoir, part spirit journey. Searching for his authentic voice, a young Métis (have Indigenous, half white) man struggles with centuries-old cultural stereotypes and internalized racism as he finds his way out of a cycle of violence and self-destruction to healing and forgiveness.

Heartbreaking flashbacks to the young man’s childhood reveal a sweet boy torn between protecting his mother and younger brother, and running and hiding from his father’s drunken outbursts. A favourite of his father and thus escaping the beatings, he beats himself up for his failure to act and for being a coward. Later on, having moved away with his mother and brother, his conflicting feelings emerge in letters to his dad—love and fear, longing and confusion.

As a young man, he discovers a talent for stand-up and music, and finds chosen family on the road with his hypnotist performer friend Mark, and is later drawn to theatre school. And when years-old buried emotions erupt to the surface, he self-medicates with drugs and alcohol, and cuts himself, to numb the pain.

His thoughts turn often to his father, a troubled man who struggled with demons of his own only to find them emerging from the bottom of a bottle to turn on his family. And the death of his father becomes a turning point. Not wanting to go down that same road, the young man finds his way back to himself, finding self-awareness in his struggle for identity and self-acceptance, and forgiveness for his father.

An engaging and versatile performer, Elter deftly shifts from comedy to tragedy throughout—a hilarious and stark reminder that pain comes from laughter and laughter comes from pain. Setting the tone off the top of the show with a set of stand-up, what starts off as a good-natured, self-deprecating series of stereotypical riffs on “Indians” becomes a biting commentary on hundreds of years of oppression and racism as joking around turns to rage, and entertainment becomes condemnation. The pain is turned inside out so others can see and understand. The title Métis Mutt is both a source of laughter and pain, poking fun at identity even as it grieves the damage of racist name-calling.

From cheeky stand-up and bawdy music bits, to poignant characterizations and startling scenes of violence, Elter’s storytelling is genuine, thought-provoking and frank—finding the light and the dark spots, and ultimately unearthing hope and redemption.

With shouts to the design team: Tessa Stamp (set and lights; she’s also the production’s stage manager), T. Erin Gruber (projection) and Aaron Macri (sound). Design elements are particularly effective during the young man’s mystic healing experience, when he’s taken to a native healer after traditional medicine doesn’t help him. The semi-circle of stones that delineates the playing space, and the semi-circular dream catcher backdrop that serves as a projection screen, create a sacred space that both honours and evokes the young man’s Indigenous heritage.

Fathers and sons on a journey of growth and forgiveness in the entertaining, deeply moving Métis Mutt.

Get yourself out to the Aki Studio to see Métis Mutt, running to February 5; get your ticket info and online tix here.

Photos by Ryan Parker: Sheldon Elter

Sacred, profane & magical – blood variations & intimate, powerful storytelling in BloodClaat

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d’bi.young anitafrika as Mudgu in BloodClaat – photos by Dee Kofri

In celebration of the 10th anniversary of BloodClaat: The Sankofa Trilogy Part 1, The Watah Theatre is remounting d’bi.young anitafrika’s award-winning Sankofa Trilogy, starting with a run of BloodClaat to open its 2016-17 Blk Bx Season [calendar link] at its home in Toronto’s Distillery District at 9 Trinity Street, Studio 317.

The Sankofa Trilogy takes us on the journey of three generations of remarkable Jamaican womxn,* starting with Mudgu Sankofa in BloodClaat, collectively directed, with the guidance and support of spiritual mentor Raven Dauda. A solo show inspired by anitafrika’s lived experience as an incest survivor, BloodClaat is part autobiography, part mythology as we follow 15-year-old Mudgu’s coming of age.

Mudgu lives with her grandmother while her mother prepares a new life for them in Canada. An active, precocious young woman who talks a mile a minute, she excels at net ball and adores her boyfriend Johnny. Navigating her grandmother’s strict house rules, her school and personal life, and a rough neighbourhood known for violence, she is also coming to terms with being a woman – and that means dealing with her monthly menstrual cycle and the power to create life (which her grandmother forbids her to do). Her world changes forever when she goes to live with her aunt and uncle for a while, and an act of violence in her grandmother’s neighbourhood ends in death.

Woven into Mudgu’s story are mythological tales and parables of strength and ritual; in particular, one of a warrior princess who gives a rallying cry to her people to rise up for freedom from their white plantation masters.

The theme of blood is the common thread: a womxn’s monthly blood, with the power of giving life and even healing; blood that’s shed in violence and in sacrifice; and the blood of goddess and ritual. And we see different perspectives and points of view on menstrual blood: shame, derision, celebration, creation and powerful magical properties.

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d’bi.young anitafrika in BloodClaat

Anitafrika is a profoundly compelling and engaging storyteller; and the staging in The Watah Theatre’s studio space makes for an extremely intimate, immersive experience. Throughout the story, the audience becomes Mudgu’s neighbours, her fellow bus passengers and the warrior princess’s people.

Told with humour, candor and emotional punch – incorporating voice, movement and posture, with very little in the way of costume changes – BloodClaat features sharply defined characters, exquisitely drawn by anitafrika. From the delightfully energetic and innocent Mudgu, to her sharp-tonged, strict grandmother and kind, gentle mother; her smooth talking boyfriend with swagger Johnny; her distracted, pious church lady aunt and deep-voiced, possessive uncle; the stuttering bus driver; and the fierce and inspiring warrior princess. We are rapt as we find ourselves alternating between being a fly on the wall and part of Mudgu’s story.

As is anitafrika’s custom, each performance is followed by a moment to catch your breath, and an opportunity to share comments and ask questions. When asked about BloodClaat and The Sankofa Trilogy, anitafrika described the generational through line and how she wanted to remount the work in a more intimate setting. As The Watah’s 2016-17 season experiments with a black box theatre experience, what happens when there is minimal production in a room filled with energy? Is it possible to move through a (r)evolution without resources? Confronted with limited funding and support, the stories still need to be told. Story moves us to change regardless. The houses have been small, but the impact has been huge; up close and personal, something magical happens in that space. And perhaps it is only in such an intimate space that storytelling medicine and healing – and profound, surprising growth – can happen.

An interesting divergence from the original production, noted by one audience member in her comment, was that there’s now a scene of Mudgu washing herself, her bed sheets and nightie. Bypassed for 10 years, anitafrika realized she’d been avoiding this reality of the story. Mudgu wakes up with menstrual leakage and needs to clean up. Of course she does! And in these moments, Mudgu must hold herself – and it’s become one of anitafrika’s favourite scenes.

Asked a more general question about what she says “No” to, anitafrika is mindful of corporate sponsorship. It’s important to know where your funding is coming from and who you’re potentially partnering with. Despite its seeming naiveté, anitafrika believes there must be a way to live your ethics and values – and that may mean revising your definition of success. It’s not about becoming rich and famous; it’s about living with purpose in service of your community. And while it’s not a new idea, “meaning leads to joy.”

With shouts to the creative team for their beautiful work on this production: Rachel Forbes (set and costumes), Andrenne Finnikin (ass’t set design) and Brett Haynes (lighting/producer).

Sacred, profane and magical. Blood variations and intimate, powerful storytelling in BloodClaat: The Sankofa Trilogy Part 1.

BloodClaat continues at The Watah Theatre’s space (9 Trinity Street, Studio 317) till Nov 20; it’s an intimate space and a truly compelling show, and you can get your tix in advance. Please note the 7:00 p.m. start time for evening performances.

The Sankofa Trilogy continues with Parts 2 and 3, with stories of Mudgu’s daughter Sekesu and granddaughter Benu in Benu (Feb 15-Mar 5, 2017) and Word! Sound! Powah! (April 5-28, 2017); this in addition to other productions scheduled for the 2016-17 season. All shows will be performed at The Watah Theatre’s home.

You can keep up with The Watah Theatre on Twitter and Facebook.

Please consider supporting this unique and important theatre company by donating to The Watah Theatre’s Go Fund Me campaign.

* This spelling of “woman” is the preference of the playwright.

SummerWorks: Turnabout is fair play as women’s sex & violence fantasies take centre stage in Beautiful Man

BeautifulMan-400x320A puppet show within a play within a TV show within a movie. All very sexy. All very violent. All featuring powerful, strong women with beautiful men in the background.

Yep, you read that right. This is the multidimensional storytelling the audience experiences in Groundwater Production’s Beautiful Man, written by Erin Shields and directed by Groundwater co-Artistic Director Andrea Donaldson – now running at the Theatre Centre Mainspace as part of SummerWorks.

It all starts with three friends talking about a new cop movie featuring a female homicide detective on the hunt for a serial killer who’s preying on beautiful young men. After the cop’s nurse boyfriend gives up on their now cold anniversary dinner when she’s late getting home, she sits down to relax and watch TV: a sword and sorcery tale where women are the rulers and warriors, with men acting in the periphery as consorts or slaves. And so the nesting doll structure of storytelling begins – talking about the movie becomes a discussion about the TV show within the movie, then morphing into the play within the TV show and the puppet show within the play. Got it?

Fabulous work from the cast in this mercurial and visceral relating of each story, rife with detailed descriptions, sex and violence. Anusree Roy as the imperious and precise Sophie; Ava Markus as the playful and curious Pam; and Melissa D’Agostino as the straight-shooting, spunky Jennifer. All three women are passionate, assertive, sensual and deeply committed to these stories – so much so that they become fully immersed as they relate each gory, erotic detail. There’s a lot of penis talk. Like, a lot. And detailed too; this is a world where full frontal male nudity is commonplace, and erections (“semi” or full) aren’t just for porno any more. And most of the men seem to have sandy blond hair. Was someone thinking about Ryan Gosling? 😉

Oh, yeah, and Brett Donahue is the Beautiful Man. And he certainly is. Positioned in the background, upstage on a platform behind the three women, Donahue does a great job taking on the roles of each of the beautiful men in these stories – from the cop’s neglected boyfriend, to the queen’s consort, to a wounded soldier bound for his captor’s harem of men. You get the picture.

A reminder to never underestimate what turns women on – and that sex and violence have universal appeal. It’s very possible that the cop in that movie needs to be looking for a female serial killer. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that a bunch of unsolved real-life cases went cold because the cops weren’t looking for a female perpetrator.

With shouts to music and sound designer Richard Feren for the bang-on Game of Thrones-inspired soundtrack.

Turnabout is fair play as women, and their sex and violence fantasies, take centre stage in hilarious, insightful Beautiful Man.

Beautiful Man continues at the Theatre Centre Mainspace until Aug 16 – check here for the show’s full schedule. This is another very popular show, so advanced booking or early arrival at the box office is strongly recommended.

In the meantime, check out the teaser trailer:

Toronto Fringe: Hell hath no fury like these two women in Rarely Pure Theatre’s Valkyrie

valkyrie_.web_-250x250Rarely Pure Theatre has a reputation for producing dark, edgy and thought-provoking pieces – and its Toronto Fringe production of Thomas McKechnie’s Valkyrie, directed by Bruce Gooch, is no exception.

BFF gal pals Bradley (Monique Renaud) and Erin (Katie Ribout) have transformed themselves into knife-wielding, gun-toting, Krav Maga-practising avengers, Valkyries on the hunt to exact furious vengeance on faithless men who cheat on their wives. But their latest target (Spencer Robson) is markedly different from the others.

As the Valkyries, Renaud and Ribout are fierce and fearless, merciless in their violent pursuit of retribution. Renaud’s Bradley is like a pacing tigress waiting for the cage to be opened so she can gladly tear out the throat of her prey. Ribout’s Erin is the brains – the alpha, it turns out – of the operation, measured and calculating, and keeping her friend on a leash until it’s go time. Robson is devilishly charming, vulgar and dangerously seductive as their intended victim, whose presence has an unexpected effect.

In the face of such extreme violence – done in the name of justice, but really about personal empowerment – Valkyrie leaves questions:
Are the Valkyries in this play avenging angels or crazed pseudo-vigil antes?
Why does Erin agree to continue their project when it’s clear that Bradley could so easily lose her shit?
Does the punishment fit the crime?

Valkyrie is an intensely dark, raw and disturbing look at how far people will go to regain power and control over their lives.

Valkyrie continues at the Tarragon Extra Space until July 13 – check here for exact dates/times. I highly recommend purchasing your tix in advance, as last night’s show was jam-packed.