Sex, death, snakes & the healing power of flowers & family in Red Betty Theatre & the G Girls’ political, theatrical Ganga’s Ganja

We struggle in birth. We struggle in death.

I popped over to Geary Lane last night for Storefront Theatre’s presentation of Red Betty Theatre and the G Girls’ production of Radha S. Menon’s Ganga’s Ganja, directed by Jennie Esdale. Ganga’s Ganja headlines the Feminist Fuck It Festival (FFIF), a two-week curated festival of multidisciplinary women and non-binary-identifying artists presenting new, bold and entertaining works.

Set sometime in the not too distant future, sisters Mena (Pam Patel) and Ganga (Senjuti Aurora Sarker) have gone off the grid, living on a piece of land where Ganga grows and tends to medicinal marijuana to help ease Mena’s excruciating Multiple Sclerosis symptoms and give her some quality of life. Ever moving in and out of Mena’s consciousness is Kadru (Amanda DeFreitas), a black and gold snake that only Mena can see. Is Mena hallucinating or is Kadru her escort into the next life?

While Mena self-medicates with weed, deeply inhaling the smoke like oxygen, Ganga’s medicine is one-night stands that often keep her out all night, always returning to her caregiving in the morning. Mena is afraid of leaving Ganga alone, and Ganga is terrified of losing Mena. When their marijuana crop is stolen and they meet the fast-talking, charmer Nero (Jesse Horvath), a man with a shiny silver briefcase and a lot of ideas, the sisters’ world is turned upside down. In a world where non-prescription drugs have been criminalized, but big pharma is happy to use plants to create their products, who can they trust—and how will they find a way to let go of each other?

Political and theatrical, the themes of sex, death and alternative medicine combine with feminism, Hindu deities and sticking it to the man. Patel and Sarker have great chemistry as the sisters; and do a nice job layering their respective inner and outer conflicts. Patel’s Mena is cheerful and positive, despite her devastating diagnosis—this all masking her concern, which is more for her sister than for herself. Mena wants to die, to leave her suffering behind and start over in the next life, but she can’t bring herself to leave Ganga. As Ganga, Sarker is a combination of attentive caregiver and devil-may-care party girl; drowning her guilt and fear in random hook-ups, Ganga struggles with the harsh truth that Mena doesn’t have much time left. DeFreitas brings a sensual and fierce edge to Kadru; ever watchful and ever waiting, Kadru is not the menace she appears to be—and appears to represent the faith, tradition and ritual of the sisters’ Indian ancestors. Horvath’s Nero is the perfect picture of white, male entitlement; charming, mercurial and donning a bad boy rebel image, Nero is a 21st century snake oil salesman dealing in mainstream pharmaceuticals. He is the embodiment of Western right-wing conservative, corporate misogyny—all wrapped up in a pretty bleach blond, white linen package.

With shouts to the design team—Tony Sciara (set), Tula Tusox (costume) and Maddie Bautista (sound)—for their work in creating this evocative, otherworldly space that reflects both the South Asian culture of the sisters, and an intriguing environment that’s out of time and space.

Sex, death, snakes and the healing power of flowers and family in Red Betty Theatre and the G Girls’ political, theatrical Ganga’s Ganja.

Ganga’s Ganja continues at FFIF at Geary Lane (360 Geary Ave., Toronto) until April 22, every night (except Mondays) at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2:00 pm, followed by nightly programming at 9:00 pm and 10:30 pm. Get advanced tickets for Ganga’s Ganja online and check out the rest of the FFIF line-up.

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Three generations of women navigate life, love & those feelings “down there” in TIP’s hilarious, poignant, intimate Little Gem

Top to bottom: Rebecca De La Cour, Barbara Taylor & Billie Jean Shannon. Photo by Sean Walsh.

The Toronto Irish Players (TIP) opened their production of Elaine Murphy’s Little Gem, directed by Cliona Kenny, on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage to a packed house last night.

Drawing from the old tradition of the Gaelic storyteller (the Seanachai), Little Gem’s commentator device uses a Trinitarian approach—in this case, the story is told from the perspectives of three women: a granddaughter, a mother and grandmother from the same family.

Set in present-day Dublin, we open on Amber’s (Billie Jean Shannon) tale of the fateful night of her Debs (a city-wide high school prom), and the complex emotional dance of relationships with her boyfriend Paul and school teach-like bff Jo. Then, there’s her mother Lorraine (Rebecca De La Cour), a single mom, husband Ray long gone to who knows where, who works in a department store. She’s been forced to go on leave and see a shrink after she loses it on an extremely annoying and vindictive regular customer. And there’s Kay, Lorraine’s ma (Barbara Taylor), a breast cancer survivor and 24/7 caregiver to her husband Gem, struggling with an itch of her own.

Lovely, compelling—and endearingly comical—work from these three actors; each bringing her own brand of outspoken cheek, feistiness and strength to these characters. Shannon gives us a youthful, impetuous, and keen sense of social awareness and observation to Amber. Mouthy and full of teen sass and mortification, Amber’s a master at projecting an image of giving zero fucks, but there’s a tender, loving heart there that also longs to be loved. De La Cour brings a desperate housewife, poignant sense of resiliency to Lorraine. An anxious, exhausted member of the sandwich generation, Lorraine struggles to communicate with her distant teenage daughter, and worries about the well-being of her aging mother and seriously ill father; and she finds that she can’t stress clean away her own sense of loneliness and lack of a definitive life of her own. Taylor is a laugh riot and a force to be reckoned with as the family matriarch. Now in the winter years of life, there’s heat in that tired 60-something body yet—and Kay’s stubborn sense of resolve overcomes any sense of pride or shame as she actively, and at times hilariously, seeks solutions to her problems. Eschewing spoilers, I’ll have to leave it at that—and you’ll have to go see for yourself.

Life goes on for these three women; and unexpected events change the course of the day-to-day, forcing challenging decisions, personal growth, and acts of strength and courage. And, in the process, the lives of these three women—living separately together—are brought together into new and closer bonds of family and womanhood.

Nicely staged, on an effective and minimalist set featuring beautifully rendered charcoal family portraits (set by Bernadette Hunt and Sean Treacy), each character has her own playing area, with each storyteller staying within her own space until these inextricably intertwined lives gradually come closer together during the final scenes.

Three generations of women navigate life, love and those feelings “down there” in TIP’s hilarious, poignant, intimate Little Gem.

Little Gem continues on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage until March 3; advance tickets available online or by calling 416-440-2888. The Irish Players are an extremely popular local community company, so advance booking strongly recommended.

And no worries about thinking this is a “chick play,” the men were laughing as hard as the women. Having said that, it also struck me that, even though Mother’s Day is some months away, this is the perfect girls’ night out for women, their moms and grandmothers.

Women of wit & wisdom debate religion in the compelling, funny, thought-provoking Unholy

Nightwood Theatre continues its 2016-17 season of groundbreaking theatre with Diane Flacks’ Unholy, directed by Nightwood A.D. Kelly Thornton, opening at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre last night.

Given the upcoming presidential inauguration and the accompanying Women’s March events, as well as ongoing changing attitudes towards religion, its treatment of women and LGBTQ people, and its place in our world, Unholy is a timely piece. It asks the question: Should women abandon religion?

Inspired by the 1989 documentary Half the Kingdom, Unholy is set as a TV debate, with host/moderator Richard Morris (Blair Williams) and debate teams of two women. On the pro side of the question are atheist lesbian pundit Liz Feldman-Grant (Diane Flacks) and excommunicated nun Margaret Donaghue (Barbara Gordon); on the con side are Orthodox Jewish spiritual leader Yehudit Kalb (Niki Landau) and progressive Muslim lawyer Maryam Hashemi (Bahareh Yaraghi).

Each woman is allowed two minutes at the podium to present her argument, followed by discussion and debate. This is an unapologetic, gloves off affair as arguments cover religion’s culpability for violence against women, women’s physical separation from male congregants, the niqab, family, sex, LGBTQ and women’s reproductive rights, and justice for pedophile priests. It is a battle of scripture interpretation, points of religious and secular law, wit and conscience—conducted with sharp intelligence and humour.

Woven into the debate scenes are some revealing monologues and tender, intimate two-handers; through these, we get glimpses into the private lives of these four women. Liz rejected Judaism when her now deceased partner Stacey received a terminal diagnosis. Margaret, in her role as a nurse and administrator at a Catholic hospital, made a decision the Catholic Church couldn’t abide. The love of Yehudit’s life married someone else. Maryam found strength in family tragedy, and love and acceptance in her family’s new life in Canada. As private and public lives collide, and the debate heats up, of course all hell breaks loose.

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Diane Flacks & Barbara Gordon in Unholy – all photos by John Lauener

Flacks’ powerful script is matched by an equally strong cast that brings these fully drawn, complex women to life in this nicely staged, multi-media piece. As the atheist Liz, Flacks is a fierce, mercurial and determined debater; seeing the world of organized religion in black and white terms, Liz rejects the notion that religion can be a positive force in the world. Deeply wounded by the loss of her partner, out of her grief she became mad as hell at the state of organized religion and its impact on women—and chose her battle. Gordon brings a lovely, understated quietude to the soft-spoken ex-nun Margaret; beneath the surface, though, is a heart of strength, hope and courage. Not entirely convinced of her official debate argument, she is a disillusioned former soldier of the Catholic Church who disobeyed orders to follow her own conscience.

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Niki Landau & Bahareh Yaraghi in Unholy

As Yehudit, Landau is both comic and poignant; shifting from a willful young woman to dutiful adult, she serves her family and community with strength and stand-up comic good humour. Circumspect in her interpretations of her Orthodox Jewish faith, she sees room for growth and change; this includes space for women to play a significant leadership role. Yaraghi is sharp and passionate as Maryam, and an excellent foil for Flacks’ Liz. Like her debate partner Yehudit, Maryam is hopeful and believes in a progressive Islam as she strives to break the barriers of stereotype and ignorance in a post-9/11 world where extremists are continually making headlines.

Turnabout is fair play for the male moderator. As women are largely relegated to the sidelines in day-to-day life, especially religious life, it is he who stands off to the side as the studio is dominated by the four women. Williams does a nice job with the affable Morris; as the women take the podium, he rides the fine line of refereeing authentic discourse and the desire to create gripping television.

Each of the women is an archetype: the wounded Fighter, the Lover with a patched up heart, the heartbroken Mother and the haunted Healer. Although each is broken-hearted and struggling with a crisis of faith, each is passionate, strong, wise and loving as she strives to stay hopeful and work towards a better world.

Serious issues, but Unholy makes you laugh a lot—and it’s going to stay with you well after you leave the theatre. It may even change your mind.

Women of wit and wisdom debate religion in the compelling, funny, thought-provoking Unholy.

Due to popular demand, Unholy has extended its run at Buddies to February 5; you can book tix in advance online or by phone. The run also includes several scheduled talkbacks:

Friday, January 20 – Gretta Vosper: as an atheist and a minister with the United Church of Canada, Gretta’s self-proclaimed motto is “Irritating the church into the 21st century.” SOLD OUT

Monday, January 23* – Nightwood Theatre Young Innovator Michela Sisti hosts a panel discussion about women in religion as part of Brave New Theatre’s response to Unholy. Joining her will be playwright Diane Flacks, Raheel Raza (journalist and inter-faith consultant) and Andrea Budgey (Humphrys Chaplain, freelance writer and environmental activist).

*Please note: there are no performances of Unholy on Mondays. For more information on Brave New Theatre, please visit their Facebook page.

Wednesday, January 25 – Stay post-show for a Q & A with the stellar cast members of Unholy.

Friday, January 27 – Lynn Harrison: a Reverend with First Toronto Unitarian, an interfaith, non-denominational congregation with its roots in social justice and inclusion.

Thursday, February 2 – Due to popular demand, atheist minister Gretta Vosper will return to share her insights on women in religion and inclusive atheism.

You can keep up with Nightwood Theatre on Twitter and Facebook. In the meantime, check out the trailer for Unholy:

Shattering the silence with candor, rage & humour in the powerful, political, personal SILENCED

silenced

HERstory Counts introduced itself with a production of brave, poignant monologues written and performed by a diverse group of womyn* back in April at Red Sandcastle Theatre, promising that it was just the beginning. Now, HERstory Counts is back with its official inaugural production of SILENCED, opening last night to a packed house at Red Sandcastle Theatre.

Created in a collaborative village of diverse womyn, SILENCED is directed by HERstory Counts Founder, Co-Artistic producer and Co-Artistic Director Jennifer Neales, with dramaturgy by Evangelia Kambites and coaching/mentorship by Ordena Stephens-Thompson.

In SILENCED, seven womyn share deeply personal, formative moments in their lives. Each short autobiographical story shifts seamlessly into the next as the staging weaves the individual stories with participation from the entire cast, acting as family, friends, lovers—and even on occasion a chorus of internal and external voices of support and derision.

Growing up Irish Catholic, Shannon Murphy as she finds herself attracted to women, starting with a primary school teacher. Muzzled by playground teasing and her father’s repulsion of all things LGBTQ, she struggles with her emotions and desires. Playful, honest and tender, Murphy shares how she broke out of the shame and silence, choosing to be true to herself and come out as a lesbian.

A Nigerian immigrant to Canada growing up black and in poverty, Ruby Ajilore lives in a loving home with her devout, watchful mother and hard-working, jovial father. Quickly learning that she is judged by the colour of her skin, as well as class and even her hair cut, she gradually turns her search for identity inward. Fierce, funny and thoughtful, Ruby reminds us all that it’s what’s inside that truly counts.

Part Ojibwe, part South Asian, Yolanda Bonnell and her family experienced verbal and physical abuse at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend. As the years pass, she finds she must choose between her family and her own peace of mind. This lived experience has far-reaching impact—even long after being out of that environment, she is haunted by ongoing nightmares of the abuse. Told with frankness and an adorably contagious sense of humour (the juice!), this is the story of a survivor with a strong will and a gentle soul.

No matter how hard or long she studied and prepared for tests at school, Laura Meadows was failing miserably. Stigmatized by labels of “retarded” and “slow,” she finally learns what’s amiss when her mother connects with a teacher who knows better. Laura has dyslexia, and a magic pair of glasses gives her the power of reading. Her elation is deflated when she learns that it’s a genetic condition. Meadows gives a determined, plucky performance; glimpsing a possible future in which she will share the magic of her special coloured glasses with her child.

Excited to explore sexuality in a respectful, consensual way as a young adult, Risha Nanda finds the experience impossibly painful. Diagnosed with vaginismus, she hearkens back to her teenage years, when her good girl reputation came under fire after a washroom encounter with a boy from another school turned her into a target for slut shaming. Told with frankness and a deep awareness of high school social dynamics, Nanda reveals her journey of self-discovery and acceptance; good girls can have good sex too.

When Eilleen Posadas finds her family life resembling that of a beloved Filipino telenovela, the real-life impact of an abusive father with shady basement dealings and the questionable actions of a neighbourhood playmate is far from entertaining. What is her father doing down there? And what was that boy doing on top of her while they were hiding during a game of hide and seek? Cheeky, engaging and poignant, Posadas’s story is one of eye-opening revelations and a strong will to carry on through disillusionment and adversity.

As a middle-aged, educated white woman, Denise Norman recognizes her privilege. As a child, community racism forced her apart from her black kindergarten BFF; realizing the reason as she witnessed with horror the events that unfolded following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Acknowledging the injustice that remains today, she is a fighter, advocate and ally calling out issues that must still be addressed. Personal and political, she shares her story with a tender fierceness that brings tears of laughter and pathos.

Each is a brave piece of storytelling, combining a sense of rage and fragility. And each womyn endures and struggles to find her voice—and each shouts out her experience loud and proud.

Shattering the silence with first-person storytelling candor, rage and humour in the powerful, political, personal SILENCED.

With shouts to the production’s behind-the-scenes support from SM Caitlin Cooke and Assistant SM Maya Findlay for keeping it all running smoothly, and Social Media Coordinator Shayna Virginillo for shouting it out.

SILENCED has four more performances at Red Sandcastle: Dec 9 and 10 at 7:30pm, and Dec 11 at 2:30pm and 7:30pm; advance tickets available online. It’s an intimate venue and a popular production, so advance booking is strongly recommended. Please note the early start time for evening performances.

Keep an eye out for future productions. This is the beginning of some powerful womyn-fueled storytelling. You can follow HERstory Counts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Check out the Cast page for complete cast bios and a SILENCED trailer video.

*This is the company’s preferred spelling.

Tantalizing treats & 2016-17 season sneak peeks @ Nightwood Theatre Dramatic Spring Social

It was a fabulous night of tantalizing treats and 2016-17 sneak peeks in very good company as Nightwood Theatre gave invited guests a sneak peek at its 2016-17 season at a Dramatic Spring Social, held at the home of Nightwood Board Chair Karon Bales on Wednesday night. The evening’s festivities included delicious food and drink, with wine supplied by GreenLane Estate Winery, and food from Sublime Catering and Beacon Restaurant Concepts.

kelly & beth
A.D. Kelly Thornton & Managing Director Beth Brown – photos by Taylor Trowbridge

Host Karon Bales welcomed us to her home, thanking us for our attendance as she highlighted the importance of theatre and the arts, and our shared dedication to the advancement of women. Nightwood A.D. Kelly Thornton and Managing Director Beth Brown echoed the importance of equity in the arts, hearkening back to the founding of Nightwood in 1979 – and shouting out founder Cynthia Grant, who was present – and its dedication to producing “relevant, dynamic and powerful theatre.” And that the low proportion of produced works written by women (22%) is evidence that, even in 2016, there is still a need for a women’s theatre.

We were then treated to excerpts from three of the four productions from Nightwood’s upcoming 2016-17 season:

Mouthpiece (Oct 21 – Nov 6, 2016 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre). A Dora award-winning Quote Unquote Collective production; created and performed by Norah Sadava and Amy Nostbakken, and directed/composed by Amy Nostbakken. Presented as a double bill with Quiver.

Amy Nostbakken & Norah Sadava
Amy Nostbakken & Norah Sadava

Gorgeous, fluid a cappella harmonies, unison spoken word and expressive movements make this an engaging and evocative piece. Performing an excerpt from the second half of the play, Sadava and Nostbakken portray two sides of a character whose mother has died. Shifting from the hauntingly beautiful a cappella harmonies of a roots spiritual to the unison voice message from the woman’s aunt, the audience is both moved and tickled as this young woman deals with conflicting emotions, inner turmoil and a funeral fashion crisis. I missed the RISER Project production last year – and will be sure to see it this time around.

Anna Chatterton
Anna Chatterton

Quiver (Oct 21 – Nov 6, 2016 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre). Written and performed by Anna Chatterton, directed by Andrea Donaldson. Presented as a double bill with Mouthpiece.

Chatterton incorporates a vocal processor, laptop and microphone to create atmospheric and vocal effects to orchestrate this multi-character one-person show. In the excerpt, 14-year-old Maddie observes the world around her, particularly her mother’s bad romance with boyfriend Daniel, who turns out to be cheating on her. This revelation is exacerbated further when her teenage sister tells them the one he’s cheating with! Funny, dramatic and quirky, it’s a remarkable and engaging piece of solo storytelling.

Unholy (Jan 15 – Feb 5, 2017 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre). Written by Diane Flacks, directed by Kelly Thornton.

Niki Landau
Niki Landau

Set as a live, televised debate, four women argue the question: “Should women abandon religion?” The play weaves flashbacks with debate moments, where each woman’s personal life is revealed (showing us what’s not being said). In the excerpt, Niki Landau performed a flashback: a hilarious drunken Jewish wedding toast from the sister of the bride that turns into confession and accusations of favouritism.

Century Song (April 12 – 29, 2017 at Crow’s Theatre). A Volcano Theatre production; created by Neema Bickersteth, with Kate Alton and Ross Manson, directed by Ross Manson and performed by Neema Bickersteth.

Inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, Century Song combines song, movement and projected images to create a feast for the senses as the storytelling takes the audience on a stunning journey of 100 years of women and art.

With thanks to Nightwood’s Marketing Coordinator Taylor Trowbridge for the photos and Development Coordinator Victoria Leberge for the invite.

Coming up soon for Nightwood: The annual Lawyer Show fundraiser; this year, it’s Guys and Dolls (June 9-11 at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts). Also, coming up: the Creativity Gym; contact Michelle Alexander for info.

Can’t make it to The Lawyer Show, but want to support Nightwood? Consider making a donation.

You can keep up with Nightwood Theatre on Twitter and Facebook.

 

 

Two women’s memoirs of wartime resilience & survival in powerful, poetic Double Bill: Licking Knives & Man to Man

Headstrong Collective opened its Double Bill of one-person plays – Licking Knives and Man to Man – at Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Backspace this week. Using minimalist sets and eye-catching, at times startling, images projected on the upstage wall, these two well-matched plays are portraits of women forced into life-changing, life and death circumstances during WWII where each must live like a chameleon in order to survive.

“Ukrainian people are convinced that everything will turn out shit because it always has. And they are always right.” – Licking Knives

Licking Knives
Melanie Hrymak in Licking Knives – photo by Nathan Kelly

Licking Knives – written and performed by Melanie Hrymak. Amidst the metropolitan hustle and bustle of post-war Paris (the tone set with projected images of Paris and the sounds of the city), a well-dressed, elegant woman silently enters, finds a table on a café patio, and removes her hat, gloves and coat. And tells us her story. Gradually, her accent changes as she takes us into the past. Once upon a time, she was a Ukrainian farm girl, one of six children who worked hard to help the family plant its annual wheat crop – wheat that was now being commandeered by the army. A small misfit in the family, she dreamed of going elsewhere, but never could have expected what would happen next. Torn from her home to work in a Nazi labour camp, she goes from housemaid to tunnel worker, the tunnel ultimately saving her when the Allies take the camp. Her old life gone, she travels to Paris with her newfound freedom, where her life becomes fluid and changeable. Ukrainian, Polish, German, French. Becoming someone else. Changing herself to forget.

Hrymak’s performance is frank, dark and wryly funny. In this woman’s shoes, she pulls no punches about the details of the experience and what she must do to survive; the tone is hard and vulnerable at the same time, refined and coarse, carefree and pensive. In the end, this woman has most effectively erased the girl she once was – but it’s clear that that Ukrainian farm girl still lives underneath.

“I, my own widow, my late lamented husband, had to be man enough to wear the fucking trousers.” – Man to Man

Man to Man
Lisa Karen Cox in Man to Man – photo by Nathan Kelly

Man to Man – written by Manfred Karge, translated by Anthony Vivis, and directed by Kelli Fox, assisted by Leslie McBay, and performed by Lisa Karen Cox. Set in Germany during the Nazi’s rise to power, when her husband’s poor health and subsequent death threaten her very survival, Ella Gericke becomes her dead husband Max and takes over his job as a crane operator. But her new identity eventually becomes problematic as the Nazis want soldiers to grow their army – and Ella/Max must come up with a new plan to stay alive. The language is both romantic and profane as the storytelling shifts back and forth between fanciful fairytale and harsh reality.

Cox gives a strong, grounded performance; and she does a remarkable job of shifting between characters, playing multiple roles – male and female, and female to male – coquettish, demure, bawdy, aggressive. As Ella morphing into Max, Cox is ballsy and go-to. She relishes her successful transformation in learning and executing Max’s job, then dreads interactions with co-workers, who want to drink, gamble and womanize after hours – afraid of being found out, but enjoying this new experience of the world. Switching back and forth between masculine and feminine versions of herself, Ella intends on becoming a woman again, but the timing never seems right and she always finds herself returning to her Max persona. In becoming her own prince come to save her, she will never be the same person again.

Along with the shape-shifting survival qualities of the women in these two plays, like Edith Piaf in her famous rendition of “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien,” these women regret nothing.

With shouts to the design team: Karyn McCallum (set and projection for both plays, and also costume for Man to Man), Rebecca Picherack (lighting), Tessa Springate (sound for Licking Knives), and Matthew Lawrence and Tom Perry (sound for Man to Man).

Two women’s memoirs of wartime resilience and survival in powerful, poetic Headstrong Collective Double Bill of Licking Knives and Man to Man.

Headstong Collective’s Double Bill of Licking Knives and Man to Man continues at the TPM Backspace until Dec 20. Check here for dates/times and advance tickets; you can also reserve by phone at 416-504-7529 or get tickets in person at Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson Ave).