Power, politics & poison in the wickedly funny, sexy, irreverent Bella Donna

Françoise Balthazar, Paul Hopkins & Chelsea Russell. Photo by Tanja-Tiziana.

 

The Bella Donna Artists Collective opened a new, revised production of David Copelin’s Bella Donna, directed by Anita La Selva, to a sold out house at the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace last night. Examining the political intrigue during the latter part of Lucrezia Borgia’s life through a 21st century lens, the wicked funny, sexy and irreverent script features all the salacious intrigue and backroom power plays one would expect—focusing on how she, and other women of the day, wielded political and sexual power despite social, legal and religious limitations.

Like her father Rodrigo (Pope Alexander VI) before her, Lucrezia (Françoise Balthazar) is the subject of grudging select fear and respect, as well as derision and vicious gossip. She’s onto her third husband, Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrera (Paul Hopkins), who has taken his ward and goddaughter Contessa Angela Di Ghilini (Chelsea Russell) as his mistress. As with all of her marriages, this union was arranged by her father for political gain—in this case, d’Este’s army—and Lucrezia is aware of, and disinterested in, her husband’s extramarital dalliances.

When Alfonso receives word from Rome that Pope Julius II has excommunicated them, and by association all of Ferrera, over allegations of immoral and criminal acts (see rumours about Lucrezia), the house is thrown into a tizzy, prompting Lucrezia to travel to Rome to try to reverse the decision. It is there that she meets Giovanni (Dewey Stewart), a handsome young captain in the Pope’s elite guard. Both in disguise for a masked ball when they meet, Giovanni—who loathes the Borgias, out of duty to the current Pope and based on rumour—doesn’t believe she is who she says she is and the two embark on an affair. We also meet Lucrezia’s friend and confidante Sister Bibiana (Martha Chaves), who acts as an informant for Lucrezia and Alfonso.

Giovanni, on the heels of Lucrezia after she slips away from Rome, is captured and beaten by Alfonso’s henchman Carlo (Michael Giordano); Alfonso has learned of Lucrezia’s tryst with the young captain, and forces her to choose between throat slitting or poison for his execution. An expert with poison and antidotes, she chooses the latter, a decision that offers Giovanni not only the opportunity to live another day, but to meet the lovely young Angela. Like Giovanni, Angela’s derision of Lucrezia melts when she gets to actually know her—and she gets a quick tutorial on Lucrezia’s signature poison, the titular belladonna (deadly nightshade), mixed with snake venom, from Sister Bibiana.

Of course, since we’re talking about the Borgias and the cut-throat politics of that time and place, someone does die and there’s a question about the lineage of someone else—and you’ll have to go see for yourself to find out who. Death, sex, alliances and even devotion to the Catholic Church all hinge on expediency, convenience and political advantage; vengeance is swift and sure, and life such as it is carries on in spite of it all.  Oh—and there’s puppets!

Balthazar gives a stellar performance as the sultry, cunning Lucrezia—a role that seems tailor-made for her, as it showcases her compelling presence and vocal strength. Although technically lower in rank than her husband, Lucrezia is Alfonso’s match in every way: politically savvy, highly intelligent and possessing of an unabashed sexual appetite. Where the two diverge is apparent in Alfonso’s pompous, cruel sense of entitlement, which Hopkins executes with charming yet vicious precision.

Russell is highly entertaining as the bored little rich girl Angela, whose shade-casting ways turn to respect when she actually gets to know Lucrezia; also shouts to her for the puppet show, a hilariously irreverent Punch and Judy-like faceoff between Pope Alexander VI and Pope Julius II (design and construction by Jan Venus). Stewart is a delight as the brash, lusty Giovanni; a one-time true believer of Lucrezia’s rumoured unsavoury reputation, he too becomes a convert when he gets to know her, both biblically and otherwise. Chaves is a treat as the impish, wily Sister Bibiana; like Lucrezia, there’s more than meets the eye to this little nun—and you don’t want to get on the wrong side of those expert snake-handling hands. And Giordano’s strong, mostly silent henchman Carlo adds a gangland-flavoured comic edge.

Poison is often dismissed, mainly by men, as a “woman’s weapon.” But as we see from Sister Bibiana’s chemistry lesson and Lucrezia Borgia’s mastery of it—it involves science, skill and subtlety. And while the use of a plant to kill is perhaps a more velvet glove approach compared to the brute force of cold steel, it gets the job done. After all, one must use what weapons one has at one’s disposal. Underestimate the power of such weapons, and those who wield them, at your peril. Misunderstood, maligned and underestimated, Lucrezia Borgia is a survivor turned thriver, evolving from political bargaining chip to political force in her own right. Just don’t tell the men that.

Bella Donna continues in the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace until June 1; performances run Tues-Sat at 8 pm, with matinées on Sundays at 2:30 pm. Get advance tickets online or at the door (PWYC rush tickets available on Tuesdays and Sundays).

 

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Women’s stories across the ages in the sharp-witted, illuminating & timely Top Girls

Jordi O’Dael (Gret), Jennifer Fahy (Patient Griselda), Charlotte Ferrarei (Pope Joan), Alison Dowling (Marlene), Lisa Lenihan (Isabella Bird), Tea Nguyen (Lady Nijo). Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Bec Brownstone. Lighting design by Jay Hines. Projection design by Madison Madhu. Photo by Bruce Peters.

 

Alumnae Theatre Company opened its timely, updated production of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls last night, directed by Alysa Golden, assisted by DJ Elektra. Sharp-witted, illuminating and theatrical, Top Girls is a both an observation and commentary of women’s lived experiences across the ages. Written in 1982 and given a contemporary framing in this production, it’s both funny and sad how little has changed for women in terms of opportunity, oppression, and the expectations of the spaces they occupy and the roles they play—a timely undertaking in the age of #MeToo and #timesup.

We open on a fantasy dinner party, hosted by Marlene (Alison Dowling), who is celebrating her promotion at the Top Girls employment agency. Her guests include the fastidious Victorian world traveller Isabella Bird (Lisa Lenihan); 13th century Japanese concubine and material girl Lady Nijo (Tea Nguyen); Gret, the coarse, lusty subject of Breughel painting “Dulle Griet” (Jordi O’Dael); the esoteric, philosophical Pope Joan (Charlotte Ferrarei); and the unquestioningly obedient Griselda, from Chaucer’s “The Clerk’s Tale” (Jennifer Fahy). The women share stories of love, marriage, motherhood, travel, oppression and hardship as they eat, drink and descend into drunken stupor.

Shifting into present day, we meet Marlene’s niece Angie (Rebekah Reuben), who lives in the country with her mother, Marlene’s sister Joyce (Nyiri Karakas), and spends most of her time with best friend Kit (Naomi Koven), who is several years younger. More than just a handful of a teenager, Angie is troubled, young for her age, and adrift in her life; mistrusting and disrespecting of her mother, she dreams of getting away and learning the truth about herself.

We get a glimpse of the Top Girls employment agency, populated by female recruiters, the office abuzz with Marlene’s upcoming move to her own office and greater things. Not everyone is thrilled, however, and a male colleague’s wife Mrs. Kidd (Lenihan) pays a visit to protest his being passed over. Marlene’s colleagues Win (Claire Keating) and Nell (Grace Thompson) interview prospective recruits— including a couple of ambitious, vague 20-somethings (April Rebecca) and an overlooked, undervalued 40-something (Peta Mary Bailey). Angie arrives on the scene, having gone AWOL from home and inviting herself to stay at Marlene’s.

Jumping a year into the past, Marlene visits Joyce and Angie—tricked by Angie with an invitation that supposedly came from Joyce. The family dynamic of estrangement between the estranged sisters comes into focus, as does a life-changing family secret.

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Naomi Koven (Kit), Nyiri Karakas (Joyce). Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Bec Brownstone. Lighting design by Jay Hines. Projection design by Madison Madhu. Photo by Bruce Peters.

Lovely work all around from this considerable, all-female cast, with several actors playing multiple characters. Stand-outs include Dowling as the sharp, bold and unapologetic Marlene, who’s executed some major shifts in her life to get where she is, in spite of the naysaying and resentment from family and male colleagues. Reuben is both exasperating and poignant as the immature, lost Angie; like her mother, we come to worry for her future—she can’t hide out and play in the backyard with her little friend Kit (played with sweet, wise child energy by Koven) forever. Karakas brings a home-spun rural edge to the gruff, worn-out Joyce; unlike Marlene, who couldn’t get out of town fast enough, Joyce stayed in their hometown to raise Angie.

Keating and Thompson make a great pair as the gossipy, snippy and ambitious Top Girls recruiters, interviewing their respective prospects with the impervious attitude of entitled gate keepers. And O’Dael brings both great comedy and drama as Gret, with her hearty appetite, lust for life and hair-raising tale of her campaign against the demons of Hell.

Golden’s theatrical, multimedia staging is both technically effective and dramatically compelling, as scenes shift from fantasy to reality, and present to past—Teodoro Dragonieri’s set largely constructed from doors, an apt image for the production. Scene changes feature a spritely young Dancer (a confident, mischievous and willowy Estella Haensel); and Viv Moore’s elegant, expressive choreography is playfully and tenderly accompanied by Richard Campbell’s sound design. Projected backgrounds (projection design by Madison Madhu) mark the change of space and passage of time, form urban to rural, and light to dark.

While the lives, times and stories of these women vary dramatically, crossing a broad range of lived experience, the themes of class, female identity and male entitlement emerge as common threads. The more things change, the more they stay the same. It is comic in its tragedy that, in 2019, half of the world’s population is still held back, to varying—and sometimes violent and criminal—degrees, from achieving its full potential. On the upside, we see these women persevere and push back—breaking rules and shattering expectations to thrive and live their dreams.

Top Girls continues this weekend on the Alumnae mainstage until February 2; get tickets online, by calling 416-364-4170 (ext. 1) or in-person at the box office one hour before curtain time (cash only).

The run includes a pre-show Panel “Women, Power and Success in the Age of Me Too” on January 24 at 6:30 pm; and a post-show talkback with the director and cast on January 27.

Check out the trailer by Nicholas Porteous:

 

Department of corrections: The original post misnamed the lighting designer as Jan Hines in the two photo credits; it’s actually Jay Hines. This has been corrected.

Sharply funny, moving, candid looks at LGBTQ lives in 7th annual Gay Play Day

Gay Play Dayan annual festival of short, new plays written by LGBTQ playwrights and their allies—returns to the Alumnae Theatre Studio for two days only. This is the 7th year of the fest for founding AD Darren Stewart-Jones and the GPD team, which this year includes technical director Johnny Salib and Henry Keeler on front of house. The 2018 edition includes two programs, each featuring four short plays: the Lavender Show and the Pink Show. I caught both at opening night last night; here they are, in order of appearance.

THE PINK SHOW (approx. 75 minutes)

Fade to Black. Written/directed by Darren Stewart-Jones. Old Hollywood meets 21st century fandom when aging former Hollywood icon Bedelia Blake (Nonnie Griffin) finds an unexpected #1 fan when she meets Jamie (Nathaniel Bacon), a young gay man volunteering for Meals on Wheels. Largely secluded from the world for some time, Bedelia finds renewed public interest in her life and career as that first meeting evolves into friendship. Also featuring Philip Cairns as Mr. Johnson. Tender and nostalgic; featuring lovely, layered performances from Griffin and Bacon, as Bedelia and Jamie open up and feel at home enough to be their true selves with each other.

Labels. Written/directed by Erika Reesor. Lesbian couple Danny (Leigh Patterson) and Mia (Emily Schooley) live with Danny’s mom and are preparing for her birthday. Already stressed about the situation, when Mia finds a prescription for testosterone in Danny’s jeans, Danny has some serious explaining to do—sparking a series of confessions and revelations about their relationship and beliefs about gender. A funny, poignant and real two-hander; with grounded, engaging performances.

Diamonds on Plastic. Written/directed by Philip Cairns. Doris (Margaret Lamarre), a straight married spitfire of a southern lady of a certain age confides in us about her love of shopping and all things that sparkle—and goes on to open up about a blossoming affair with a childhood friend, also a straight married woman. Confessions of a shopaholic who adores jewels, shoes and surprisingly more; and a hilarious and entertaining performance from Lamarre, who also gives an LOL turn as Doris’s husband.

Point and Click. Written/directed by Steven Elliott Jackson; stage manager/producer Winston Stilwell. Gossiping away on his cellphone, the arrogant, catty photographer Andre (Adam Bonney) talks trash about friends and colleagues while waiting for a male model to arrive at his studio, virtually ignoring Shannon’s (Jim Armstrong) arrival. A sharply funny look at the perceptions of beauty, with schooling on fat shaming and body image; nicely paired casting, with spot on comic timing from Armstrong.

THE LAVENDER SHOW (approx. 65 minutes)

I’ve Just Seen a Face. Written/directed by Kris Davis. Charlie (Sav Binder) and their friend Mel (Chantel Marostica) attend a queer date/games night, hosted by Sage (Kasden Leo Indigo). While Mel gets to know Sage, Charlie has a near miss with Annie (Rose Tuong), but finds an opportunity for a meet cute at the Knit Café, where Annie works and teaches knitting workshops. Charlie is smitten, but how do they tell Annie that they have facial blindness? A sweet queer rom-com vibe; with hilarious, entertaining performances—particularly Marostica’s cynical, edgy comic Mel, and Binder’s adorkably awkward romantic Charlie.

Missed Connections. Written/performed by Mark Keller; directed by Nick May. Single and alone for the past two years after a break-up, a 30-something gay man surfs the Internet for missed connections, in desperate hopes that someone’s noticed him. Beginning to question his own sanity, he reminisces about his past love as he tries to find the courage to find a new one. Full of LOLs and deeply poignant moments that resonate with any lonely soul who’s had their heart broken.

The End is the Beginning. Written by Tina McCulloch; directed by Josh Downing. The relationship dynamics between Elena (Devon Hubka), Vivian (McCulloch) and LeeAnne (Kelly-Marie Murtha) play out in reverse in this brief, dramatic, time-shifting look at the nature of love and alternatives to traditional monogamy. A candid, deconstructed look at coupling in the face of an ongoing relationship; nicely present, intimate work from the cast.

Coming Clean. Written/performed by Laura Piccinin. Part stand-up, part personal storytelling, Piccinin stands behind a mic and tells us her coming out stories (yes, there’s more than one). Sharply observed, tightly delivered—and finding laughter in the pain—for an entertaining and insightful, out and proud ride.

Missed last night? No worries! Gay Play Day runs for two days, continuing today (Saturday, September 8) up in the Alumnae Theatre Studio: the Lavender Show at 3pm and 7pm; the Pink Show at 5pm and 9pm. Get advance tickets online or at the door (cash only).

And keep up with all things Gay Play Day on Facebook and Twitter.

Preview: A friend in need in Cue6’s powerful, intimate, intense Dry Land

Mattie Driscoll. Photo by Samantha Hurley.

 

Funny how it’s easier to share a secret with someone you barely know—and ask them to help you execute a critical decision. Dora award-winning Cue6—who brought us pool (no water)—presents an intimate and intense Toronto premiere of Ruby Rae Spiegel’s Dry Land. Directed by Jill Harper, this powerful and timely story of female friendship, abortion and perseverance previewed to a packed house at The Assembly Theatre last night and opens tonight.

Set primarily in the girls’ locker room of a Florida high school, we witness the evolution of the relationship between swim teammates Amy (Veronica Hortiguela) and new girl Ester (Mattie Driscoll). Both grappling with issues of sexuality, identity and the future, the tough-talking, sexually experienced, popular Amy and the introspective, naïve, socially awkward Ester are an unlikely pairing, to say the least. But Amy can’t bring herself to tell her mother or even her BFF Reba (Reanne Spitzer) about her unwanted pregnancy, so she turns to the new girl for help. Meanwhile, Ester is facing the pressures of being scouted by a university swim team—and dealing with her own desires and demons as she makes decisions about her future.

The stakes go up with each strategy Amy concocts, with Ester acting as a sounding board, personal assistant and devil’s advocate. Compelling, layered performances from both Driscoll and Hortiguela in this odd couple friendship. Driscoll rounds out the mousy Ester with hidden reserves of strength, determination and chutzpah; and Hortiguela deftly navigates the conflicted Amy, who masks her profound sense of vulnerability with cruelty and a “slut” image. Amy pushes Ester away when things get too real, too close—and only in the end does Amy realize how much she cherishes the relationship.

dry land 2
Mattie Driscoll, Reanne Spitzer & Veronica Hortiguela.

Spitzer gives us a great comedic turn as Reba; a bubbly, irreverent and sharply observant gossip queen, Reba’s presence adds some much needed comic relief. The two male characters—university student Victor (played with likeable, awkward affability by Jonas Trottier), the son of a friend of Ester’s mother who hosts her during her university try-out, and the high school Janitor (Tim Walker, in a nicely understated, protectively watchful and largely silent role)—are secondary witnesses and assistants to the events that unfold. Amy and Ester are in the driver’s seat for their actions and the trajectory of their future—and the tight friendship that unfolds between them proves that old proverb “a friend in need is a friend indeed.”

With women’s reproductive rights constantly being challenged south of the border; and the sex ed curriculum here in Ontario being knocked back into the previous century, Dry Land is a candid, timely look at some serious feminist issues—particularly those facing women in their teens.

Dry Land continues at The Assembly Theatre until September 22; get advance tickets online or at the door (cash or credit card).

In partnership with Planned Parenthood Toronto, Cue6 will be presenting two post-performance talkbacks on September 13 and 20 to discuss the play and how it relates to sexual health challenges faced by youth in our current climate.

 

Reclamation & salvation—stories of Black women’s lives told with candor, sass & humour in powerful, theatrical for colored girls

Karen Glave, d’bi.young anitafrika, Ordena Stephens-Thompson, Akosua Amo-Adem, Evangelia Kambites, Tamara Brown & SATE in for colored girls—photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

 

Soulpepper opened its production of Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have committed suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, directed by Djanet Sears with assistance from Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, to a packed house and a triple curtain call standing ovation at the Young Centre last night.

From the innocent, playful childhood world of hopscotch and double dutch in the playground, to sexual awakening and the discovery of sensual power in young adulthood, to the harsh realities and challenges of life as a Black woman, for colored girls is poetry and politics in motion. Incorporating spoken word, a cappella vocals, dance and storytelling, the excellent ensemble creates scenes, moments and soundscapes. The result is startling, theatrical, hilarious and heartbreaking.

Kudos to the ensemble: Akosua Amo-Adem, d’bi.young anitafrika, Tamara Brown, Karen Glave, Evangelia Kambites, SATE and Ordena Stephens-Thompson. With choreography by Jasmyn Fyffe and Vivine Scarlett, and music composition and arrangement by Suba Sankaran, the cast deftly weaves the stories of these women with honesty, courage and emotional impact—commanding the stage as they engage, entertain and wake us.

Brown’s opening dance is magical and elemental. Glave takes us back to the excitement and anticipation of graduation day with a tale of young love in the back seat. SATE takes charge and takes us out dancing; a woman enjoying the music and the power of her own body in motion. Stephens-Thompson regales us with a poetic, sensual account of woman (Kambites) who attracts with the mystery and allure of an Egyptian goddess. Amo-Adem takes us to church with a proclamation of what belongs to her, coupled with an order to get back what’s been stolen. And anitafrika breaks our hearts as a mother struggling to protect her children.

Highlighting the lived experiences of public and private selves—the public strength and confidence that protect the private vulnerability and fear—from hope and joy to loss and despair, for colored girls is a celebration of Black women finding their voices.

Reclamation and salvation—stories of Black women’s lives told with candor, sass and humour in the powerful, theatrical for colored girls.

for colored girls continues in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre; get your advance tix online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.

In the meantime, check out the for colored girls teaser:

 

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.

SummerWorks: Debating feminism & privilege in provocative, sharply funny Don’t Talk to Me Like I’m Your Wife

DontTalktoMeLikeImYourWife-400x530

Traitorous whore spy? Feminist? Sexually liberated opportunist?

The gloriously notorious Mata Hari gets look through 21st century eyes in Call Me Scotty Production’s premiere of Andrea Scott’s Don’t Talk to Me Like I’m Your Wife, directed by Andrew Lamb and opening last night in the Theatre Centre Mainspace as part of this year’s SummerWorks program.

Shifting back and forth between Mata Hari’s final hours in prison in 1917 and a university course on ‘Women Screwed Over by History’ in 2016, we see the famous erotic performer and accused spy from several points of view, both past and present.

On her last day in prison, Mata Hari’s (Kimwun Perehinec) is introduced to cellmate Hélène (Lisa Karen Cox), a young French-Senegalese woman in for prostitution who has been moved from another cell block. Instructed by Sister Leonide (Paula Wing) to keep Mata Hari occupied, Hélène knows that this section of the prison is for doomed prisoners. During Mata Hari’s final hours before execution, of which she is unaware, a young prison guard (Jeff Lillico) attempts to satisfy his curiosity about his celebrity prisoner as he takes her for a stroll in the prison grounds. After a failed attempt at converting Mata Hari, a professed Hindu, to Catholicism, Sister Leonide has a genuine heart-to-heart chat. In 2016, as university professor Christopher Locke (David Christo) prepares a lecture about Mata Hari, he gets into a heated debate with a black female student (Cox as Karen Sinclair) over the meaning of feminism and how it relates to Mata Hari.

The sharp, darkly funny and thought-provoking script is well-matched by an excellent cast. Perehinec does a lovely job with the resourceful and unapologetic Mata Hari (the stage name chose by Margaretha Geertruida “Margreet” MacLeod); mining the vulnerability, celebrity entitlement, cultural appropriation and buried memories of a woman who change her name and her life, she reveals the abused wife, loving mother and sexually liberated woman behind the stage name. Famous and infamous for her erotic performances, we see a woman who loves sex and longs to be loved; and who will do what she needs to do in order to survive. Cox is an excellent foil and debater, to Mata Hari (as Hélène) and to Locke (as Karen); fearlessly challenging and questioning preconceived notions with intelligence and edgy humour, tempered with a good-natured personality and a strong desire to have a real dialogue about the issues. Christo brings an easy-going, cool vibe to the forward-thinking, self-professed feminist Locke; he’s genuinely interested in women’s and minority rights, but struggles with a modern marriage arrangement that may be working against his interests, as well as present-day, budget and diversity-conscious hiring practices.

Wing is a delight as the feisty and commanding Sister Leonide; wily and worldlier than she appears, she has a kind heart beneath that take-charge exterior, as evidenced in a lovely two-hander scene with Perehinec. Lillico (a late addition to the cast when Christo suffered a cycling accident that impaired his mobility) does an excellent job with the young guard’s conflicting feelings about Mata Hari; both curious about and furious with her, an apparent crush takes a turn as he reveals his own heartache and loss.

No one is as they seem; and each character challenges our biases and preconceived notions of their social roles and life experiences. This is a play that will make you think about, as well as question, what you believe about gender, race, white privilege, inclusion, economics and power.

With shouts to set/costume designer Melanie McNeill for the opulent and exotic touches to an otherwise drab and Spartan prison setting.

Debating feminism, equality and privilege in the provocative, smart, sharply funny Don’t Talk to Me Like I’m Your Wife.

Don’t Talk to Me Like I’m Your Wife continues at the Theatre Centre Mainspace until Aug 14. Go see #thematahariplay

In the meantime, check out some interviews with playwright Scott by yours truly and this week’s cover story by NOW Magazine’s Glenn Sumi.