Family, blood & sins of the father in the compelling, darkly funny Tough Jews

Maaor Ziv, Blue Bigwood-Mallin, Luis Fernandes, Theresa Tova, Anne van Leeuwen, G. Kyle Shields & Stephen Joffe in Tough Jews—photo by John Gundy

Leave the gun. Take the kugel.

Storefront Theatre is back, this time partnering with The Spadina Avenue Gang to mount the world premiere of Michael Ross Albert’s Tough Jews, directed by Storefront founder/co-artistic director Benjamin Blais and running at Kensington Hall in Toronto’s Kensington Market.

Tough Jews was Albert’s graduate project about a family of Toronto Jewish gangsters; and, although it’s set in the late 20s and early 30s, the play speaks to issues of anti-Semitic and anti-immigration/refugee sentiments that are relevant today, especially given the influence of the current administration to the south, and the rise in hate crimes targeting Jews and Muslims on both sides of the border.

Set in the basement speakeasy, downstairs from the family’s shop and home in Kensington Market, Act one opens in 1929 on Yom Kippur, 10 days before the stock market crash. Overseen by the widowed family matriarch Ida (Theresa Tova), brothers Joe (Luis Fernandes) and Ben (Blue Bigwood-Mallin) take care of the family business running booze downstairs, while Teddy (G. Kyle Shields) runs the legit business upstairs. Kid sister Rose (Maaor Ziv) and Ben’s American fiancée Marge (Anne van Leeuwen) watch from the sidelines. Downstairs business with Detroit’s Purple Gang goes south when hothead cousin Ziggie (Stephen Joffe) interrupts negotiations. This prompts Ben to come up with an idea to get Rose’s dope-dealing boyfriend Harry (who we never see), to get in on the action; despite the family’s disapproval of Harry, Ben hopes to placate the Purple Gang with new, hard-to-get product.

Act two jumps ahead four years to 1933, a couple of months after Hitler becomes Chancellor of Germany and shortly after the Christie Pits riot. Joe and Marge have been living in Florida, but his business was hit hard by the Depression, and he’s returned home to Toronto. Ben has also just come home, just released from jail; and Rose has a three-year-old and some serious domestic issues at her house. Teddy has taken over the speakeasy in the interim, but is now using it as a hide-out after his involvement in the Christie Pits riot.

Family secrets emerge throughout; and serious, changing situations prompt some equally drastic decision-making and choices. How far will a marginalized, oppressed and desperate people go in order to survive?

Stellar work from the entire cast in this immersive theatrical experience where the audience has a fly-on-the-wall view of the proceedings. Tova is hard as nails, hilarious and heartbreaking as Ida, who recalls in sharp, painful detail the oppression of her homeland and the hardship of an ocean crossing. The dreams of a better life destroyed by hate and oppression in a new country, Ida takes charge with pragmatism, grit and wry wit; and with a laser focus on turning the family’s fortunes around. Fernandes gives oldest brother Joe a nice balance of calculating professional and protective man of the house. Dog tired and struggling to keep the family business afloat, Joe must also manage the less than friendly relationship between Marge and his family.

Bigwood-Mallin brings a great sense of spark and ambition to Ben; the only one who really wants to be a gangster, Ben is genuinely excited to expand the business, make connections in the U.S. and make more money. Shields does a marvelous job with Teddy’s arc; as the bookish, observant kid brother, Teddy is torn between being a good man and seeing their legitimate family business survive, and the struggle to survive in a harsh, unfair world that leaves his family few options. By Act Two, he’s grown up a lot in those four years; a changed man, he sees what’s going on in Germany—and how prejudice and hate know no boundaries—and it sickens him.

Ziv’s Rose is an irreverent spitfire; an independent-minded and often neglected member of the family, Rose does her best to make a life for herself, but finds new challenges outside the safety of the family nest. Van Leeuwen brings a regal edge to the platinum blond, leggy Marge; a dancer when Joe first met her, she’s now set on becoming a respectable wife and looking forward to enjoying the good things in life. Unable to stomach Joe’s family business, however, she retaliates by putting on airs. Joffe gives Ziggie a menacing, lost boy edge. Taken in by his aunt Ida as a child, Ziggie’s grown up into a dangerous punk with some serious anger and impulse control issues; and his choices make him a liability to the family.

With big shouts to the design team Adam Belanger (set), Melissa Joakim (lighting), Lindsay Dagger Junkin (costumes), Angela McQueen (makeup) and Miquelon Rodriguez (sound) for their work on the evocative, immersive environment; and to fight director Simon Fon, and co-stage managers Justine Cargo and Andrea Miller. Throughout the production, corpses will be played by Kyle Bailey, Daniel Briere, Gabriel Hamilton and David Lapsley. The bartender makes a mean Manhattan, with the good Jack Daniels.

Family, blood and sins of the father in the compelling, darkly funny Tough Jews.

Tough Jews continues at Kensington Hall till April 16 (enter through the back alley—follow the sandwich board sign); full schedule and advance tix available online]. Book in advance for this one, folks; it’s a popular company and there’s a lot of well-deserved buzz about this show—not to mention the intimate venue. Warning: Show contains gun shots and smoking (herbal cigarettes).

In the meantime, check out Brittany Kay’s In the Greenroom blog interview with playwright Michael Ross Albert and actor G. Kyle Shields, with director Benjamin Blais dropping by.

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Desperate desires, power struggles & parental POV in the compelling, sharply funny Trigonometry

Rose Napoli & Alison Dean in Trigonometry—photo by Greg Wong

 

Gabriella wants action. Jackson wants a scholarship. Susan wants a family.

timeshare opened the third and final installment of Rob Kempson’s The Graduation Plays trilogy with the world premiere of Trigonometry this past week, directed by Kempson and running in the Factory Theatre Studio. I caught Trigonometry yesterday afternoon.

Math teacher Gabriella (Rose Napoli), substitute teacher/guidance counsellor Susan (Alison Dean) and student Jackson (Daniel Ellis) find their lives intertwined as their desires collide in a high-stakes, power struggle dynamic. Scandalous photos, sports team hazing allegations and personal revelations come into play in a series of intense, at times hilarious, two-hander moments—culminating in a gripping final scene when the three stories triangulate.

Outstanding work from the cast on this trio of disparate characters locked in a battle of wills. Great chemistry between Napoli and Dean in a diametrically opposed, sharply funny dynamic of opposites. Napoli’s Gabriella is sassy, ballsy and a passionate teacher; a divorced single mom with conservative, black and white views of the world, particularly the new sex ed curriculum. Direct and possessing a sardonic sense of humour, Rose is recently single and ready to mingle—and active on Tinder. Dean brings a sweet, kind quality to the progressive Susan; no doormat, Susan is open to hearing all sides of an argument and willing to navigate the grey areas—in many ways, the perfect guidance counsellor. Tasked with investigating persons of interest around a volleyball team hazing, Susan is a reluctant investigator, but willing to do her duty; she’s also chosen to start her own family, on her own with a sperm donor pregnancy. Ellis’s Jackson is a likeable kid with just the right amount of smart-ass; a gifted athlete struggling with math and driven to make his parents proud, Jackson has considerable strategizing skills—and perhaps too wily for his own good. Was he involved in that hazing?

2. Rose Napoli and Daniel Ellis. Trigonometry. Photo by Greg Wong.
Rose Napoli & Daniel Ellis in Trigonometry—photo by Greg Wong

Parental point of view plays prominently in each story, driving decisions and opinions. All three characters are basically good people—and the situations in which they find themselves test how far they’re willing to go to get what they want. In the end, much is left up to us to sort out.

With shouts to set/costume designer Anna Treusch and scenic painter Simge Suzer for the trippy math class chalkboard set.

Desperate desires, power struggles and parental POV in the compelling, sharply funny Trigonometry.

Trigonometry continues in the Factory Theatre Studio until Mar 25. You can find the full schedule and ticket info here; advance tix available online or by calling 416-504-9971.

In the meantime, check out playwright Rob Kempson’s interview with host Phil Rickaby on Stageworthy Podcast.

 

Trippy, quirky, thought-provoking mind-f*ck of a good time in The Summoned

The Summoned, Tarragon Theatre
Fabrizio Filippo in The Summoned – photos by Cylla von Tiedemann

If it can be done it will be done.

Static for a time, then appearing as if being typed by an unseen hand, there is a quasi-religious elegance to these words. God meets science.

This is how the stage is set for Tarragon Theatre’s world premiere of Fabrizio Filippo’s The Summoned, directed by Richard Rose, assisted by Joel Bernbaum – currently running in the Mainspace.

Tech giant Khan (one name, like Cher, chosen himself) is dead and his executor has called an assembly of the important figures in his life for the reading of his will at a shitty airport hotel in Toronto, run by his former partner/ex Annie (Maggie Huculak) and her son Aldous (Fabrizio Filippo). The hotel was set up as a safe house for the world’s intellectual elite, and the guests are transported to the location with impressive precision and secrecy by Khan’s security chief Quentin (Tony Nappo). Company president Gary (John Bourgeois) and lawyer Laura (Kelli Fox), and flight attendant and Aldous’s sort of girlfriend Isla (Rachel Cairns) round out the guest list. Instructions are relayed to Quentin via Walkie Talkie (Alon Nashman).

Aldous also serves as our narrator, setting the scenes and introducing the players, and we learn about Khan via flashback scenes, where we see how a young Khan (Filippo) meets a young Annie (Cairns), and get glimpses into their work together and the genesis of his empire. It appears obvious to everyone except Aldous that Khan is his father. And, of course, the reading of the will is largely Khan’s way of messing with his dearly beloved from beyond the grave. And it all gets emotional and weird. Really weird.

The Summoned, Tarragon Theatre
Kelli Fox, Rachel Carins, John Bourgeois, Maggie Huculak, Tony Napppo & Fabrizio Filippo in The Summoned

I effing love this cast. This is a wild, entertaining, high-energy ride – and this ensemble isn’t afraid to give ‘er. Playwright Filippo is a multitasking machine onstage, playing two very different characters. As Aldous, he brings an unflappable, almost eerie, sense of detachment and calm; minimally communicative and eschewing physical contact, there’s an Asperger’s quality to his relationship with the world. As Khan, he’s an impish, big personality; a mercurial and diabolically brilliant tech maestro with a lascivious appetite and flexible morals, he takes and uses what he wants, when and how he wants.

Huculak brings a lovely, layered sense of desperation and control to Annie; a brilliant, groundbreaking tech mind in her own right, her life forever changed by motherhood. Long estranged from Khan, she got the kid and he got the company, and she’s kept one foot in their once shared world by running the hotel safe house, perpetually longing for a connection with her son. Cairns is a kooky delight as Isla, the flight attendant who lives a seemingly charmed life; always living in the present, she is super spontaneous, hilariously irreverent and refreshingly honest. Nappo is a loveable combination of efficiency and wackiness as the cellphone snapping, air freshener spraying security guy Quentin; a schlub in a uniform, he also appears to be a narcoleptic, but this doesn’t stop him from executing his duties with tight-lipped, covert expertise. Bourgeois’ Gary is a great combo of funny and intimidating; an imposing corporate badass, Gary is entitled and cynical, and we see his soft underbelly emerge during the reading of the will. And Fox’s Laura is a gorgeous, ballsy 21st century Rosemary Clooney; pragmatic, but warm, she’s a sharp no-nonsense professional – and a woman with a confession to make.

The Summoned, Tarragon Theatre
Seated: John Bourgeois, Fabrizio Filippo & Maggie Huculak, with Kelli Fox on the floor

On the serious side, The Summoned is an exploration of the history and evolution of tech, and its applications and implications for our lives. If it can be done it will be done. Forever and ever, Amen.

With shouts to the design team, especially Jason Hand (lighting and set) and Kurt Firla (video) for the minimalist, multimedia environment; the playing space has a crisp, sleek quality to it – making you expect to see Steve Jobs walk out to launch a new iPhone. (Yes, I know, he’s dead.)

A trippy, quirky, thought-provoking mind-f*ck of a good time in The Summoned.

The Summoned continues in the Tarragon Mainspace until May 29; get your tix in advance, kids – this show is packing the house.

In the meantime, check out this Theatromania interview with playwright/actor Filippo.

An erotic, moving & sharply funny piece of storytelling in Aromas

Aromas 4
Andy Fraser in Aromas – photo by Tim Leyes

It was back to Alumnae Theatre last night, in the Studio this time for the world premiere of the Junes Company’s production of Aromas, written/directed by Andrew Faiz, and starring Andy Fraser. I saw this compelling one-person show when an earlier draft of the play was produced at Red Sandcastle Theatre in September 2014.

Aromas is a solo show that features an ensemble cast of characters, mainly Katalin and her alter-ego Chanel. Ice skater, dancer and party girl Katalin grows bored of her dream job performing with a Swan Lake touring company and stumbles upon the opportunity for a career change – and her working persona Chanel, a professional sex worker, is born.

Throughout her world travels and encounters with diverse people – some of whom have come from extremely harsh and horrific situations, including her Eastern European immigrant parents – Katalin finds herself able to see the world as it is while maintaining a sense of optimism and an ability to see beauty wherever she goes, and finding joy, connection and empathy in the people, flavours and scents she encounters. With the heart of an artist and the mind of a philosopher, not to mention a collection of readily available dialects and several languages, her work as Chanel goes beyond the mere exchange of sexual services for money. Sex is never just about sex. Chanel is a priest, a psychologist, a counsellor – not a girlfriend, but a girlfriend experience – with a strong commitment to being present physically, mentally and emotionally. And as Katalin struggles with her own sense of identity and longs for a story of her own, she finds that – far from being a means of avoiding herself and her world – Chanel is a way into herself. Into her own story.

Fraser’s performance is sexy, provocative, vivacious, deftly funny and wise. As we watch her character transitions – from Katalin, to her parents, to childhood friend Angela, to skating and dancing colleagues, to Chanel – the acting is truthful, engaging, immediate, present. Adult content aside, there is a lovely raw quality to Fraser’s work here in that it requires an incredible amount of emotional frankness and openness, not to mention guts.

With shouts to the design team: Richard Jones’ upbeat, cosmopolitan soundtrack; Brandon Kleiman’s sharp set (featuring a gorgeous backdrop wall of hotel room keys) and costumes designed for all Katalin’s/Chanel’s moods and styles; and Ed Rosing’s lighting design, which serves to move the scene, time and space transitions on an otherwise stationary space. And to the production’s intrepid stage manager Margot “Mom” Devlin, who’s running lights and sound, as well as the box office, for the run.

Aromas is an erotic, moving, sharply funny and thoughtful piece of storytelling – performed with heart, smarts and chutzpah by actor Andy Fraser.

Aromas continues at the Alumnae Studio until May 2. It’s a short run, so get your butts out there to see it. You can purchase advance tix through T.O. Tix; otherwise, it’s cash only at the door. You can also follow Aromas on Facebook.

You can check out production videos here. Here’s the promo vid:

Fear & loathing in real estate with a damn fine all-female cast in Jet Girls Productions’ Glengarry Glen Ross

GlengarryPosterOnline-1 - smallAnd the Mametpalooza continues over at Red Sandcastle Theatre. (I saw Headstrong Collective’s marvelous production of Boston Marriage at Campbell House Museum last Saturday.) This time, it’s Jet Girls Productions’ ballsy all-female production of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, directed by Anita La Selva.

With this world premiere of the gender switched Glengarry Glen Ross, Jet Girls has a very ambitious first production on their hands – and they weren’t permitted to change a word of the script. The result is powerful, thought-provoking, darkly funny and more than a bit jarring.

Joining director La Selva on this journey is a fine ensemble of local female actors (in order of appearance): Elizabeth Saunders (Shelly Levene), Julie Brar (John Williamson and co-founder of Jet Girls), Françoise Balthazar (David Moss), Laurel Paetz (George Aaronow), Marianne Sawchuk (Richard Roma and co-founder of Jet Girls), Rosemary Doyle (James Lingk and A.D. of Red Sandcastle Theatre) and Robinne Fanfair (Detective Baylen).

With none of the text altered – including character names – and the men replaced with women, the raw and often brutal language of the play comes across as all the more harsh. Violent verbal exchanges highlighted with name-calling and profanity hit harder coming from the mouths of women, but at the same time there is an unsettling naturalism about it. These are women struggling for survival in a merciless, dog eat dog business driven by the mantra “Always Be Closing.” You don’t close, you don’t eat. Slogging through lists of dead leads in hard, changing economic times, the futility and desperation is palpable. Make no mistake, this is no mere cat fight – competition is fierce and it’s the law of the jungle here.

As Shelly “The Machine” Levene, Saunders gives us a compelling and poignant portrait of a salesperson past her prime, an old-school practitioner struggling along the rat race, ravenously desperate to break a losing streak, and avoid falling into despair. Brar does a lovely job with the aloof, pompous young pup Williamson, revealing hints of ruthlessness and entitlement beneath the cool professional exterior. Balthazar gives a riveting performance as Moss; by turns a rampaging bear and snake-like manipulator, there is something of the ticking time bomb in her. Paetz gives nice layers to Aaronow, Moss’s sidekick; mousey in her righteous indignation over the poor state of their leads, and an easy mark for Moss’s machinations – but this mouse wants to roar when she’s backed into a corner. Sawchuk mesmerizes as the slick operator Roma. All sex and charisma, smooth and sharp and the same time, she is a master of language, flirtation and flattery – anything to get what she wants. As Roma’s mark Lingk, Doyle brings a lovely combination of frumpy, gullible naiveté and a devil may care yearning for adventure to this sexually repressed, hen-pecked woman – but is not beyond standing her ground, albeit on shaky legs, when her place in the world becomes threatened. Very nice work from Fanfair as the no-nonsense, unflappable Detective Baylen; while professional in demeanour, she will brook no shenanigans from this group of real estate hustlers during her investigation.

With shouts to costume designer Jan Venus for the sharp, evocative 80s wardrobe.

Fear and loathing in real estate with a damn fine all-lady cast in Jet Girls Productions’ Glengarry Glen Ross. Get yourself out to Red Sandcastle Theatre to see this.

Glengarry Glen Ross runs at Red Sandcastle until April 26. For advance tix, call 416-845-9411 or email redsandcastletheatre@gmail.com