The impact of stories drawn from love & memory in TPM’s genuine, funny, haunting The Drawer Boy

Andrew Moodie, Craig Lauzon & Graham Conway. Set and costume design by Joanna Yu. Lighting design by Michelle Ramsay. Photo by Michael Cooper.
Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) opened its remount of Michael Healey’s The Drawer Boy, directed by Factory Theatre AD Nina Lee Aquino, assisted by Cole Alvis, to a sold out house last night. Originally produced by TPM in 1999, Healey’s beloved hit returns to the TPM stage as the theatre celebrates its 50th anniversary.

Set in the early 70s in Southern Ontario, The Drawer Boy hearkens back to another famous TPM production: The Farm Show, created by Paul Thompson and a collective of artists who went down to live and work with area farmers as they created a play about the place and its people. Miles (Graham Conway) is one of these young Toronto actors, and he nervously arrives on the doorstep of Morgan (Andrew Moodie) and Angus’s (Craig Lauzon) farm house, looking for a place to stay, work and learn about farming so he can contribute to the writing and performance of the play.

An odd yet complementary couple of middle-aged bachelors, Morgan and Angus have been friends since childhood, serving together in WWII, finding wives in England and returning to their hometown to set up a farm together. The truly remarkable thing about their relationship is the organic dynamic of Morgan acting as Angus’s memory. Now living with an Acquired Brain Injury after surviving a shell explosion in London, Angus now lives entirely in the present, his memory a sieve; but he’s a wizard with numbers and takes care of the farm’s accounting. Morgan uses stories to remind Angus of their shared past: he is the Farmer and Angus is the Drawer Boy, and they met and fell in love with two tall English girls.

As hard as Miles struggles with farm work, including some hilarious mishaps with equipment and an eye-opening experience spending time with livestock (resulting in a gut-busting impression of a frightened cow), he struggles even harder to write stories for the play. Until he overhears Morgan telling Angus their life story—and he’s struck theatrical gold. When the two farmers attend an invited rehearsal, though, the reactions are markedly different: Angus is delighted and Morgan is infuriated.

Terrified of not having something good to contribute to the play and fearing he’ll be cut from the collective, Miles’ drive and ambition to get a good story puts him in the position of becoming the unwitting catalyst for, and witness to, emerging memories and revised storytelling for Morgan and Angus. Their shared story is not as fairy tale as Morgan originally painted. And the impact of the true story is both revelatory and devastating; highlighting how the choices we make as we create our own life stories touch the lives of others, particularly the ones we love the most, in positive and negative ways.

Lovely, nuanced work from these three actors in this moving, haunting and revealing tale of love, memory and the impact of the stories people tell. Lauzon brings a delightfully child-like sense of wonder to the star counting math wizard Angus; and yet there’s also a troubled, lost quality about Angus as he paces around the house, searching for something he can’t remember. Moodie is both lovable and intimidating as the gruff Morgan; a matter-of-fact man’s man who suffers no fools, there’s a broken-hearted, gentle soul beneath Morgan’s gruff exterior. Extremely patient and caring with Angus, a man of few words becomes a magical storytelling memory maker for his friend, who he clearly loves dearly. And while city boy actor Miles could easily become a clueless caricature, Conway gives him a sharp, desperate sense of ambition and a hilariously satirical edge. And though we may be skeptical about how genuine Miles is in his desire to connect with this world and these people, there’s no doubt that he comes to feel the full impact of the devastating truths he’s unleashed.

With big shouts to the design team, for their beautiful, evocative work: Joanna Yu, whose set combines realism and abstraction, with expressive charcoal drawing flats hanging above and around the vintage farmhouse kitchen and porch; and costume design perfectly suiting the working farm men and the clueless young city boy, who arrives to work in cut-offs, polo shirt and runners. And to Michelle Ramsay’s magical lighting design; and Michelle Bensimon’s timely and haunting sound design and composition.

The Drawer Boy continues in the TPM Mainspace until March 25; get advance tickets online or by calling the box office at: 416-504-7529.

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Promises, empty houses & trying to make it right in the haunting, heartbreaking, thought-provoking Ipperwash

Samantha Brown, PJ Prudat & James Dallas Smith. Costumes by Jeff Chief. Lighting design by Michelle Ramsay. Photo by Kaytee Dalton.

 

Finally got out to see Native Earth Performing Arts’ production of Falen Johnson’s Ipperwash last night; now in the final week of its run at Aki Studio.

The catchy, familiar pre-show music (assembled by composer/sound designer Deanna H. Choi) swings with the sounds of 1940s wartime favourites—cheerful, upbeat and brimming with optimism for the future. The music stands in stark contrast to the grim, derelict scene on stage: a girl lying still on the sand centre stage, flanked by a neglected looking house on one side and a beat-up life guard tower on the other.

This is where Bea (PJ Prudat) finds herself when she arrives at the Kettle and Stony Point Reserve. Startled and gravely concerned to find a child playing on the beach, she shouts out the danger to the girl (Samantha Brown). An Afghanistan war veteran, Bea has taken a year-long contract with Canada’s Department of Defence, joining the clean-up team at the former Camp Ipperwash. The place is a dangerous mess, the appropriated land riddled with shells, landmines and various other ordinance left behind by the army—and the environment poisoned by lead and waste dumped into the lakes.

The mysterious girl disappears and Bea meets another resident: the gruff, self-appointed reserve security guard Slip (James Dallas Smith), who softens when he learns that she’s native (Bea is Anishinaabe), and begrudgingly shows her the way to his Uncle Tim’s place, which Bea is renting during her stay. Now a resident at a seniors’ home, Tim (Jonathan Fisher) has kept his family home and rents it out; but, for some reason, he won’t join Bea inside for tea.

Taking this job because she wants to give back, Bea is confident that she can do some good, and soon finds herself climbing mountains of paperwork as she struggles with her own personal demons. And that mysterious girl keeps appearing—and there’s something strange about her. Beyond the environmental damage of Ipperwash, Bea learns of the devastating personal toll—of lives uprooted and lost. Tim is a WWII veteran, who left his mother and younger sister to serve his country. Upon his return, he found his home was gone, the house moved to a location convenient for the army; and his mother and sister dead, buried on the land where their home originally stood. Even though he’s a veteran, the camp is off limits and he can’t even visit their graves. Revelations and relationships emerge; and Bea ends up helping—and being helped—in ways even she couldn’t have foreseen.

Lovely work from the cast in this personal story of a national shame told with candor, humour and heart. Brown brings an ethereal, luminous quality to the strange wise child Kwe; and Prudat mines Bea’s exterior toughness and determination with a haunted, hunted vulnerability. Smith is entertainingly cynical and irreverent as Slip; and there’s a deeply protective quality and wealth of knowledge beneath that suspicious, detached front Slip puts on. And Fisher is heartbreaking as Tim, a man who gave to his country only to have everything he loved taken away—the very army he served with barring him from his homeland. Haunted and struggling with a displaced homecoming, Tim avoids the house he grew up in—the memories too fresh and raw.

Promises, empty houses and trying to make it right in the haunting, heartbreaking, thought-provoking Ipperwash.

Ipperwash runs until February 18. Get advance tickets online; it’s the final week of the run, so catch it before it closes.

Toronto Fringe: Out of the echoes of pain and loss comes a beautiful noise in the powerful, moving Echoes – A New Musical

nickeshia_garrick_and_kyle_holt_brown - echoesWriter/director Andrew Seok “wanted to write a musical about war and its effect on families and relationships” – and he’s done just that, to great effect with Chaos & Light’s production of Echoes – A New Musical, running at Toronto Fringe at Jeanne Lamon Hall in Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church, with music direction and accompaniment by Robert Graham.

Inspired by personal letters and journal entries, and taking us across decades and into a new century, Echoes is divided into three acts, starting with the American Civil War, where fugitive husband (Kyle Holt Brown) and wife (Nickeshia Garrick) slaves are separated when the wife and their daughter (Millie Davis) are captured; when he reaches the north, the husband joins the army to gain his freedom. Act II takes place during WWI, where we see the effects of war on the future of a young captain (Andrew Seok) and his fiancée (Marisa McIntyre). Act III finds us in WWII and a father (Micah Richardson) leaving his daughter (Millie Davis & Amaka Umeh) to serve in the army shortly after her mother has died; ashamed by what he’s doing in the name of duty, he constantly breaks his promise to return home to his daughter until years later. The common, running thread throughout all of these stories is the courier (beautifully performed by Jeff Madden), delivering and receiving letters for delivery – and wondering about the reasons for it all.

The score is filled with gorgeous, heart-wrenching ballads, with some dark comic relief (performed by a pair of scoundrels played by Hart Massey and Christopher Sawchyn – “The Treaty” and “We’ll Be Back”). Stand-outs include “Demons & Angels,” “Angels Won’t Sleep Tonight” and “All the Things that Life Used to Know.” And “Hymn,” the gospel-inspired finale lead by Nickeshia Garrick is a perfect way to end this piece in that it reminds us of the better angels within us all.

I’ve seen several standing ovations over the course of Fringe this year, but none so unanimous as the one the Echoes cast received last night.

Out of the echoes of pain and loss comes a beautiful noise that reminds us what we could be in the powerful, moving Echoes – A New Musical.

Echoes – A New Musical has one final performance at Jeanne Lamon Hall in Trinity St. Paul’s: tonight (Sat, July 9) at 8:00 p.m. They’re sold out, but there may be a few stray tickets at the door.

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).

 

SummerWorks: A beautiful, bittersweet memory play featuring outstanding, powerful performances in Seams

Seams-400x312Dress forms, a clothing rack, a large basin with wash board and soap, a pile of fabric, a work table. And off stage left, a chair. Old Frosya enters, the ghosts of her former co-workers standing on the catwalk on the upper level of the stage.

And so the stage is set for the Seam Collective’s production of Polly Phokeev’s Seams, directed by Mikaela Davies – running at the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Mainspace as part of SummerWorks. Inspired by an old photo of Phokeev’s grandmother and her seamstress/seamster co-workers, Seams is set in the wardrobe room of a theatre in Moscow, 1939.

Old Frosya (Clare Coulter) is the sole survivor of a group of costume-makers – and her memories turn to their moments together in 1939, in the first months of WWII. In a world where the state owns everything, corruption runs wild, and being broke, cold and hungry is commonplace, it’s everyone for themselves. People are desperate enough to report neighbours, friends and co-workers for any hint of suspicious activity – selling out one family for another to heavy-handed authorities – in order to survive or, in some cases, to get perks like a nicer apartment. Suspicion and mistrust, and guarded thoughts, become a way of life. The love/hate for Russia and the people in their lives is palpable. Everyone has a secret. And this is everyday life.

Part memoir, part confessional, Frosya’s narrative starts with relatively happy times – a workplace family gossiping about the actors and selectively sharing their lives. It’s a microcosm of the larger world outside the wardrobe room; and as conditions deteriorate in Russia – in an already difficult socio-political environment – so too do they begin to crumble in their world.

Seams features moving, nuanced performances from the entire cast. Coulter is haunting as the gruffly matter of fact, wry-witted Old Frosya. As Frosya’s younger self, Caitlin Robson brings a bright warmth and generosity to the brisk and efficient costume room den mother. Ewa Wolniczek brings a strong, stubborn sense of drive and idealism to the passionate young activist Marina.

There’s great chemistry between Krystina Bojanowski (the positive, open-hearted and hopeful Ira) and Jesse La Vercombe (the quiet, pleasant and troubled Anton) – who share some adorably awkward moments as both fumble around their attraction for each other. And there’s an equally lovely dynamic between Sochi Fried’s dark, introspective and mysterious Radya and Elizabeth Stuart-Morris’s irreverent, daring and carefree Shura – their moments together full of aching longing and electric eroticism. Of course, circumstances being what they are, when they are, the good times cannot last – and with the ransacking of the wardrobe in a theatre already on the brink of closure, so too are relationships torn apart as their time together draws to a close.

With shouts to design team Shannon Lea Doyle (design), Steve Vargo (lighting), Jackie McClelland (installation) and Nicholas Potter (sound) for their evocative construction of this world.

Seams is a beautiful, bittersweet memory play – equal parts charming and heartbreaking – featuring outstanding, powerful performances.

Seams has two more performances at the TPM Mainspace: Fri, Aug 14 at 9:30 p.m. and Sun, Aug 16 at 4:15 p.m.The buzz is strong with this show, so book in advance or get to the venue box office early.

In the meantime, check out Bailey Green’s chat with Phokeev, Davies and Stuart-Morris (who does double duty as producer) for In the Greenroom.

A chilling look at mad atrocity planned with rational boardroom expediency – Heretofore Productions’ staged reading of Conspiracy

Conspiracy p 1--Final 15I went to see Heretofore Productions’ marvelous staged reading of Loring Mandel’s Conspiracy at Grace Church on-the-Hill (300 Lonsdale Road) last night, the first of a two-night run. Co-produced by Leeman Kessler and Danielle Capretti, and co-directed by Capretti and Vivian Hisey, this is an adaptation of Mandel’s film Conspiracy, a documentary-like look at the 1942 Wannsee Conference, where a group of high-ranking Nazi officials decide on the details of their Final Solution.

With the audience set up around the conference table, we literally get a fly-on-the-wall look at the proceedings – made all the more chilling by how ordinary the meeting looks on the surface as we witness the disturbing discussion about the fate of 11 million people.

The use of a mixed cast, with female actors playing some of the parts, drives home the humanity of the people attending this meeting – however unthinkable the subject. Seeing these characters in modern-day corporate costuming (co-director/actor Danielle Capretti pointed out during the talkback that red costume highlights, such as a handkerchief, denoted SS officials), one gets the feeling that one could be observing any corporate or government boardroom meeting; despite the horrible topic at hand, the conference is very much about business. Here, we see madness and power enacted under a thin veil of rationality, practicality and legal reasoning – but it’s important to not demonize these people. Viewing these men as monsters distances them from ourselves in such a way as to deny that this kind of meeting could happen anytime, anywhere. They could be anyone. The Catholic and Lutheran churches would turn a blind eye, and the Nazis had already seen ample evidence of international rejection of Jewish refugees. The sense that there is plenty of culpability to go around provides an easy rationale for the Nazis’ undertaking.

Language is sharpened to a polite point, its lethal intent civilized by euphemism. “The Jewish question” or “problem.” “Evacuate.” “Process.” Legal terminology is used to define and debate who is a Jew and who is German. Statistics on mortality by various means are casually noted – and mined for the most efficient and expedient methodology, with a nod to the Americans for their “ingenious” assembly line innovation. And, with the iron grip of the SS in charge of the discussion, it gradually dawns on you that the conference is a mere formality – all has been decided and all that is required from attendees is obedience.

Kessler, Capretti and Hisey have an impressive ensemble of actors for this run, including, in order of appearance:
Lt. Colonel Adolf Eichmann – Marisa King
Dr. Josef Bühler – Danielle Capretti
Major Dr. Rudolf Lange – Gregory Corkum
Brig. Gen. Dr. K. E. Schöngarth – Gabriel DiFabio
Dr. Georg Leibbrandt – Olivia Jon
Dist. Leader Dr. Alfred Meyer – Alan Page
U-Sec. Of State Martin Luther – Jeremy Henson
Sec. Of State Erich Neumann – Manda Whitney
Sec. Of State Dr. W. Stuckart – Janice Hansen
Major General Otto Hofmann – Christopher Kelk
Friedrich Wilhelm Kritzinger – Vivian Hisey
Brig. Gen. Gerhard Klopfer – Neil Kulin
Brig. Gen. Dr. Roland Freisler – Jen Ashby
Maj. General Heinrich Müller – Rob Schock
General Reinhard Heydrich – Will van der Zyl
Stenographer – Emily Hisey Bowden
Guard – Heather Chaytor

Each actor does an excellent job of finding the humanity in his/her character – again, it’s important to not view these men as demons, but as people. Ordinary people doing abhorrent things. Otherwise, we learn nothing. Political and power play infighting abound. While Stuckart (the architect of the Nuremburg Laws) is more concerned with the legal implications of their decision and nervous bureaucrat Neumann is worried about workforce issues, Kritzinger (the only one to express remorse in the end) is the only one who seems to have a modicum of conscience; and both Stuckart and Kritzinger are bullied by Heydrich to acquiesce to the plan. And we have Luther to thank for what we know of this meeting. Against orders, he kept his transcript and it was found in the aftermath of the war.

Allen Kaeja of Kaeja d’Dance, the son of an Auschwitz survivor who has choreographed several pieces about the Holocaust, hosted the post-reading talk-back, and shared the moving and incredible story of his dad’s experience and how he escaped.

During the talkback, the point about the importance of the characters being portrayed as human came up several times. No one is immune to being in a position to make horrific decisions, particularly in a culture of fear, in this case presided over by Heydrich and the SS, who were not above bullying or threatening other officials, and willing to do the killing that average soldiers lacked the stomach for (a morale problem pointed out by Lange during the meeting). The matter of fact, almost casual tone of this terrible conference discussion is made all the more tragic by how human these men are, highlighted by Hofmann becoming momentarily ill and Kritzinger being visibly sick at heart at the end of the meeting.

The issue of intent also came up – an audience member mentioned that the actions of this group of men went beyond discrimination, but to selling their souls for power. Actor Janice Hansen called to mind the classic psychology experiment in which subjects were instructed to administer electric shocks to an unseen person, who they could hear reacting in pain. Subjects who continued to give the shocks weren’t evil, they just weren’t able to disobey or say no. We need to believe that ordinary people can do terrible things.

Heretofore Productions’ Conspiracy is a chilling look at mad atrocity planned with rational boardroom expediency and legal debate.

You have one more chance to catch this very brief run of this excellent staged reading: tonight (Fri, Nov 21) at 7 p.m. Admission is free and there will be another post-performance talkback tonight.

Department of Corrections: An earlier version of this post included incomplete/incorrect information on the producing and directing teams; this has since been corrected.