Preview: Survival, resilience & resistance in the powerful, raw, timely Four Sisters

Bea Pizano & Company. Production design by Kaitlin Hickey in collaboration with Susanna Fournier. Wardrobe and props design by Patrick Peachey Higdon. Video design by Steph Raposo. Photo by Bernie Fournier.

 

Four Sisters is the final installment of Susanna Fournier’s Empire trilogy; produced by Paradigm Productions and commissioned by Luminato, and running this week at the Theatre Centre. Directed by Fournier and choreographed by Amanda Acorn, this powerful, raw and timely tale takes us to the Empire 259 years after the events of The Scavenger’s Daughter; into a world of plague and social cast-offs, where a 279-year old former madam raises the orphaned children of women who worked for her. A doctor arrives, promising to help as she works to come up with an inexpensive cure for marginalized, low-income populations; and she needs to experiment on the children.

We are in the Skirts, an outlying neighbourhood on the outskirts of the city where society’s marginalized and cast-off people dwell—the poor, mostly women and sex workers. And because this is the Empire, this is a world where only those with money, power and connections can afford to survive and thrive in the toxic, disease-ridden mess left behind after centuries of greed, violence, war and cut-throat capitalism. Former madam Sarah (Bea Pizano) has managed to cheat Death and now finds herself being mother to Abby (Chala Hunter, Krystina Bojanowski, Yolanda Bonnell), Beah (Aria Evans, Ximena Huizi, Jennifer Dahl), Cassie (Claudia Moore) and Dee (Virgilia Griffith)—children of women who worked for her, who all died of plague. When a Doctor (Krystina Bojanowski, Yolanda Bonnell), driven by the desire to find an inexpensive cure that can be used on the low-income population, arrives from the city with the promise of medical help, Sarah must decide if she’s willing to let her girls be Guinea pigs or die of plague.

The story plays out both within and without time and space—on a bare stage, sculpted with light and punctuated with video on a solitary TV screen (designed by Steph Raposo), the chilling atmosphere hauntingly complemented by Christopher Ross-Ewart’s sound design. Time folds and bends in on itself, with the multiple casting for Abby and Beah allowing for both younger and inner selves to speak to these characters, with shades of things to come for an older Beah. And the ongoing role swapping between the actors playing Abby and the Doctor (Bojanowski and Bonnell) shines a light on the choices health care practitioners have when it comes to their practice: to play a role in the male-dominated arenas of capitalism and Big Pharma, promising low-cost health benefits at unknown personal and societal cost, or working on the front lines of health care among those who society has discarded.

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Krystina Bojanowski & Company. Production design by Kaitlin Hickey in collaboration with Susanna Fournier. Wardrobe and props design by Patrick Peachey Higdon. Video design by Steph Raposo. Photo by Bernie Fournier.

Compelling work from this remarkable cast, as the staging incorporates movement, video and voice-over to tell a story that, like the earlier parts of this trilogy, is both visceral and cerebral, past and present, present and future. Pizano nicely balances Sarah’s wry-witted madam pragmatism with the tender-hearted, concern of a good mother. Bojanowski and Bonnell mine the Doctor’s clinical detachment and sense of social responsibility to great effect. Are the Doctor’s later efforts a move toward redemption—or too little, too late?

The four girls grow before our eyes, from children playing in Sarah’s kitchen into conflicted adults struggling to choose a path in a world where paths are being cut off and replaced with walls—literally and figuratively. Hunter, Bojanowski and Bonnell bring sharp focus and inner conflict to Abby, who becomes an apprentice to the Doctor even as she longs to be a mother—and in the painful light of her new-found medical knowledge and expertise. Evans, Huizi and Dahl are loveable and heartbreaking as the energetic, resilient Beah; the dancer sister who longs to study at the academy—her exhausted, battered feet continuing to create despite the unexpected turns her life takes. Griffith brings both profound vulnerability and power to the deeply wounded, angry Dee; self-medicating in an effort to deal with troubling visions, Dee becomes an addict and an outcast among her own marginalized family, setting her on the path toward a surprising evolution. And Moore’s Cassie is adorable and wise; ever a child, Cassie sees and responds to unfolding events with innocent honesty.

Operating both in and out of time and space, we witness what the Empire has come to following centuries of war and social disintegration—leaving us wondering what, if anything, will rise from the ashes. (During intermission, you can view artifacts in the National Museum of the Empire installation in the upper lobby, outside the theatre.) In the end, through pain, grief and loss, there is resilience and resistance. It is apocalypse with a glimmer of hope. And all with the recognition—both disturbing and reassuring—of our own time and place.

Four Sisters continues in the Franco Boni Theatre space at the Theatre Centre until June 16. Post-show talk backs with the artists are scheduled to follow the 8 pm performance on Fri, June 14 (hosted by Ted Witzel); and the 2 pm performance on Sat, June 15 (hosted by Maria Vamvalis). Advance tickets available online; it was a full house at last night’s final preview performance, so advance booking or early arrival is strongly recommended.

If you’re like me and missed the first two installments of the Empire trilogy, or want a refresh before seeing Four Sisters, you can catch up and listen to the podcasts of The Philosopher’s Wife and The Scavenger’s Daughter on The Empire website, co-produced with Expect Theatre’s PlayMe Podcast.

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Suffrage, prohibition, love & puppets in Driftwood’s charming, timely, re-imagined Rosalynde (or, As You Like It)

Ximena Huizi & Sochi Fried. Production design by Sheree Tams. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Driftwood Theatre Group puts a beloved Shakespearean heroine’s name back on the marquee with its charming, timely 2018 Bard’s Bus Tour production of the re-imagined Rosalynde (or, As You Like It), directed by AD D. Jeremy Smith. It’s 1918; and women’s suffrage, prohibition and WWI are at the forefront—and so is true love. I caught Rosalynde in Toronto at Ontario Place Trillium Park last night.

The Duke’s Distillery has been taken over by Frederick (Eric Woolfe), a hard-nosed gangster who has ousted his brother Senior to take over the business and run illegal booze across Lake Ontario to the U.S. Senior has fled to the Forest of Arden, finding rustic sanctuary with a small group of loyal followers. The banished Senior’s daughter Rosalynde (Sochi Fried) has been allowed to stay, as she’s the beloved friend of Frederick’s daughter Celia (Ximena Huizi)—but when he finds public opinion favouring his niece, he banishes her as well. Armed with a plan to flee to the forest disguised as brother and sister, the two young women sneak away with the company Fool Touchstone (Geoffrey Armour) in tow.

The neglected young Orlando (Ngabo Nabea) is facing similar struggles at home with his cruel older brother Oliver (Derek Kwan). When he goes to test his mettle at a local wrestling match, he and Rosalynde become mutually smitten; and he defeats Frederick’s man Charles (puppet, Megan Miles). When his faithful old servant Adam (Armour) learns that Oliver and Frederick are plotting against Orlando’s life, he urges his young master to flee—and the two leave their home for the safety of the forest.

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Ngabo Nabea, with Ximena Huizi & Sochi Fried in the background. Production design by Sheree Tams. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

The Forest of Arden is where the magic happens. Disguised as the youth Ganymede, Rosalynde advises the love-struck Orlando, as well as the love-sick shepherd Silvius (puppet, Kwan), whose rebuffed attentions to Phebe (puppet, Miles) are thwarted further by Phebe’s new-found attraction to Ganymede. And one of Senior’s (Woolfe) friends, the world-weary, profoundly disheartened suffragette Jaques (Caroline Gillis), searches for meaning and a reason to carry on as she observes life in the forest, the unfolding love stories and a Fool out for a wife. Love, reunion, and new perspectives on life and the world unfold—and the forest inhabitants demonstrate compassion, equity and brave determination. And yet, we’re reminded that not all will partake in the new rights and opportunities that emerge during this time: men and women of colour do not yet have the right to vote; and men of colour are denied the opportunity to serve in the war.

Stellar work from the ensemble in a production that entertains as much as it illuminates. Weaving in snatches of news on the suffrage movement, prohibition and the First World War, we get the sense of a time and place immersed in great upheaval and social change. The rural natives of the forest are all puppets, as are some of Frederick’s henchmen (Eric Woolfe is also the AD of Eldritch Theatre, specializing in horror and fantasy storytelling using puppetry, mask and magic)—masterfully brought to life by various members of the cast, especially Megan Miles.

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Megan Miles as Charles the wrestler. Production design by Sheree Tams. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Fried is luminous as the mercurial, fiercely independent, giddy in love Rosalynde; coupled with Nabea’s brave, bold and adorably bashful Orlando, we see two abused young people forced to flee their homes and take charge of their lives—and coming to see the world, themselves and love with new eyes. The wisdom of women figures prominently in this production, from Huizi’s sharply witty, sassy, ever loyal Celia to Gillis’s poignant, well-travelled, experienced aviatrix Jaques. Jaques comes by her melancholy honestly, having seen—and feeling too much—of the world’s unfairness and cruelty. Here, the women school each other and the men in their lives: Jaques shares her experience with observant Celia; and the practical Rosalynde teaches the idealistic Orlando about the everyday nature of romantic relationships. Armour gives a hilarious, high-energy performance—bringing laughs and social commentary—as the quixotic scamp Touchstone.

Rosalynde (or, As You Like It) has one more performance at Ontario Place Trillium Park tonight (Aug 2) at 7:30 p.m.; thanks to the generous support of Ontario Place, admission is free—and Driftwood is happily accepting donations. Bring a chair, a blanket and bug spray (chair rental is available for $5—get there early). There’s a concession stand with drinks (including alcohol) and snacks; you can also score some sweet Driftwood merch over by the chair rental tent.

The Bard’s Bus Tour continues on its way, wrapping up its run on August 12. Check the Driftwood website for performance dates and locations; admission is free or PWYC, as indicated in the venue listing. Worried about weather? Check out the rain policy here.

For more on Rosalynde, check out director D. Jeremy Smith and actor Sochi Fried in an interview with Gill Deacon on CBC’s Here and Now.

 

 

To breed or not to breed? Choices, identity & divisions in reflective, funny Rattled

paige and lena couch
Nessya Dayan & Ximena Huizi – photo by Claire Holland

Brouillon Productions examines the spectrum of women’s choices and attitudes towards motherhood in Claire Holland’s Rattled, directed by Holland and currently running at the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace.

BFFs Lena (Ximena Huizi) and Paige (Nessya Dayan) can count on each other for everything, calling or texting each other every day with updates, advice, rants. That all changes when Lena has a baby, and she becomes too busy, too tired and too mommy brained to maintain frequent, focused contact. And when they attend Lena’s post-delivery baby shower at Lena’s aunt Donna’s (Stacey Iseman), it becomes apparent that the two friends now belong to two different groups: the breeders and the non-breeders. The breeders are Grace (Carina Cojeen), Julia (Kaya Bucholc) and Aundrea (Fleur Jacobs), and the non-breeders include Lena’s colleague Michelle (Regan Brown) and Donna, who takes more neutral territory as host and referee. During the food, drinks and games, the range of attitudes and desires regarding motherhood emerges. It’s a big life change for Lena, with a huge impact on her friendships; and on top of all this, Paige needs to decide if she’s going to stay in Toronto or move to Vancouver with her boyfriend as he starts a new job.

whole cast stroller scene
L to R: Regan Brown, Nessya Dayan, Stacey Iseman, Ximena Huizi, Kaya Bucholc, Carina Cojeen & Fleur Jacobs – photo by Claire Holland

The cast does a lovely job, with all the funny, touching and wit’s end insanity of caring for a tiny human – or not – arguing about strollers on transit and toddler meltdowns in restaurants. Huizi does a really nice job with Lena’s conflicting desire to be a mom and a friend; missing her little James even during the few hours of the shower, she struggles to recall details of conversation with Paige and finds herself distracted by the mommy talk in the room. Dayan brings a nice balance to Paige’s devotion to Lena and the growing frustration that their friendship will never be the same; a non-breeder by choice, now that Lena’s attentions are more focused on her baby, Paige needs to decide where to refocus her own life. Iseman brings a lovely sense of calm and quiet to Lena’s aunt Donna; with a history of cancer deciding her non-breeder status, she is gently pragmatic and pensive, and grateful for her life even though it took an unexpected turn. Brown is both cheerful and heartbreaking as Michelle, who longs to be a mother, but finds life’s busyness has kept her from finding a partner with which to create and share her dream. Lovely work in the two-handed scene with Iseman, where Michelle and Donna respectfully and poignantly share perspectives on identity and the disappointment of watching hopes drift away.

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Regan Brown & Stacey Iseman – photo by Claire Holland

Representing the mommy spectrum are Cojeen’s amiable and practical Grace, a mom of twins who’s happy to be out with the grown-up girls; on the more traditional side of parenting as far as boundaries go, she cares about her kids’ impact on others. Jacobs’ Aundrea is Grace’s hilarious polar opposite; bursting into the party, wondering where the booze is and over the moon that she has time away from the rug rats. She believes in free-range kids, and people just have to deal with it if they’re being their wild, kid-like selves in public. Bucholc’s Julia is a picture of fastidious efficiency and kid programming; doting mother to her Henry, she’s an encyclopedia of the best pre-school classes and knows where all the stroller accessible spaces are within a 10-km radius.

The social and peer – and self-imposed – pressure to be a woman in a certain way is alive and well in the 21st century, with motherhood being a significant piece of that equation. Perhaps if we were a bit gentler on ourselves, we could be a little less judgemental of the choices other women make.

The pre-show lobby video monitor and program include some fabulous quotes on motherhood from various notable women. My favourite is from Gloria Steinem: “I’m completely happy not having children. I mean, everybody does not have to live in the same way. And as somebody said, ‘Everybody with a womb doesn’t have to have a child any more than everybody with vocal cords has to be an opera singer.’”

To breed or not to breed? Choices, identity and divisions – funny ‘cuz it’s true in poignant, reflective Rattled.

Rattled continues till July 23 in the Tarragon Extraspace, running every night at 8 p.m. with an additional performance on July 23 at 2:30 p.m. It’s a very short run, so get yourself out there to avoid disappointment.