Questions of perception, assumption & expectation in the powerful, riveting, provocative Actually

Tony Ofori & Claire Renaud. Set design by Sean Mulcahy. Costume design by Alex Amini. Lighting design by Steve Lucas. Photo by Joanna Akyol.

 

The Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company, in association with Obsidian Theatre, opens its 13th season with Anna Ziegler’s Actually, directed by Philip Akin, assisted by Kanika Ambrose; and running in the Greenwin Theatre at the Meridian Arts Centre (formerly the Toronto Centre for the Arts). Two Ivey League freshmen, a Black male student and a Jewish female student, make a connection that becomes sexual in nature—and each has a very different experience and account of the night they spent together. Powerful, riveting and provocative—featuring compelling and genuine performances—this timely two-hander takes you on a see-saw ride of belief, empathy and understanding; highlighting perceptions, assumptions and expectations based on race, gender and class.

Excited, terrified and determined to do well, Amber (Claire Renaud) and Tom (Tony Ofori) arrive at Princeton for their first year of studies. She’s quirky and awkward, with romantic notions of sex and limited experience; he’s got swagger and game, with a sexually active lifestyle and a commitment to sowing his youthful wild oats. Opposites attract on common ground as the two make a connection; and attraction brings them together in Tom’s bed.

During their encounter, Amber finds that something changes for her; and their initially sexy fun times experience becomes uncomfortable and unwanted. She relates how she attempts to put a stop to it by getting off the bed, saying “Actually…” Tom believes she was into it, and later remembers nothing from her verbal communication or body language that would have suggested otherwise. Amber comments on the night to a friend, and the response prompts her to report the incident to the university, which launches a sexual misconduct investigation and hearing. Amber believes she was raped, and Tom is shocked and mortified by the allegation.

As their individual and collective stories unfold, the audience goes from being confidante—as we hear about their lived experiences with family, sex, desire, what inspires them—to university hearing panelist as they make their statements. Both had a lot to drink on the night in question. Both feel like outsiders with much to prove, anxiously navigating their first year at a prestigious school, along with raging 18-year-old hormones, and a culture of sex and partying. Not the best conditions for making good choices. Both live with body issues: Amber with the pressures of traditional feminine beauty standards; and Tom with the everyday racism and prejudice that accompany the colour of his skin. The seriousness of Amber’s rape charge lands particularly hard on Tom—a young Black man living in a world stewed in toxic, ongoing systemic racism. And Amber’s initial tacit consent that night, going to his room for the purposes of sex, combined with her behaviour earlier that evening, puts her credibility in question.

Compelling, genuine and nuanced performances from Renaud and Ofori in this vital, timely piece of theatre. Renaud brings a big spark of light, energy and pathos to the adorkable, hyper-talkative Amber; a young woman desperately treading water to stay afloat in a new world of classes, assignments, squash practice and obligatory partying. Amber finds herself wanting and not wanting at the same time; pressed forward by social media-driven peer pressure, she engages in activities and behaviour even when her heart isn’t really in it. Ofori’s Tom is a complex portrait of a confident, frank young man who wants to do his family proud; Tom is the first of his working class family to attend university, let alone at an Ivey League school. There’s a sensitive soul beneath the swagger, expressed through Tom’s love of classical music and piano playing—where he finds a space to be free.

It would be grossly simplistic to call this a “he said/she said” story. As you vacillate between believing and sympathizing with one, and then the other, in the end you may find yourself believing both of them. And if both are right, on which side of this 50/50 situation will the feather land in the final decision? In this age of #MeToo and #consent, and with all of these complex and intersectional variables to consider, audiences will no doubt come away with questions, conversations and reflections. This story is a prime example of why sex, sexuality and consent need to be taught in elementary and secondary schools.

Actually continues in the Greenwin Theatre at the Meridian Arts Centre (formerly the Toronto Centre for the Arts) until September 29. Advance tickets available online by clicking on the show page calendar.

ICYMI: Check out assistant director Kanika Ambrose’s Artist Perspective piece for Intermission Magazine.

SummerWorks: Reaching back through time & memory in search of home in the endearing, poignant hiraeth

Mandy E. MacLean. Lighting design by Logan Raju Cracknell. Photo by Matt Carter.

 

The hiraeth collective’s hiraeth, created and performed by Mandy E. MacLean, and directed for this SummerWorks production by Leah Holder, takes the audience on an intimate solo show personal history tour of teenage memories, with a longing for identity and a sense of belonging at the heart of the storytelling. Nostalgic, wistful and endearing in its humour and poignancy, it’s a reminder that you can’t really go home again, but you can visit for a brief time and maybe even take away something new. hiraeth opened at the Media Arts Centre in the Gamma Gallery yesterday afternoon.

MacLean joins the audience in the round, bursting with nervous energy and apology. A soldier’s kid who grew up in a Canadian Forces PMQ (Private Military/Married Quarters), as an adult, she searches through the dark of the basement, shouting to her mother upstairs as she rummages through storage containers to find her packed away stuff in a garbage bag. This personal archeological dig through the past reveals cassette tapes of teen journaling and music favourites—taking her back to a younger self who overheard parental arguments and feared for her father’s safety.

An awkward, bespectacled middle schooler nicknamed “Dung Beetle” by a mean girl classmate, and experiencing those awkward, wonderful first crush feels for a boy named Michael, she’s also navigating the excitement and concerns about the upcoming Y2K New Year and the big changes she anticipates it will bring. A flashlight becomes a male friend—not her boyfriend—and her other hand, wearing her glasses, becomes herself as she re-enacts a first kiss and later dancing at the New Year’s Eve party. Her heart set on the ever-evasive Michael, that first kiss was merely a practice run for him, and she’s painfully aware and wary of advancing her already precarious social standing by any assumptions that she was with a “loser”.

It’s an intimate, immersive experience—where the audience becomes her confidantes, fellow party goers and even her mother—as MacLean includes and addresses us directly while mapping out the scary, awkward, confusing and marvelous moments from her life as a teen; in search of home and identity, and mourning what was and what could have been, in an endearingly funny, vulnerable and poignant performance.

“Hiraeth” is a Welsh term for a feeling of homesickness for a home you can’t go back to—or maybe never even existed. Part nostalgia, part grief experience, part interior journey, hiraeth lives up to its name. You can’t go home again—and the trip you take through memory and personal artifacts maybe only highlight what you took with you. But maybe the attempt can unearth something new.

hiraeth continues in the Toronto Media Arts Centre Gamma Gallery (second floor, hang a hard right when you get to the top of the stairs) until August 17; check the show page for exact dates/times. Tickets available online or in person at the box office; seating is limited, so consider booking ahead.

SummerWorks: Running away to home in the fierce, funny, inspiring, socially aware The Breath Between

Fio Yang. Photo by Saba Akhtar.

 

The AMY Project returns to SummerWorks, this year with a journey of belonging and identity as a group of BIPOC, 2LGBTQ women and non-binary youth living in a world ravaged by climate change venture out in search of a place where they can feel safe and welcome to be themselves. The fierce, funny, inspiring and socially aware The Breath Between, directed by kumari giles and Julia Hune-Brown, assisted by Jamie Milay, and created by the ensemble, opened last night in The Theatre Centre Incubator.

In a post-apocalyptic world where climate change has destroyed the planet and forced the population to live under protective domes, the queer community gathers to dance and celebrate at Dome Pride. Growing increasingly disillusioned and disappointed about the over-the-top corporate branding and ownership—not to mention the $17 bottled water—and mainstream packaging of the event meant to “normalize” queer culture, a group of young BIPOC and 2LGBTQ women and non-binary youth decide to blow this corporate logo-ridden popsicle stand and search for a better place. Hijacking a spaceship on display at the event, and joined by the chirpy host inspired by their cause, they venture out to explore worlds beyond to find a place where they can feel safe and welcome. The trip brings some twists, turns and revelations as they share and discover themselves.

The bright, energetic and engaging ensemble includes Jericho Allick (mentored by Neema Bickersteth), nevada jane arlow (mentored by Susanna Fournier), Alice Cheng Meiqing (mentored by Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster), Lyla Sherbin (mentored by Avery Jean Brennan), Fio Yang (mentored by Maddie Bautista), Whitney Nicole Peterkin and Megan Legesse; with additional writing by Taranjot Bamrah, A.C., Daniella Leacock and Claudia Liz. Incorporating music, poetry and monologues, the performers invite us into their individual worlds as they share memories and lived experiences—for better or worse. There is pain, longing and shame—but there is also resilience, ferocity and hope; all peppered with astute and darkly comic acknowledgments of the negative impacts of extreme climate change and the corporate branding of events that were once community-organized, grassroots movements.

While they may leave the Dome feeling like a spaceship full of misfit toys, the group ends up finding community and chosen family—and faces the choice of returning home or continuing their off-world exploration. Nicely book-ended by songs performed by Fio Yang, you may find yourself humming Out in the City as you leave the theatre.

Go where you are welcome—or take space where you like? In the end, home is where your family is, whether biological or chosen, and you can spark the change you want to see.

The Breath Between has three more performances in the Incubator space at The Theatre Centre, closing on August 16; check the show page for exact dates/times. Tickets available online or in person at the box office.

A hero’s epic journey in the magical, multidisciplinary Kiviuq Returns: An Inuit Epic

Qaggiq Collective ensemble—Animal Den scene. Costume design by Looee Arreak. Projection design by Jamie Griffiths. Lighting design by Rebecca Picherack. Photo by Jamie Griffiths.

 

Tarragon Theatre presents The Qaggiq Collective’s magical, multidisciplinary hero’s journey Kiviuq Returns: An Inuit Epic. Written by the Iqaluit, Nunavut-based collective, and inspired by the legends of the Inuit hero Kiviuq, the multimedia performance is based on stories remembered and shared by Inuit elder storytellers Miriam Aglukkaq (from Kugaarjuk), Susan Avingaq (from Igloolik), Madeline Ivalu (from Igloolik) and Qaunaq Mikigak (from Kinngait)—passed on in the oral tradition. Directed by Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, Kiviuq Returns is performed entirely in Inuktitut, with no surtitles,* incorporating music, dance, movement, mask and projections—immersing the audience in Inuit culture, community and storytelling.

Starring Natar Ungalaq, Charlotte Qamaniq, Vinnie Karetak (last night, understudy Jerry Laisa stepped in for Karetak), Christine Tootoo, Keenan Carpenter and Avery Keenainak, Kiviuq Returns presents five of the hundreds of stories about the Inuit hero. Three actors share the role of Kiviuq (Ungalaq, Tootoo and Laisa), with role exchanges marked by the passing of Kiviuq’s qajaq (kayak) paddle and headband—representing the sharing of power and knowledge among Inuit communities. The four elders who shared these stories are present via video projection, to round out each of the five tales.

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Qaggiq Collective ensemble—Orphan bullying scene. Costume design by Looee Arreak. Projection design by Jamie Griffiths. Lighting design by Rebecca Picherack. Photo by Jamie Griffiths.

Comedy turns to tragedy in the story of the Orphan (Keenainak), turned into a seal for her protection from repeated abuse from bullies by her angakkuq (shaman) grandmother (Qamaniq), who is heartbroken over having to do this. Only Kiviuq (Ungalaq) is spared from retribution while he’s out hunting in his qajaq with the bullies, as he had tried to intervene and stop the bullying. Lost and adrift, his hero’s journey begins.

From the push/pull dynamic of Kiviuq’s (Tootoo) desire to wed a Fox Woman (Keenainak) who just longs to be free (song written by Avery Keenainak and Abraham Etak), to his hilariously bawdy encounter with a den of lusty animals (Carpenter, Laisa, Qamaniq and Ungalaq), to a brush with death when he’s (Laisa) captured by the fearful Bee Woman (Qamaniq), Kiviuq is present and connected to his environment, and the animals and spirit guides that come to assist him. Nicely bookending the five stories, Ungalaq returns to play Kiviuq once more at the end of his journey, where he must stay behind as his Goose Wife (Keenainak) and goslings (Carpenter, Laisa, Qamaniq and Tootoo) fly south and he transforms out of human form to become part of the landscape.

Woven into the Kiviuq stories are a Woman’s Dance; bringing to mind the serious mental health issues faced by our Indigenous population, the woman struggles with a deep internal conflict, eventually overcoming it. And the beautiful Sea Woman Poem (written in English by Taqralik Partridge and translated into Inuktitut by Looee Arreak), featuring Tootoo leading the ensemble. Expressing deep love and respect for the water, the poem despairs at the careless and dangerous environmental damage done by modern-day industry; the movements accompanying the words rippling through each performer. And there’s a song (sound design by Chris Coleman), repeated during each Kiviuq exchange; hypnotic and relaxing, like a lullaby wrapping you in the comfort and safety of home—it stays with you long after you’ve left the theatre.

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Fox elder story. Projection design by Jamie Griffiths. Photo by Jamie Griffiths.

The storytelling is playful, poignant and engaging—having you laughing one minute and breaking your heart the next. The adventure, the shifting landscapes (projection design by Jamie Griffiths), and cast of human, animal and spirit characters keep you on your toes as you let the Inuktitut language wash over you. It’s that ‘kid at story time’ kind of feeling. And the easy-going atmosphere of the relaxed performance format makes for an intimate, enjoyable experience at the theatre. A story for all ages, it’s a welcoming, open door feeling, acknowledging the young and the elders as crucial members of the community.

Kiviuq Returns: An Inuit Epic is in its final week in the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace, closing on January 27; get advance tickets online or contact the box office at 416-531-1827. Last night’s house was packed, so advance booking or extra early arrival at the theatre are strongly recommended.

*The production provides a play guide, available for viewing and download online, and in the printed programs. It is recommended that you review the guide before and after the show, as well as reference it during (lights are brought up during scene changes) to aid in a deeper understanding of the performance.