Fierce and fiercer

Any George F. Walker play, it goes without saying, is going to be a matter of some intensity. Stage one in a space so small the front row viewers could almost reach out and touch an actor and you’ve got a real pressure cooker. Which is pretty much what Fierce is: an hour-long, over-the-top dark fantasy about a crazed drug addict/alcoholic in a court-ordered session with an angry female doctor and counsellor.

As the lights come up and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” fades out, we are in a doctor’s office.

Emmelia Gordon is Jayne, a heavyset character with long, still wet brown hair under a toque, arm in a sling, dressed in prison-issue, dark-green sweats. Marisa Crockett is Margaret (“Maggs” to Jayne) a thin-lipped, hair-pulled-back, uptight, rigid MD whose file folder and notes act as her protective shield.

Injured Jayne has been released from jail after causing a truck to flip when she walked into heavy traffic. Dr. Maggie lost her patience with such patients many appointments ago. Each woman is determined to break the other.

More than a shouting match or a contest of wills, Fierce is wrapped around a tragedy that will only be revealed in the last moments of the show. In the meantime, it’s a wild rollercoaster ride on rails of rapid-fire dialogue that evokes laughter, horror, sorrow and shock in about equal measure.

In the real time of a session with a counsellor, we learn that Jayne is a teacher, a guidance counsellor in fact, who refers to the troubled students she dealt with, including one involved in a murder case audience members will recognize from the news. (“That was one of mine.”) She’s on the attack from the top of the hour.

They squabble; no one wins. “I’m almost certainly right,” says Maggie about Jayne’s situation, “and you’re definitely not.” Jayne is refusing to cooperate with questioning. How did you lose your husband, Maggie wants to know. Jayne answers with thick sarcasm, “We went for a walk in a very dense forest and I lost him.”

Jayne will only comply if she is allowed to ask questions. She’s looked up Margaret’s background and found Margaret has herself been an addict, an orphan and is covering up some serious psychological damage. At one point, Jayne sends the doctor scurrying for the bathroom and takes the opportunity to read Margaret’s notes: “Bullshit! Wrong!,” she shouts, then, shrugging at some comment, “fine.”

Since both characters are conditioned to lie, Walker’s arc is soon found. They will argue, probe, undermine each other, finally drink vodka out of the bottle and share a joint. And before the lights come down they will tell their buried truths.

Fierce, written in 2016, shares themes with Walker’s Parents Night (2014) and The Bigger Issue (2015) and like many of his previous works underscores the effects of poverty and social ills on basically good people.

Days later, Jayne’s agony and her doctor’s sorry state are still with us, proof that Walker has lost none of his momentum.

Fierce

By George F. Walker

Directed by Wes Berger

A Criminal Girlfriends production at Red Sandcastle Theatre, Toronto, until March 3

Photo of Marisa Crockett (lying down) and Emmelia Gordon by John Gundy

Make yourself at home

“I’m terribly sorry. I’m running late. I have to have a shower and there’s no hot water.” When David Danzon, Corpus artistic director, greets you at the door of his house at 8 Baden Street in bathrobe and slippers you know something’s up; you’re just not quite sure what. House Guests is an adventure, a performance in the form of a house party in which the guests/audience can wander at will over three floors and a basement, to follow the antics, games and yes, dance moves, of a motley crew of performers.

“There’s only one house rule,” says Danzon, passing around pairs of slippers and offering refreshments. Guests – up to 20 at a time – are served green tea or vodka. Then stage lights come on around the archway separating living room and dining room, the red curtain is parted and there stand five characters dressed identically in white cotton, hooded robes. As they move about we detect chatter from sound devices in their pockets, along the lines of “Oh what’s that?” ; “very nice.”

A French song comes on from some hidden source, a couple starts swaying to the music,  and the wandering begins. Dancer Michael Caldwell does drag, donning glasses and a black wig. He simpers about, lip-synching on a table top to  Barbra Streiusand’s “The Way We Were.” Actor, dancer and comedian Rob Feetham is hooded for much of the evening, but comes alive as a boxer with a topknot and challenges guests to a match with a pair of mechanical boxers. Indrit Kasapi, actor, director, writer and choreographer, is a silent fellow who, with a change from Arab headdress to bowler hat and bow-tie is transformed into an authoritarian lurker. Japanese dancer Takako Segawa puts on a Japanese wig and kimono and invites guests to play a kind of shell game in which the guest inevitably loses. Later in a child’s bedroom, she does a tea ceremony with a little girl’s toy kitchen set. Dancer Jolyane Langlois dons a blue wig and in a back bedroom offers to paint fingernails dark blue.

You’re never quite sure what to expect, especially as the performers have a knack for disappearing into closets or behind shower curtains and then cropping up again on a different floor. It all seems entirely daft and random, although there is a point when we are all drawn together to watch Langlois and Segawa do a smart duet over chairs and tables.

House Guests goes from weird to weirder – a figure in a long black dress and black net gloves arrives under a tall lampshade that lights up. Later we are herded into the kitchen for a soup supper. You notice a well-read copy of Baudelaire’s Fleurs de mal on a corner table. The Joris-Karl Huysmans-esque lampshade character was also a clue to the inspiration for this site-specific show: it’s part parlor game, part theatre of the absurd, all very decadent and delightful. Each house guest is likely to get a unique experience, depending on whom they follow and which floors they settle on. All the personal effects of this family are on display such that House Guests also has its voyeuristic element. At evening’s end, guests are invited to stay and chat and possibly venture an idea about what they’ve just witnessed.

House Guests

Created by David Danzon, Rob Feetham, Michael Caldwell, Indrit Kasapi, Jolyane Langlois and Takako Segawa.

Music by Pedro Guirao

Lighting by Claire Hill

Costumes by Carolin Linden

A production of Corpus at 8 Baden Street, Toronto until December 17

Photo of Rob Feetham by Jae Yang

 

 

 

 

Chinese family saga embodied in one talented man

Jeff Ho is a quadruple threat: he can write, he can act, he can compose and he can raise the roof at the piano keys. trace, his one-man show at Factory Studio Theatre, has been in development for two years. The raw materials were easy to come by: his own family’s migrant history, traced through three generations of powerful Chinese women: his great-grandmother, grandmother and mother.

Ho impersonates all three women, shifting to the piano to pound out Beethoven or a popular tune as the storyline calls for it.

Fully outfitted in an elegant ivory suit and tropical shoes, Ho enters as an apparently delirious woman entertaining a nightmare vision of rats overrunning her home. This is great-grandma, Kwan Bo Siu, 85 at this time (2001) and living in a tiny apartment in Hong Kong. She calls for her granddaughter, 44-year-old Kwan Miu Chi, known as Ma. “Where’s Ma? When I wake up I want my money and my food. I want my cigarettes.” Ho as great-grandma deftly produces what looks like a lit cigarette from a sleeve and puffs on it. This trick with a cigarette, the piano accompaniment and the shedding of clothes on Ho’s part become the motifs that tie together a 100-year family saga. “I smoke til I one hundred,” says a defiant great-grandma, and we get a measure of the woman who saved her family and set them on a course first for Hong Kong and then for Canada.

She’s the Mahjong Queen who gambles away so much cash her son and daughter-in-law have to take on extra jobs to keep them fed and clothed. But great-grandmother has born unmentionable tragedy and hardship.

“My family sold me for 10 chickens and a horse,” she declares, lighting another cigarette or shouting out Mahjong! She met her husband on the day of their wedding. But luck was not with them. “What a useless soldier,” she crows. He is killed by the Japanese who have invaded China and Great-Grandma arranges to escape by boat from Guangzhou to Hong Kong with her two sons.

One of them marries and this is where Ho’s grandma, Kwan Wei Foon (64 years old at the time in the play) comes in. In flashbacks, Ho shows how hard grandma worked, often frustrated by her mother-in-law’s bad habits and the struggle to keep alive through the war years. Ma, mother of Jeff and his brother Eric, embarks from Hong Kong for Toronto, working terrible jobs, browbeating her younger son to practise classical piano and threatening him with removal of lessons should he start playing songs – as Ho does – like “Can’t help falling in love with you.” In Ma’s mind Jeff should think only of becoming a chartered accountant. Luckily for us, he moves to Montreal and pursues a theatrical career.

Just over an hour long, trace is structured as a piano sonata in five movements with a prologue and coda. But this demarcation does nothing to allow us to follow the story that has been chopped up into pieces that shift rapidly between times and characters. Better direction might have opened the play up some, so that we could pick up the thread of the story and clearly identify each of the three women at any given moment. Better dramaturgy might have shaped the play into fragments that cohere more. While anyone can marvel at Ho’s acting, piano playing and mastery of emotion, one is not entirely sure who’s who at the point at which a family tragedy is revealed.

trace

Written, composed and performed by Jeff Ho

Directed by Nina Lee Aquino with dramaturgy by Matt McGeachy

Set by Michelle Ramsay and Nina Lee Aquino

Lighting by Michelle Ramsay

Costume by Joanna Yu

A Factory Theatre production in association with b current performing arts

At Factory Studio Theatre, Toronto, through December 3

Photo of Jeff Ho by Dahlia Katz

Poison packs a wallop

A woman and a man arrive, separately, in the reception room of a Dutch cemetery. They’ve been summoned to a meeting. The soil is contaminated and as many as 200 graves will have to be moved, including that of their loved one. This is the first time they have seen each other in 10 years – nine, argues the ex-husband – since the New Year’s Eve, Dec. 31, 1999 when he, bearing two suitcases, walked out the door of their home. He now lives in Normandy, France. And he has arrived for this meeting first. “You’re early,” she says upon entry. When it’s time to sit down, they leave lots of room between them.

Poison takes this couple a long way in 75 minutes and we go with them, moved, amused and finally wiser than when we came in.

Written by Dutch playwright Lot Vekemans, Poison has been a hit in Europe. Coal Mine Theatre commissioned Rina Vergano to write an English translation and the result is an intimate performance that seems tailor-made for the tiny stage at the storefront theatre on the Danforth.

We soon understand that the grave, now mired in a toxic “muck,” is that of the couple’s dead son Jacob. Slowly, painfully, the story of their marriage, their loss and their very separate griefs unspools.

Fiona Highet and Ted Dykstra make much of their roles, under the direction of Peter Pasyk. On a bare set with only a water cooler, four chairs and the occasional piano phrase or projection of a stained-glass window pane to slightly alter the mood, they engage in ways requiring a skilled actor’s attentiveness to space and gesture.

Exits and entries mark the changes in their stances toward each other, but those attitudes can shift within a few sentences. “You haven’t changed a bit,” he says once she’s arrived. “Don’t look too closely,” she fires back, with a wry grin. It’s downhill from there. The awkward silences, the small talk, the polite inquiries,  devolve into a shouting match, as they hurl at each other the toxic words both know can wound. “Everything was always your drama,” he barks, accusing her of wallowing in her grief. “You’re pathetic . .  . heartless,” she says, levelling her worst at her journalist ex.

The brilliance of Poison is in the expression of profound grief and emotional epiphanies through everyday language and ordinary images used poetically. It’s not the remembering but the way they remember that determines the movement in the play. Her smile, which brought out a dimple, is how he’s preserved his wife. She recalls only the back of him as he went out the door.

A repeated phrase, “so this is it?” marks the moments when things start to change.

Memory is a thread that runs through this play. People can hang on to pain and it is always fresh in their recollection of it. But holding on to positive memories serves a different function.

Dykstra and Highet, on the wings of a wonderful script, take us to unexpected places and a realization that you really do only have this now, this moment, to make the most of whatever life has dealt you.

Poison

By Lot Vekemans, translated by Rina Vergano

Directed by Peter Pasyk

Set and lighting by Patrick Lavender

Costumes by Laura Delchiaro

Sound by Beau Dixon

Produced by Coal Mine Theatre, Toronto, running through December 3

Photo of Fiona Highet and Ted Dykstra by Dahlia Katz

Daughter prompts a big question mark

If Adam Lazarus wanted to make us live the shame and horror of a Type A misogynist by writing a play centred on a man’s relationship with his daughter, he has certainly succeeded. Whether one wants to sit through Daughter is another question altogether.

An outstanding performer and artistic director of the Festival of Clowns, Lazarus has, along with Ann-Marie Kerr, Jivesh Parasram and Melissa D’Agostino, created a show that, contrary to its title, is all about men and their possessive, violent and demeaning attitudes toward women. Especially, it seems, where their daughters are concerned.

Lazarus, for whom the fourth wall has never existed, is expert at drawing in an audience, calling for judgment about whether it was wrong for a father to push his three-year-old into her bed, or asking for a definition of gang-banging versus orgies. Soon we are all complicit.

You find yourself wishing for a little censorship as he delves deeper, with plenty of detail, into his character’s pornographic obsessions, a debauched trip to Japan to find how to debase women in that culture and a horrific scene of violence against a 16-year-old girlfriend begging to be hit.

Lazarus’s man is very specific: a Toronto “lower middle-class Jew” who frequents Filmore’s strip bar and hires prostitutes. But his 70-minute confessional is guaranteed to make everyone, male or female, guilty or not, squirm in their seats.

My 36-year-old male companion assured me such men exist. Recent headlines underscore that fact. But it seems this show about “toxic masculinity” is trying to say all men have this capacity, even tendency, to demean and hurt girls and women, which is simply not true.

If the aim of Daughter was to create awareness and to educate young men, it has sadly missed the mark. Such a show was produced by Montreal writer/musician/theatre performer Norman Nawrocki in 1993. It was a one-man anti-sexist, sex-positive show responding to widespread date rape and violence against women. Nawrocki toured college and university campuses for years with I Don’t Understand Women.

It is hard in the end to discern what the point of Daughter is. It has been labelled darkly satirical, but to what end? We already know way more than we needed to know about misogyny in all its contemporary modes. If Daughter is a cry for help, it’s not one many would answer.

All I know for sure is that I wish I had stayed home instead of going to see it.

Daughter

Written and performed by Adam Lazarus

Directed by Ann-Marie Kerr

Co-produced by The Theatre Centre and QuipTake with Pandemic Theatre

At The Theatre Centre, Toronto, through November 19

Photo of Adam Lazarus by Alejandro Santiago

 

Soulpepper and Albee at their best

Timing, even more than in most plays, is critical to the successful staging of The Goat. Edward Albee’s 2002 play opens straight-forwardly enough with Stevie, a well-heeled Upper East Side type, arranging spring posies in a vase, setting the scene for her architect husband Martin who is about to be interviewed on video. The occasion is his winning the Pritzker Prize and a major building commission, World City.

“Why can’t I remember anything?” Martin asks Stevie. He can’t even recall why he’s entered the room. The two have an obvious undying affection for one another, played out in the light, witty banter that ensues. “All the senses go,” Martin observes of the aging process. “You’re only 50,” Stevie reassures. “It’s the little slips,” he notes. “Do you think it means anything?” “What’s that smell?” she sniffs when they embrace.

The Goat Or, Who is Sylvia? is a play about words and how we use them to negotiate the difficult times. The audience pays attention to a phrase like “It’s the little slips,” knowing somehow that this couple has entered a minefield. Each sentence, each movement is measured and delivered with exactitude. Alan Dilworth directs with care and insight into Albee’s precise text. Raquel Duffy as Stevie, Derek Boyes as Martin’s journalist friend Ross, Paolo Santalucia as son Billy and Albert Schultz as Martin get mileage out of every emotion-laden moment of this play.

Martin isn’t very forthcoming when his old friend Ross (they’ve known each other since they were 10) attempts an interview to mark this “pinnacle” of Martin’s career. Putting down his video camera, Ross seeks to find out what’s occupying his friend’s mind. He guesses it’s an extramarital affair. Martin struggles with what to tell him, reminiscing about a time when the young men were entertaining hookers in a shared room and Martin couldn’t perform: “the heart rules the dick.” This evasion doesn’t sit well with Ross, who has preserved a frat-boy’s understanding of infidelity being the right of every red-blooded heterosexual male.

The play cracks open not with Martin’s admission he is head-over-heels for a goat called Sylvia (“she was looking at me with those eyes of hers”) but with Stevie’s receipt of a letter from Ross detailing how her husband (“I am mortified to tell you”) is fucking a goat. Stevie has included Billy, the 17-year-old gay son, in this revelation and he is the one who is most helplessly distraught.

Lighting, sound design, costumes and set – a tastefully furnished white space that Stevie will demolish – all work toward a very nuanced production. Details build, through conversations ranging from sarcastic to explosive, to a spectacular climax. Even little things count: like Ross’s spanking new jeans with the four-inch cuff; they’re a clue to how a consciously constructed image can mask a duplicitous character.

Dilworth’s program notes cite Albee’s subtitle: Notes Toward a Definition of Tragedy (the Greek term for tragedy translates as “goat song”) and words from Anne Carson on the cathartic function of classical tragedy. This production fulfills expectations of classic drama to move us as well as a contemporary need to be intellectually challenged. Martin is really asking, who am I and what is my heart telling me? Meanwhile, a raging Stevie exhibits the most animalistic behaviour of anyone on stage. More than simply cathartic, this Goat stuns us into self-examination.

The Goat Or, Who Is Sylvia?

Written by Edward Albee

Directed by Alan Dilworth

A Soulpepper production at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts , Toronto, until November 18

Photo of Raquel Duffy and Albert Schultz by Cylla Von Tiedemann

Do we take sides or take a stand?

“Dense” is a word you might use to describe the writing in Other Side of the Game, a play by Amanda Parris, now running at Daniels Spectrum. You can imagine director Nigel Shawn Williams mounting this production by parsing sections of the dialogue between alternating pairs and trios of characters played by five actors in a show that delves into black activism in Toronto.

Parris’s premise is that the personal and the political are inseparable and that action in the public realm inevitably impacts one’s private struggles and vice versa.

Lights come up on Virgilia Griffith, Shakura Dickson, Ryan Rosery, Peter Bailey and Ordena Stephens-Thompson seated silently in straight-backed chairs. Their choreographed shouts of anger and frustration, sighs, yawns, squirming and rising turns out to be set in a prison waiting room, where women waiting to visit prisoners are confounded by jail protocols. One screams that she hasn’t heard her number announced. The overhead voice of a prison guard says, “That’s your problem; you should have listened.”

The damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don’t jail routines make a solid metaphor for what the characters in Other Side of the Game are caught in: on both the domestic and the political front, a no-win situation.

Akilah (Virgilia Griffith) is a tireless sistah, a single mum and organizer who’s willing to give her all for the cause, with love.  and has a penchant for citing pithy, inspirational quotes from Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho. In the office of an organization mounting a protest against police brutality, her opposite number is an earnest, absolutist radical, Khalil (Ryan Rosery), more likely to quote Malcolm X. Enter Beverley (Shakura Dickson), a student from the black community in Halifax whose innocent desire to join the movement is opposed by Brother Khalil. Akilah wants to give Beverley a chance.

With a quick scene change we see that Dickson is now playing Shevon, a slang-speaking dish who is chatting with her friend Nicole, played by Griffith ̶ with no visible or audible change in appearance.  Nicole is also a single mother and works shifts as a cashier at Shoppers Drug Mart. She has a penchant for citing pithy, inspirational quotes from Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho. Soon Rosery shows up again, as Nicole’s boyfriend Devonte, a man with a criminal past who has been away for two years.

The time frame here is about a week, during which Akilah, Khalil and Beverley work on the big demonstration while Nicole and Shevon engage in abusive relationships with their boyfriends.

Peter Bailey is marvellous as an old Caribbean guy who bears memories and methods from the civil rights movement in the U.S. He disputes the attitude of the younger generation, especially when it comes to violence and crime. Later Bailey shines as Shevon’s gangsta boyfriend.

Ordena Stephens-Thompson does double duty as an authoritarian female cop and the guidance counsellor who advises Devonte against trying to complete a diploma that would get him into university.

(“This transition program is for people who’ve demonstrated potential . . .”)

Parris’ makes a compelling drama with Other Side of the Game while covering real issues in Toronto’s African-Canadian community. From drug trafficking and prison horrors to carding and child poverty, she creates a real story to carry important messages.

Joanna Yu’s simple set of graffiti-ed walls and a garbage-littered chain-link fence make staging–moving around some concrete armchairs–simple. And sound designer Verne Good bridges rapidly changing scenes with well chosen musical transitions.

Even at the fast pace of the play, it feels long and is confusing. The lengthy opener with the miming and the chairs doesn’t lend anything to the piece. Add to the longueurs an opening-night fire alarm at the Daniels Spectrum complex that caused us all to evacuate the theatre for more than 20 minutes.

Such accomplished actors as this cast could surely have been directed to inflect their different characters so we always know who’s who. As it is, only Shevon and Beverley are easily differentiated.

Still, this is an energetic and inspiring performance from Cahoots Theatre and Obsidian Theatre.

Other Side of the Game

Written by Amanda Parris

Directed by Nigel Shawn Williams

Produced by Cahoots Theatre and Obsidian Theatre,

At the Aki Studio, Daniels Spectrum, Toronto until November 5

Photo of Virgilia Griffith and Shakura Dickson by Dahlia Katz