Pity the poor immigrant

A strange, lost, nervous-looking man wanders around the living-room set of Title and Deed as we settle into our seats, amid tables holding lamps of the kind our mothers used to decorate with. A couple of standing lamps with old shades illuminate the back of the space.

To preserve the premise of the play, suffice it to say that Title and Deed is a 65-minute monologue performed outstandingly by Christopher Stanton. He being the lost, nervous-looking man already on set.

It helped that this nameless character’s repetitive gestures and mock diffidence reminded me of a dear, departed friend, because one of the big themes of Title and Deed is death, and the consequent remembering of whom we’ve lost and what they gave us. Especially our parents.

As a playwright Will Eno has tremendous range and in this piece has grasped the art of the fiction writer, getting inside the character’s head and giving an actor the difficult task of alternately addressing the audience, declaiming for no one in particular and, when all else fails, talking to himself.

Title and Deed had a brief run in November 2015 at Artscape Youngplace. Arnott and Stanton have undoubtedly refined the play, but the tagline still applies: “life as a state of permanent exile.” So you might imagine our monologist as a brother from another planet or a visitor from the past or simply someone who’s landed in the city after growing up in Britain, or some other English-speaking culture.

Our exile refers often to customs, both the entry process at the airport, and the traditions he recalls from his homeland. “ ‘Eyes are the window of the eyes,’ we used to say.”

The journey has put him in a puckish mood. It might be the excitement, or the process of being brought in to a new country (a funny bit of business with lightbulbs on a lampstand, cords pulled to imitate the photographing of one’s retina) or simply new bacteria. He begins to meditate on home, “where the hat’s hanging and the placenta is buried.” He muses on words, and their inadequacy. “Words take a toll.” But, “they do the job.”

He’s a lover of words, including women, both the word and the objects. Two females make their appearance in his meandering talk: Lauren (“her teeth shone in the moonlight”) and the blonde he calls Lisa (“. . .from this vicinity. It sounds so sexual.”)

This man doesn’t want to sound like a complainer. “I assure you, I am a celebrant,” he comments, dramatic soliloquy quickly morphing to direct address, when he asks an audience member if she can hear his jaws clicking. “I grind my teeth at night and maybe I’m doing it now.”

Fascinatingly, Mr. X recalls his own birth: “ ‘It’s a boy’ can sound more like a diagnosis than a piece of news.” But he admits he has no recollection of the conception.

Title and Deed is not all fun and games, sarcasm and uric acid. There are moments of sadness and genuine philosophical insight. Go see it and find out.

 

Title and Deed

Written by Will Eno

Directed by Stewart Arnott

Performed by Christopher Stanton

Presented by Nightfall Theatrics

At Tarragon Workspace, Toronto until October 8

Trey Anthony does it again

How Black Mothers Say I Love You, Factory Theatre, Toronto, until March 5, 2017

You could take the word Black out of the title of Trey Anthony’s play and it would still stand for the story she’s written. The strengths of How Black Mothers Say I Love You are at once its specificity and its universality, its personal and its political significance.

The play was inspired by the story of Anthony’s Jamaican grandmother who left children behind to seek a better life for them in England. To earn the money to reunite her family she swept the floors of the trains in the London transit system. It’s a familiar story in Canada, where in 1955, the federal government introduced a program to admit domestic workers with a promise of landed immigrant status. Successive generations of children left behind have felt the sting of separation and sense of abandonment.

This very well made play, directed by Trey in collaboration with Nisha Ahuja, runs on the emotional wars between a mother and her daughters, especially her eldest daughter. Claudette (Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah) won’t let her mother Daphne (Ordena Stephens-Thompson) ever forget the six years when she and her little sister Valerie (Allison Edwards-Crewe) were left behind with their grandparents while their mother went to Toronto and worked three jobs to give them a better life than the one she’d had as one of nine children living in a shack in Jamaica.

And now there’s another reunion, as Claudette comes home to Toronto from Montreal because her mother is dying of cancer. A new rift has opened between Bible-thumping mother and her eldest daughter, over Claudette’s sinful choice to love a woman. (Daphne to Claudette: “Stop acting like a man instead of trying to get one.”)

Death casts a long shadow in this play, not just Daphne’s imminent demise, but the earlier passing of her youngest daughter Chloe (Beryl Bain), a sickly child she had with a Toronto man after immigrating from Jamaica. The dead sister becomes more cause for Claudette’s resentment; she says of her mother, “she’d rather die and be with Chloe than live and stay with us.” Life is falling apart for everyone in this family – Valerie’s marriage to a wealthy white man is failing – and instead of pulling together, these women are duking it out with each other.

This show is no tragedy, though. Like Anthony’s rollicking da Kink in my Hair there’s much fun, song and dance, rolling out with an opening exchange between Valerie and Claudette about their mother’s obsession over the hat Miss Esme wore in her coffin. She may be refusing medical treatment, but Daphne ain’t going nowhere until they’ve obtained the perfect hat for her to wear at her funeral.

The staging of How Black Mothers, which had a good run last year, doesn’t leave much to argue with. Rachel Forbes’ set, costume and props are echt 80s Toronto. Michael Jackson and reggae discs on the turquoise walls of the teens’ room; Christ portraits and porcelain flowers in the yellow-painted kitchen. Gavin Bradley composed an original score that weaves together scenes that wouldn’t ordinarily occur in the same play: from gospel singing, say, we switch to meal preparation.

The actors are all superb, especially Ordena Stephens-Thompson as Daphne. Her role calls for grief, denial, anger, evangelical zeal, cheekiness and, finally, unbridled love for her daughters. She strikes the right note every time.

Trey Anthony has exceeded her expertise, however, by including dance. Some of the more organically occurring production numbers, such as the sequence of trying on outrageous hats, work. But the interpretative dance bits — the opening scene of women with suitcases and Chloe’s ghostly appearances with a violin bow — are embarrassing. Dancers trying to sing or vocalize can be cringe-inducing. The same goes for actors attempting modern dance.

 

How Black Mothers Say I Love You

Writer, director, executive producer – Trey Anthony

Actors – Beryl Bain, Allison Edwards-Crewe, Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah, Ordena Stephens-Thompson

Set design – Rachel Forbes

Lighting design – Steve Lucas

Music and sound design – Gavin Bradley

Choreography – Irma Villafuerte

Photography – Joseph Michael

This mutt’s a keeper

Métis Mutt, at Aki Studio Daniels Spectrum through February 5, 2017

Louis Riel once said, “My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.” Sheldon Elter is the living fulfilment of that promise. This 90-minute Native Earth Performing Arts show imported from Edmonton will have you pressed against the back of your seat and engaged to the point you’ll wonder where the time went.

He jumps right into character — “My name is Sheldon Elter and I’ll be your native comedian for tonight” — grabbing the microphone to spew out a series of jokes that increasingly make all in the audience uncomfortable: What do you call an Indian on a bike? Thief. What do you call two Indians on a bike? Organized crime. Switching moods, gaining traction, this natural mimic and fascinating mover keeps several narratives going, dropping one for another and filling in the missing parts as he goes.

Elter creates a character named Sheldon whose life details are pretty much those of the man himself. His father, Sonny, was native. His mother, whose last name he took, was in her youth a fair-skinned, blue-eyed blonde. Elter has a brother Derek, three years younger. As children they witnessed the beatings, the alcoholism, the raging arguments between parents and lots more that children should never see.

Switching rapidly from one character to another, Elter gives voice to them all: medicine man, drunken dad, classroom bullies, medical specialists. He plays guitar, singing a hilarious homo-erotic composition about the Lone Ranger and Tonto and a ballad called “Self Love” – neither recommended for family listening. Pieced together with lots of comic interludes is the story of a Metis youth who tries to protect his mother and eventually escapes with her to be raised by a step-father, who drinks and does drugs, stops and relapses, but finally finds his calling – and redemption – on stage. Elter is a born showman: he even does a passing impersonation of a Broadway musical performer.

Just when your sides are splitting from a series of one-liners (“my wet-dream catcher”), Elter slips into a heart-wrenching tale of lost youth. There were 11 years when he didn’t see his father at all and when he and a cousin go to visit the dad in a broken-down trailer, Sonny doesn’t at first recognize his own son.  “At least he was sober,” the actor says.

A generous performer, Elter moves like lightning, breaking into break-dance, then singing a Cree song as he takes us to a northern sweat lodge ceremony. All the action unfolds against an ingenious screen, shaped like half of a circular hide drum, on which are projected images to help set the scene. Elter has been working on Métis Mutt for 17 years. The version here is directed by Edmonton’s Ron Jenkins and it is tight as a drum. Don’t miss it.

Métis Mutt

Created and performed by Sheldon Elter

Director: Ron Jenkins

Set and lighting: Tessa Stamp

Projection designer: T. Erin Gruber

Sound designer: Aaron Macri

Photo: Ryan Parker

Dancing up a storm

Infinite Storms, The Theatre Centre, Toronto, through January 29, 2017

 

By all accounts – including Nova Bhattacharya’s – migraines deliver some of the worst pain humans experience. But headaches, back pain, bowel obstruction, depression, any kind of pain, all have a common effect: they make the sufferer feel alone, watching in agony as everyone else appears to enjoy themselves, or at least function normally.

How such a subject could be effectively explored in a dance and still be called art is amply demonstrated in Nova Bhattacharya’s Infinite Storms.

A thorough and fascinating fusion of eastern and western concepts, dance forms and philosophy, the hour-long piece consists of one reveal after another, the finale the most surprising of all.

As viewers take their seats, four female figures sit in smokey twilight around a central wrapped pillar – a maypole. The saris of three of them are woven into the pole.

Accompanied by the sound of deep, yogic breathing, a fourth, untethered, figure in a sari begins to dance, Bharatanatyam style, playing two hand bells. Gradually the other women unwind their saris, get to their feet and leave their posts, dancing, posing, with modern, balletic and Indian classical gestures intertwined as carefully as the cloths around the maypole. But the pole is actually Bhattacharya, tightly wrapped in darkness up til now and soon looking like a martyr being burned at the stake.

The others – Kate Holden and Molly Johnson, Atri Nundy and Malarvilly Varatharaja – are meanwhile moving, stomping bare feet, swinging arms and making broad facial expressions.

The other thing about pain is that it can quickly turn to pleasure, tears morphing to laughter, or simple relief.

Anyone in the audience could find something to identify with in Infinite Storms and apply a personal interpretation. Opening so soon after the women’s march, this all-female work also evoked the sense of solidarity experienced when one individual in pain connects with another and all find they are not alone, but actually connected in their suffering.

Bhattacharaya’s program notes end on the word “samsara” a Sanskrit term often found in Buddhist teachings to express the circularity and constancy of change in life as we know it. And it is this concept that ties together sound, tabla rhythms, colour changes, dance repetitions and symmetries, in one glorious carnival that ends with a maypole dance and a final, ingenious, laugh-inducing tableau.

Choreographer: Nova Bhattacharya

Collaborator: Louis Laberge-Côté

Performers: Kate Holden, Molly Johnson, Atri Nundy, Malarvilly Varatharaja, Nova Bhattacharya

Lighting: Marc Parent

Costume design: Tina Fushell

Sound/Tabla: Ed Hanley

Handout photo

 

 

Flying in the face of ennui

I Forgot to Fly Today

Created and performed by Trent Baumann

Downunderground production

Victoria Fringe Festival, Metro Studio Theatre

Thursday Sept 1, 8:15pm; Friday Sept 2, 6:45pm

 

For the world premiere of I Forgot to Fly Today, i.e., the first time he’s ever performed the piece, Trent Baumann appeared a little under-rehearsed.  And a little less than captivating. But as the minutes wore on, Baumann got into the rhythm and concluded with a trick that is completely original and truly spectacular.

Baumann, who lists his home as Surfer’s Paradise, Australia, is a veteran of the international fringe circuit. Victoria loves him, and so does Victoria, Australia, his native state. He’s best known for Birdmann, described as 21st-century vaudeville. He’s toured that show around the world and made a hit of it at the top-tier Edinburgh Fringe. It’s now available online as a “live” video.

Like Birdmann, I Forgot to Fly Today is part magic show, part circus act, part mime and part stand-up. The script could use a little tweaking but don’t be lulled into inattention by the repeated platitudes about living your dream and minor musings such as, “Maybe the world is just like life. It has a future and it has an ending, just like life.”

The origami paper-made piano playing, balloon tricks and an audience participation feature done before in Slava’s Snowshow lighten things up, but Baumann’s tendency to embrace the mundane gives way to aimlessness in the middle of I Forgot to Fly Today.

Teetering atop his plastic milk-carton arrangement in his cloud-atlas suit, the performer manages to overcome our ennui at his lame mimes and carries us through with a stand-up routine (“I found myself in a park. I knew I’d turn up one day”) followed by a shedding of his suit.

Don’t be tempted to exit before the end, though, because Baumann’s finale is more than worth the price of admission.

 

 

 

 

A birds-and-the-bees message

Field Zoology

Created and performed by Shawn O’Hara

Animalia Productions

Downtown Activity Centre, Victoria Fringe Festival, Victoria, BC

Mon Aug 29, 6:00pm; Wed Aug 31, 8:00pm; Fri Sept 2, 6:30pm; Sat Sept 3, 4:15pm

 

A leading incubator for Canadian talent of all kinds – think Steve Nash, David Foster, Silken Laumann, Eric Metcalfe – Victoria boasts a fringe festival remarkable as a showcase for emerging artists. Shawn O’Hara, creator of the Fringe show Field Zoology, is a fine example of the above.

Whether it’s because we’ve all had teachers like Dr. Bradley Gooseberry or because O’Hara is a fiend at engaging an audience, he had us at the first “stand up, please” (immediately followed by “now sit down”). All willingly stood, faced east and repeated  the zoologist pledge: a promise to respect all animals – with the exception of the mongoose (“they know what they did”).

In his Indiana Jones hat, fake moustache, polo shirt and all-important cargo shorts (over bare, hairy legs in socks and thick-soled Blundstones), Dr. Gooseberry gives us a quick account of his beginnings as a zoologist in the Amazon. The Amazon central warehouse in Petaluma, California, that is. His zoological career began among the rat inhabitants, a study that included an investigation (don’t ask) of “rat gonorrhea.”

O’Hara’s humour is both physical and cerebral. Using an overhead projector, Gooseberry displays crudely drawn animals and titles sometimes running off the page to illustrate his lesson. (“These transparencies are expensive. Don’t use permanent marker.”) Manipulating them before our eyes, he gives us animated action, slipping transparencies over each other to demonstrate one creature devouring another.

A master of deadpan, O’Hara runs a steady patter that keeps his audience in stitches. You will be marking your own papers, he informs us. “I’ll be damned if I give up my weeknights to grade your horseshit essays. It’s my time to watch ‘Bachelor in Parasdise’.” He veers wildly from sarcasm to the absurd, weaving in a major theme in zoology: seduction. Porn, he advises, can be found “on your father’s laptop in the secret folder called ‘work graphs’.” Admitting to his own proclivities, Gooseberry alludes to the arousing features of “a curvaceous water fountain in my apartment.”

A Q&A session that ends the piece features Gooseberry answering questions submitted by the audience. “Why do female lions do all the hunting?” he reads from an index card. “Because it’s 2016.” Touché.

The Victoria Fringe, featuring 53 shows from all over, runs through September 4 in seven venues.

 

Uno Fest takes off

The Unfortunate Ruth

Written and performed by Tara Travis at Uno Fest

Metro Studio, Victoria, BC

May 18 – 20, 2016

 

Shylock

By Mark Leiren-Young

Performed by John Huston at Uno Fest

Metro Studio

May 19 ­­­­­­­– 20, 2016

 

Victoria’s 19th Uno Fest, an annual event produced by Intrepid Theatre, is off to a terrific start to 10 days of performance of 14 solo shows.

The running gag in Tara Travis’s The Unfortunate Ruth, is “I have a hunch,” a line delivered by the Ruth, a buck-toothed hunchback receptionist in a white coat. Ruthie, her Doppelganger, is also a receptionist – in a clinic that performs ultrasounds on pregnant women.

I have to admit that I didn’t quite get this show, which grew out of Travis’s fascination with “identical twins, parallel universes, the work of Mind of a Snail and a particularly rare medical condition called fetus in fetu.”

Buck-toothed Ruth has a fetus in her hump that makes its presence known by gripping Ruth’s heart with its legs. Ruth calls the fetus Cordelia, Cordy for short. The other Ruth, known as Ruthie (a quick on-stage costume change takes place), has a fetus growing in her abdominal cavity. She could see it herself with her ultrasound wand, if she cared to. Then, just to complicate things, there are talking cartoon fetuses projected on a screen behind each Ruth. In one video scene, one fetus eats the other. There’s a confusion of names: who knows where the fetus Gertrude fits in? what about this unicorn and the ashes in the urns? And which of the Ruths is the one who survives surgical removal?

Travis, a Vancouver performer who brought this show to the Vancouver Fringe in 2014, gets off some good lines and disports herself with aplomb, puzzling as her show remains to this viewer.

                Victoria playwright Mark Leiren-Young’s Shylock is the stuff of great solo performances and John Huston is the actor to do it justice. Essentially a lecture, this Shylock soliloquy is a literal undressing as an actor bares his heart before his post-show audience.  Huston is John Davies, an actor trained in the classical tradition (think the Stratford Festival as run by an Englishman), and currently embodying a villainous, obnoxious Shylock in a festival’s controversial production of Merchant of Venice. He enters — swarthy, dirty, costumed with a hawk-like nose, grey page-boy wig and full Elizabethan accoutrement  — and delivers his most memorable soliloquy. “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? . . If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you teach me, I will execute . . .”

                This Shylock is either a victim of anti-Semitism, or a reason for inciting it. In his one-sided “talk-back” address to the audience,  Davies, Jewish himself, answers his critics (“you must be a Jew-hating Jew,”) and makes a plea for returning to theatre that is about art and not about pandering to patrons or protecting the public from things they’d rather not acknowledge. Davies believes Shakespeare was an anti-Semite; Shylock is his villain, not someone with whom we need to sympathize.

As he’s raising issue after issue, eloquently displaying the power of “dangerous words,” the actor is wiping off his make-up, removing his wig, working down to his leggings and stocking-feet.  Huston holds our attention every minute. (He performs  an adaptation of  The Screwtape Letters at Christ Church Cathedral, Saturday, May 21 at 7:30 pm.)