Winter’s Daughter

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Written by Jesse Stong. Produced by Tableau D’Hôte Theatre. 

Presented at Segal Studio Theatre, Nov. 27 to Dec. 8, 2019

Tableau D’Hôte Theatre follow up their excellent production of Marc Prescott’s Encore last spring with another tale of love surviving through life’s bitter trials. Here, the circumstances are considerably more taxing than in that previous, often sunny and charming play. The rural characters in Winter’s Daughter are caught between an immediate past of the catastrophic Great War and a dark future of burgeoning Italian fascism. The immediacy of a devastating personal tragedy leaves them bloody and bowed, yet perhaps strengthened for the horrors that lie ahead.

What with a vision of winter that’s more forbidding than seasonally jolly, Jesse Stong’s new play is a grueling, sometimes morose 80-minute family tragedy. Yet there is a glimmer of hope, not least in the fact that hanging over it all is the awareness that it’s based on the family history of celebrity Montreal barber Gino Chiarella (and inspired by K. David Brody’s short story, The Peddler’s Daughter, itself inspired by Chiarella’s history). That Chiarella is around to tell his tale, or at least to sanction its telling, is testament to his great-grandparents’ tenacity in nurturing a kernel of life through that real and metaphorical winter of the play’s events.

Set on a remote farm in Calabria in 1919, Stong’s play sees Giuseppi, still traumatised by his experiences in the trenches, and his wife Maria trying to raise their child in the hardscrabble circumstances of living off an unyielding land. The couple give shelter to an itinerant Jewish peddler through the winter and, when his calling compels him to take to the road again, offer to look after his little girl, Rina, until he can return. The peddler is reassured by the genuine goodness of these two strangers, and by the presence of their own little girl, Rosaria.

In a cruel twist of fate that has echoes of the darker type of fairy tale, the couple find themselves faced with a decision which has rippled its repercussions down to the present day.

Director Emma Tibaldo has assembled a strong cast, with Michaela Di Cesare (who’s also a META-winning playwright) playing Maria, initially as a playful, almost frivolous young woman before life leaves its scars. Ryan Bommarito, who recently won an outstanding lead acting META for his performance in Segal’s Indecent, gives a convincing portrait of a man who, despite his soul having been pulverised by war, forces himself to function for the sake of his family. Amir Sám Nakhjavani finds a nice contrast in the dual roles of the reticent peddler and a vivacious friend of the family. And Alice Denton, playing both Rina and Rosario, provides a haunting, silent presence throughout.

Lara Kaluza and Zoe Roux’s designs for, respectively, costumes and set evoke the earthy pastoral setting with just the right touch of the picturesqueness of bygone days. The visuals, though, are dominated by Jaclyn Turner’s projections of a real and psychological wintry hinterland of constant snowfalls, threatening birds and strangely shifting black blots that resemble collapsing stars.

It’s hard to say whether these remarkable images complement or contrast with Stong’s straightforward approach to storytelling which, while vigorous in its directness, sometimes feels a bit denuded of the poetry from which this story arguably might have profited. There are occasional stylistic flourishes, such as Maria’s recurring telling of a fable involving migrating birds, and a sequence or two of ritualistic physicality. And Stong sometimes goes beyond the circumscribed lives of the characters to hint at the dark social forces that would soon reach even the remote outposts such as Maria and Giuseppi’’s farm.

But it feels like an opportunity missed to not somehow work in the more recent circumstances of Gino Chiarella’s life (a past-meets-present technique which Hannah Moscovitch’s Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story managed beautifully in this very space this time last year). It’s that context, after all, which makes this story so potentially compelling for a Montreal audience.

Still, the company is to be commended for seeing Winter’s Daughter through to such a polished production under straitened circumstances — not as harsh as life on a farm in wintry Calabria circa 1919, perhaps, but the fact that Tableau D’Hôte struggled through a dearth of arts council funding to forge ahead with such a handsomely-mounted, solidly performed and heartfelt production makes this an admirable achievement.

 

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Going Up

 

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The Man (Paul Van Dyck) and the Woman (Kelly Craig) find themselves in a tight spot in Going Up

Written by Kiki Dranias. Produced by Purple Divine at Le 5800 St. Denis, Montreal,  Nov. 21-30, 2019

How’s this for an elevator pitch? Two people trapped in an elevator. One of them has a death wish, the other has a yearning to kill.

Still not biting?

Well, the audience is crammed into an actual elevator with the actors. Oh, and there’s also a frisson of forbidden sexuality.

The elevator has often been a fertile object for drama, especially when a malfunction stops it in its tracks and leaves the passengers stranded. Other examples that come to mind are the M. Night Shyamalan-scripted film Devil, about an elevator full of people wondering which of them is the Evil One; and The Lift, an episode of the classic Brit sitcom Hancock’s Half Hour, which has our cantankerous hero well-cast as the person with whom you’d least enjoy getting stuck between floors.

More locally, there was the wonderfully-named play Hellavator, a Halloween treat of a play written by Ned Cox and performed in a freight elevator in 2008.

The enclosed space, the forced intimacy between strangers, the potential of danger — all these elements intensify the possibilities for conflict more than, say, the well-worn meeting-on-a-park-bench gambit. So it’s fitting that Montreal poet Kiki Dranias should, for her debut play, choose the confines of a vertically-shunting box not only as the setting of the drama, but (as with Hellavator) as an actual performance space, in this case a working freight elevator in the commercial building, Le 5800 on St. Denis.

The necessarily tiny audience is led into the relatively cramped confines, the elevator ascends, and it’s only when the inevitable juddering halt happens that it becomes clear that two of the passengers are in fact performers. Paul Van Dyck plays the Man, a highly-strung, world-weary individual, while Kelly Craig plays the Woman, a tall icy blonde with, ominously enough, a pair of black gloves in her pocket.

Though discomfited by the unexpected incarceration, the Man explains — his words tumbling out in a compulsive panic — how, for him, death is something that is devoutly to be wished. His initial explanation is that he’s suffering from an incurable disease, but we only really find out the real reason in a last-minute twist which, employing a simple dramatic device which I won’t reveal here, expands the world of the play beyond the claustrophobic setting.

The Woman, played by Kelly Craig, though initially cool and composed and with a seemingly forensic interest in the man’s psychological workings, gradually reveals her own agenda which dovetails with his after a somewhat macabre fashion.

Avoiding eye-contact with fellow elevator passengers is an art that most of us have mastered. Performing at such a heightened, pressure-cooker lick as Van Dyck and Craig do here, while maintaining a studied obliviousness to the audience’s close-quarters scrutiny, is quite a feat. The performers, and Dranias’s script, for the most part, persuade us that the characters’ increasingly strange predicament is emerging from the most ordinary of circumstances. There’s also a film noir feel to the fast-paced patter, not least in the way the Man continually addresses the Woman as “lady.”

At times, Dranias’ metier as a poet slathers on the linguistic style to add an incongruent layer of artifice. But her instincts as a dramatist (as well as some striking directorial flourishes from Jen Viens) inspire her to include some ritualistic elements that make this more than a naturalistic case study.

While not unique (see the above examples) Going Up is a quirky, intensely performed, and at times breathlessly sexy (pun intended – you’ll see what I mean) theatrical experience. I look forward to Dranias’s next theatrical project which I’m told will be another site specific work with psycho-sexual themes, in this case a trial revolving around a group of love addicts filing a civil suit against a perfect lover.

 

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Persephone Bound

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Lena Davies in Persephone Bound. Photo credit: Andrée Lanthier

Presented by Geordie Theatre, Imago Theatre and Screaming Goats Collective. Performed at D.B. Clarke Theatre, Nov. 15-24, 2019 
As the new musical Mythic, a thoroughly enjoyable and mostly innocent take on the Persephone legend, comes to a close at the Segal this weekend, there’s the chance to catch the other, grimier side of the coin with Persephone Bound, a co-production between Geordie Theatre, Imago Theatre and Screaming Goats Collective.

For despite the sweet consensual romance at the heart of Mythic, the Persephone legend is really about abduction and rape, with Hades snatching the young demigod and imprisoning her in the Underworld, save for several months a year when her liberation causes the earth to bloom into spring.

In Persephone Bound, circus performer, actor and co-writer Léda Davies re-imagines Persephone’s plight as that of a modern-day student for whom, after an incident at a campus party, the boundaries of consent and assault are horribly clear, less so for those invested with the authority to decide such matters.

Not the least of Davies’s impressive performance is the way she delivers her angry, defiant and traumatised testimony while being violently yanked around by, or serenely going with the flow of, the aerial straps to which she’s mostly attached. Persephone’s abductor and rapist Hades (Eric Nyland) has been transformed into a glowering silent presence whose dress, make-up and imposing physique give him the air of a medieval executioner.

Though silent, Nyland isn’t coasting through the production. He’s the one strenuously controlling the aerial straps, a job that’s usually hidden in the wings during circus performances, but which here adds an extra layer to questions of just who is in control and how much Persephone/Davies is submitting to, or pitting herself against, such control.

While Hades remains intimidatingly taciturn, Zeus, the self-styled arbiter of the case, lets loose with a stream-of-consciousness-and-bad-faith series of disquisitions, providing his own percussive accompaniment on a drum kit nestled in a jagged, Iron Throne-like affair. Played by Jed Tomlinson, who co-wrote the piece with Davies and Michaela Jeffery, Zeus comes over as a bombastic showman with more than a touch of a jaunty pro-wrestling commentator.

For all its horrors and moments of dark uncomfortable comedy, this short, sharp shock of a show (it runs at just over 45 mins), elegantly directed by Micheline Chevrier, also has an unexpected beauty and grace, and even a glimmer of hope. Persephone’s descent into the Underworld is compared to a plunge through the ice of a river. But Spring will come again, and as Persephone grips the straps and looks yearningly up at the light glowing through the hole in the ice, we’re left with the impression that she will haul herself out of Hell to be seen, and to demand her story be heard, on the earth again.

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Taj Express – an interview with the Merchant sisters of Bollywood.

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Taj Express, Place-des-arts, Montreal, No. 20 & 21

This week, the lavish Bollywood musical revue Taj Express comes to town. Written by Toby Gough, who previously scripted The Merchants of Bollywood, it’s a deliberately over-the-top look behind the scenes of the Bollywood film industry, and revolves around an ambitious song-writer who desperately wants to be the next A.R. Rahman (the real-life songwriting force behind Bollywood and whose work featured in Slumdog Millionaire.) Taj Express is directed and choreographed, respectively, by sister Vaibhavi and Shruti Merchant, members of the legendary Merchant dynasty behind the Bollywood phenomenon. I exchanged emails with the Merchant sisters to find out more about Taj Express.

JB. The show uses lots of different dance styles (ballet-style, West Side Story style, etc). What lay behind those choices?

The Merchant Sisters: Bollywood is a rambunctious mix of various dance forms that come together in the best tradition of magical-realism. A lot of thought has gone into the various aspects of the choreography to make it acceptable to audiences worldwide.

JB. What can audiences unfamiliar with Bollywood expect from the show?

MS. The audiences (will learn that) music and dance are essential in the filming of a (Bollywood) story. And that religion plays an important part in most films. They (will) learn that films are put together on limited budgets and they normally follow a strict formula and that Bollywood actors are treated like gods. As the story takes audiences on a journey across India’s geographical landscape they will see the rituals and festivals of this enchanting land.

JB. The costuming of Bollywood performers is obviously incredibly elaborate and spectacular. Does this bring challenges for a director and/or choreographer?

MS. Choreography and costume designing go hand in hand. The costumes are intricately designed keeping the choreography in mind. A lot of thought goes into costuming right from the style of the costume, the material used and the accessories to make sure that the choreography and eventually the dance acts are perfect. The costume designer is involved from day one and is given an elaborate brief of the type of dance style and the movements involved in the choreography in order to make the best costumes.

JB. Toby Gough’s script contains lots of self-deprecating humour about Bollywood. Does that reflect the tendency of Bollywood films not take themselves too seriously?

MS. I think the best way I could answer this question is by sharing with you a few lines from the show’s pre-show announcement.  “Ladies and Gentlemen Welcome to Film City Bollywood. Tonight you will be involved in the making of a Movie. You are tonight’s Studio audience. You will witness unbelievable storylines, melodramatic acting and terrible jokes. If you came here expecting to watch great theatre, please leave now. Participation is essential, Enjoyment Guaranteed, You will be required to cheer the hero, Boo the villain. Cameras are rolling, Dancers are on standby. Are you ready to board the Taj Express?”.

So yes, the show is extremely Bollywoodish with a modern twist. It has a perfect mix of song, dance, storylines, situations of what a struggling Music Director would face in reality, with extremely demanding timelines. Taj Express is a fun show with a lot of comical scenes and comical audience interactions which helps keep the audience engaged.

 

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Lesbian Speed Date From Hell

 

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Performed at La Ministere as part of Montreal Pride, Aug. 10 to 16, 2019

First presented at the Festival de la Bête Noir at Mainline Theatre last February, Lesbian Speed Date From Hell is getting a return visit, courtesy of Montreal Pride’s theatre strand, via a sold-out run at OFF-JFL last month.
As you can possibly tell from the title, it’s a deliberately schlocky slice of camp horror, partly inspired, say its creators, by John Waters’s Serial Mom. In tone, aesthetics and gloriously bad taste gags, though, it reminded more of the earlier works of Baltimore’s Pope of Trash, before Hairspray made him kind of respectable.
The simple but effective story revolves around Jackie (Katherine King So), whom we first see, ominously enough, reading a copy of Stephen King’s Misery. Jackie, whose first tentative toe-dipping into the speed dating scene, courtesy of her neighbour Regina’s weekly event, results in some bloody payback. For Jackie isn’t new to the lesbian dating scene, and a previous encounter online with the sexy but possibly psycho Ashley (Kate Hammer) ended up with Jackie ghosting her, ie, cutting all communications, after Ashley started to come on too strong.
After following Jackie home and breaking into her apartment, Ashley ties her to a chair (that rather overused post-Tarantino dramatic shock tactic) and proceeds to devise horrible tortures, all timed to the two-minute ding of the speed-dating clock.
The violence Ashley visits upon Jackie is genuinely horrific, but how seriously we’re supposed to take it is indicated by the fact that the latter bounces back from every injury like a cartoon cat. For instance, soon after Ashley pours boiling water on her crotch, Jackie is soon back to verbally jousting without any visible signs of physical discomfort. She even engages Ashley in a Kill Bill-style face-off after wriggling out of her constraints. The choreographed action scenes (including Ashley’s first attack, soundtracked to — what else? — the shrieking violins from Hitchcock’s Psycho) are amusingly over-the-top, director Mariah Inger further assuring us we shouldn’t be taking things too seriously by including a few deliberate play-that’s-gone-bad bloopers.
The writing team of Christina Saliba, Lorna Kidjo and Adam Kolodny clearly had lots of fun devising bad puns, rude references, and sassy come-backs, and the mostly LGBTQ crowd whooped it up throughout (the room was filled to capacity when I caught the show last Saturday). The fact that it’s performed in a bar adds to, you could say, excuses, the informality, with its frequent moments of scrappy staging and sloppy timing.
The performances are variable — I liked Martha Graham’s nerdy and compulsively apologetic prospective date, and Kathy Slamen is enjoyably brassy as Speed Date hostess Regina. (Brit soap Coronation Street gets a namecheck, and I wondered if Slamen was perhaps channeling that show’s legendary barmaid, Bet Lynch). Some of the actors, though, have trouble projecting. That one of these is King So takes the edge off some of her scenes with co-star Kate Hammer.
Hammer, though, mostly kills it as the slinky, explosively mercurial Ashley. There’s a definite touch there of Serial Mom’s Kathleen Turner, though she arguably comes off more like Jessica Rabbit, whom Turner, of course, voiced. And, in fact, for all the underlying seriousness about the dehumanizing effects of online dating, the show is perhaps best enjoyed as a cheerful and gaudy cartoon. The occasional slapdash moments, dramatic inconsistencies and groan-worthy jokes aren’t necessarily bad. They’re just drawn that way.

 

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The Drawer Boy

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Curtis Legault, Michel Perron and Brian Dooley in The Drawer Boy. Photo credit: Michael Green Photography

Written by Michael Healey. Directed by Dean Patrick Fleming. At Hudson Village Theatre, July 4-21, 2019

 

Theatre often pats itself on the back for being a purveyor of truth telling. But there’s also a long tradition of plays which warns that the truth will not so much set us free as plunge us into existential freefall. Michael Healey’s Governor General Award-winning The Drawer Boy stands in line with that tradition which includes Ibsen’s The Wild Duck and O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh.

Healey based his play on a real-life theatrical project called The Farm Show, an early proponent of what’s now known as verbatim theatre. In 1972, Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille sent a group of actors to a farming community near Clinton, Ontario, to discover the realities of living off the land. The resulting docudrama met with great acclaim, novelist Michael Ondaatje describing it as the first genuine Canadian play.
Yet the process clearly raised some ethical questions about, for instance, appropriating other people’s stories for entertainment, or exposing private details to the public glare.

Healey’s The Drawer Boy runs with these questions and spins a cleverly constructed yarn involving two farmers with a decades-old secret, and an enthusiastic young actor intent on putting their lives on the stage.

The actor, whom Curtis Legault plays with the appealing giddiness of an off-leash puppy in the countryside, is called Miles. That’s also the name of one of the Farm Show actors, Miles Potter, whom Healey consulted while researching his play (to make things even more meta, Potter directed the first production of The Drawer Boy in 1999).

The two farmers whose door Miles knocks upon are Angus, who suffers from brain damage inflicted during the London Blitz, and Morgan, who cares for his old friend and nightly soothes him with the bittersweet story about their doomed love affairs with two tall English women.

The similarities with Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men are unmistakable. Angus is slow-witted and child-like, and Morgan looks out for him with a mixture of devotion and canny self-interest. The plot also follows a similar plot in that the pair’s best laid plans go awry. Angus, the Drawer Boy of the title, is a dab hand at architectural draughtsmanship and the two men longed to live happily ever after with their loved ones in a home Angus had designed. But Fate intervened, the women died, and they’re now buried on a hill close to the farm.

One night Miles overhears this story and turns it into theatrical gold, its physical reenactment on the stage seemingly liberating Angus from his dependency on Morgan, while also plunging him into panic and confusion. But is the story even true?
Healey’s play skillfully juggles with these elements so that it works on several layers, all the while throwing up yet more questions.

At times it veers into sentimentality. Perhaps inevitably, given the play’s 20 year-old-provenance, its depiction of a mentally disabled adult behaving like a wide-eyed child has the retro feel of, say, a Rain Man. And given Angus perceives his own mental age as being close to the twentysomething Miles, this infantilising hardly makes sense anyway.
Thankfully, Michel Perron, who played the part at Centaur Theatre some years back, gives a characteristically precise and powerful performance, suggesting the simmering rage of the ill-fated Angus. Brian Dooley has the less showy role of the stoical, hard-bitten Morgan but brings to it a quiet gravitas that counteracts the irrepressible enthusiasm of both Angus and Miles.

Dean Patrick Fleming, directing his first play here since taking over as artistic director (he guest-directed Art last year), finds a nice balance between the raw pain in the lives of the men and the comedy inherent in their interaction with a naïve townie excitedly playing at farmers. Much of the rich humour comes from Morgan’s guying Miles into carrying out phony chores, such as having him wash gravel one rock at a time – though Healey has a delightful surprise in store for us regarding Miles’s gullibility.

As well as being robustly performed by its three-strong cast, the production also looks gorgeous. Peter Vatsis’s design provides an impressionistic sense of the farmhouse’s rustic simplicity and the starlit expanse beyond, while his lighting design glows through the wooden slats to mark the changes in mood.

 

The Drawer Boy plays to July 21. More information at villagetheatre.ca

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Mtl Fringe: Is That How Clowns Keep You Up All Night?

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Fiona Ross’s sex-ed clown creation Beatrice, aka: Ms. Bea Haven. Photo credit: Pascale Yensen

Mainline Theatre, to June 16, 2019

Following on from last years Is That How Clowns Have Sex?, sex educationalist Fiona Ross returns with her alter-ego, Beatrice the Clown, for another riotous hour of naughty yet sweetly innocent pedagogy.  This time around, she’s even sharper, more consistently funny.

The fun starts in the lobby as Beatrice introduces herself to her audience. An unlooked for moment of hilarity came when a woman queuing, presumably for tickets for a different show, sternly told off the gregarious Beatrice for talking too loud. (Complaining about excessive noise at the Fringe is a bit like going to the swimming pool and complaining it’s too wet). Ross knows a thing or two about reacting to audience reactions, and her look of feigned contrition was a delight, as were the running jokes about the incident throughout the show.

Latecomers also came in for some teasing. The look of wary bemusement as they walked in on the latest bizarre sight was a gift that kept giving, whether it was Beatrice wearing a floppy penis on her head, demonstrating a group scissoring session, or disguising herself as a panty pad during menstruation.

Beginning the show by bursting through a giant vulva like a circus animal jumping through a hoop, Ross takes us on a wacky educational tour of pornography, female ejaculation, anal sex, even the mournful life of an unsuccessful sperm.

There’s lots of audience participation, but such is Ross’s infectious good humour, nobody seems to mind being enjoined to sing a re-jigged version of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing, or being shown how to applaud in a way that sounds like testicles hitting bare flesh – though an audience member yelling “Gross!” as Beatrice spat out chewed-up carrot (used in a demo involving a lovable anal-passage puppet) only encouraged more debris heading her way.

While debates about sex-ed rage on, Ross shows that a combination of utter frankness and a healthy sense of humour about sex is an effective way of preventing future generations from dying of shame or STDs. Her delightful clown persona might hilariously fumble her way through her demonstrations, but this is a show that definitely finds the G(iggle) spot.

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