Monthly Archives: May 2023

More to see on local stages this weekend and beyond

First, you have three more chances to see Flop! before it closes Sunday evening May 28th. If you haven’t yet been to a show at Rapid Fire Theatre’s permanent home, Rapid Fire Exchange on 83rd Avenue, this is a great reason to check out the venue. Ron Pederson and Ashley Botting bring an inspired variation on the musical-theatre-improv genre which uses the framing of two performers unexpectedly being stuck without script, lyrics, set, or costumes, just a musician (Erik Mortimer), so they call for audience suggestions and build a musical on the fly. Like skilled stage magicians, they increase the entertainment value of what they’re doing by making it look hard, sometimes stepping out of character between scenes to work out what to do next. I’m accustomed to improv troupes who appear to do impossible things easily – Rapid Fire’s own Off Book: The Musical, Gordon’s Big Bald Head – and I loved the extra layer of entertainment in seeing Pederson and Botting acting being terrible at something they are actually brilliant at. I hadn’t seen Ashley Botting on stage before – except in her recent guest appearance in Die-Nasty’s current improv drama Doctors – and she is delightful. Tickets for Flop! and future Rapid Fire shows are available here.

Boy Trouble, the new two-performer version of Mac Brock’s script, has two more performances in the Studio space at the Fringe Arts Barns, this afternoon at 2 pm, and this evening (which is showing as sold out on line.) I haven’t been able to see this one yet but I loved the solo version of it which inspired this retelling, at NextFest 2019 and then again at Fringe 2019.

Prison Dancer at the Citadel closes tomorrow afternoon. The performance this afternoon (Saturday May 27 at 1:30 pm) is the last audience-masks-required performance of the Citadel season. Tickets are available here.

Several years ago I attended a staged reading at the APN Script Salon of a new play called Anahita’s Republic, about women’s lives in contemporary Iran. Even in a music-stands reading in a plain meeting room, the script grabbed my attention and shook up some of my assumptions, so I was excited to see it fully staged. The company AuTash Productions, and playwriting team Hengameh E. Rice, have had two full productions – a recent one at Toronto’s Factory Theatre directed by Brenley Charkow, and this one directed by Brian Dooley, with a completely different cast and creative team. Roya Yazdanmehr is compelling as the eponymous Anahita, a woman who runs the family business and weathy household according to her own rules. From the first scene, when she strides in after a swim, applying lotion to bare legs, and then responds to her brother/business-partner (Yassine El Fassi El Fihri as Cyrus) who is pleading for money for his children’s activities, she did not fit my assumptions about how women live in that particular regime. But their history, and its effect on them, unfolds more slowly, making it more shocking to imagine this woman as a militant 16yo beside her late mother in a crowd of protesters. The next character who enters is a woman in a chador, Omid (Jennie George), but once again, my first assumptions about her life were wrong. Michael Peng plays Omid’s father, business associate of Cyrus and Anahita. Late in the play, when they are all in a situation with no good solutions, Anahita talks about different kinds of freedom and about how nobody is really free. Their situation has a resolution, but it’s not ideal. The play made me want to see more complex stories like this, coming out of a context I don’t know well but not limited by it. Program notes and vocabulary are provided through a QR code, and a large display timeline about event’s relevant to women in Iran on the lobby wall – including both mandatory “unveiling”, with enforcement, and mandatory “veiling”, also with brutal enforcement.

Tickets to Anahita’s Republic, playing until June 4th at the Fringe Backstage, are available here.

In a complete change of mood, last night I attended the opening performance of Elyne Quan’s Listen, Listen! as part of the Teatro Live! season. I giggled so much that another audience member commented to me and my companion about it at intermission.

Farron Timoteo plays a mall bookstore worker passionate about selecting background music, Nadien Chu plays a customer who objects to the music, and Nikki Hulowski and Alex Ariate play a hilarious collection of ensemble characters in the bookstore workplace. The play is set in 1986, which means that the sound designers (director Belinda Cornish and stage manager Frances Bundy) got to use all the catchy tunes of that era, costume designer Leona Brausen, fresh from designing for 10 Funerals, with half its scenes in that era, got to evoke memories of women’s soft-tie business blouses, asymmetrical hairstyles for young people, and leather ties, and the playwright got to stick in lots of dramatic-irony jokes about how people in 1986 expected the future to go.

Like many of Stuart Lemoine’s works performed by Teatro, this play was an affectionate portrayal of quirky characters, plot-driven but with lots of scope for entertaining character business. It was a lot of fun. Tickets are here.

Other theatre events coming up – I may not make it to all of them, but I’m noting them here for you –

Helen, the Euripedes comedy about Helen of Troy directed by Amy de Felice outdoors at the Queen Elizabeth Planetarium, runs to June 4th.

CHUMP, by Sue Goberdhan, is “about growing, grieving, and being Guyanese”. It is being workshopped and will have one public performance at the Fringe Studio June 11.

Nextfest, the annual festival of and for emerging artists, runs June 1-11.

The Sterling Awards nominations will be announced at 5 pm on June 5th at the Arts Barns, and winners will be celebrated at a more affordable event than the pre-pandemic Mayfield galas, also at the Arts Barns on Monday June 26th.

Walterdale Theatre’s 2023-2024 season launch event will also be held June 5th – doors at 7 pm, event at 8 pm.

And … in August it will be Fringe! Fringe 42: The Answer. (Do you know where your towel is?)

Subscribe or Like – real people in the online world

Set for Subscribe or Like, design Stephanie Bahniuk.

The last event in Workshop West’s season is the world premiere production of Liam Salmon’s Subscribe or Like, directed by Kate Ryan.

On entering the Gateway Theatre’s auditorium, the audience sees a simple box set presenting a room in a small basement apartment. But it’s set on an angle, and there is no drapery backing it or surrounding it. One can’t forget that this room is on a stage – and when the lights dimmed and the play was about to start, we could see each actor entering the backstage space from the lobby, before entering the apartment’s front door as the characters. This cannot be an accident (Stephanie Bahniuk, set and costume design).

The characters living in this apartment were a young couple, Rachel (Gabby Bernard) and Miles (Geoffrey Simon Brown). He’s unemployed, trying to find work commensurate with his marketing degree instead of joining her at the coffee shop where she’s a part-time barista, and he has a toothache. Their socioeconomic situation is tacitly illustrated by the fact that the dialogue never considers taking the toothache to a dentist – he treats it with a salt-water rinse and she doesn’t comment. Miles likes to make and share “prank” videos, often involving scaring or surprising his girlfriend. She doesn’t seem to enjoy this. It’s clear that both are unhappy with their lives – it’s less clear whether they are still happy with each other.

Miles continues posting his videos on a YouTube channel, and talks about reaching enough subscribers to make money with it. Rachel co-operates – they talk about whether the stunts work better when scripted or when she is truly surprised – and then she starts adding some of her own content to the channel. They start adding viewers, likes, subscribers. They seem – if not happier, then at least more engaged – and they focus more on how to attract and keep the viewers, making some more extreme choices (including one or two that I could hardly bear to watch).

Another feature of the show’s design was the extensive use of video (Ian Jackson, multimedia design) to show or evoke online content. I think there were nine large LCD screens suspended outside the room, and sometimes the content was also projected across the walls and floor of the apartment. So “the set” is clearly not just the room in their apartment, but also … the internet? The video isn’t just clips from their YouTube channel, but some of the comments.

And this is important, because the comments affect the characters. In one disturbing but credible exchange, Miles explains to Rachel that the trope of misogynistic commenting generating more interest in the channel is a common phenomenon and a good thing for the channel.

When they talk about whether stopping the posts might be a good next step for them as people and as a couple, Miles protests that the channel matters to the viewers. “But they’re not real!“, protests Rachel.

It is very odd to be writing a blog post about this play, wondering if people will read it, and wondering if reading this post will influence them to go see the play. (See it! It’s good! It’s entertaining, it’s horrifying, and it made us stand in the parking lot for ages talking about the issues raised.) While YouTube is not my medium, I know that online communities are real. This … I was going to say corner of the blogosphere, but spheres shouldn’t have corners? … isn’t particularly interactive, but I know it’s still contributing to community. And just as I notice how many people viewed my blog post or Instagram story, liked my Facebook post, or clicked Agree on my Ravelry forum comment, I know that a playwright is a content creator too. Other artistic contributors like actors and designers are also engaged in presenting the work to the audiences in the auditorium. Part of why I blog is that I want the theatre artists to know they have moved me and made me think. And the Subscribe or Like playwright and team did.

Subscribe or Like is playing at the Gateway Theatre (formerly Roxy on Gateway, formerly C103) until June 11th. Tickets are available here.

A Grand Weekend for Singing!

A Grand Night for Singing ensemble, in evening dress. Photo Nanc Price Photography.

Continuing my festive week of attending performances, tonight I went to opening night of Foote in the Door’s production of the Rogers and Hammerstein musical celebration A Grand Night For Singing. Ten familiar musical-theatre performers, along with an orchestra of seven, presented about 35 songs from the mid-20th-century writing/composing team. The simple staging and costumes allowed the focus to remain on the singing, and the singing was great. From solos like “Love, Look Away”, sung by Brendan Smith, or “It’s Me” sung by Christina O’Dell, to playful group numbers like “Honey Bun” and beautiful group harmonies in “Some Enchanted Evening” and “Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City”, all the singers used the music to tell stories and evoke emotions.

The songs in Grand Night For Singing, which was first performed on Broadway in 1993, come from about eleven different stage or screen musicals. Oddly, the only one I’ve seen live is Carousel – in the Foote in the Door production and as done by Opera Nuova. There is one song from The Sound of Music (as well as a few familiar riffs in the overture), which I’ve seen on television. Despite this, I recognized a lot of the songs! And even the ones I didn’t recognize were fun to listen to and watch.

The performance felt shorter than the 2-hour estimate in the program, with very smooth shifts between songs and performers (director/choreographer Katie Hayes). The Foote in the Door ensemble is made up of Jason Duiker, Kathryn Kroeker, Melanie Lafleur, Christina O’Dell, Aaron Schaan, Brendan Smith, David Son, and Kelsey Volker, along with company principals Russ Farmer and Ruth Wong-Miller.

A Grand Night for Singing has a short run, May 11-14 with 7:30 evening shows and Saturday/Sunday matinees at 2 pm, at La Cité Francophone.

Ensemble in abstract Greek costumes: Penelope sits on the end of a bed, while an actress representing her son rests head on her knee. Four female servants listen.

The Penelopiad, one of Walterdale’s best.

Alora Bowness (Penelope), Stephanie Swensrude (Telemachus), Monica Stewart, Karla Martinez, Sarah Spicer, and Katie Corrigan, in The Penelopiad. Photo Credit: Scott Henderson, Henderson Images

The lights come up on a simple set – a bed on a platform, white hanging panels lit to effect – and a young woman walks toward the audience. Now that I’m dead, I know everything, she says. After this intriguing statement, she goes on to explain that it’s not quite true – like everything else, it’s been simplified in the version we know.

Alora Bowness is Penelope In Walterdale Theatre’s current production of The Penelopiad. She caught my interest from these first lines, and continued throughout the performance, telling and illustrating her story with humility, determination, wry humour, and willingness to acknowledge the consequences of her choices.

But The Penelopiad, adapted by Margaret Atwood from her novella in 2007, doesn’t just examine the story of Penelope, but also of her enslaved maids. The narrative unfolds in short scenes, switching between Penelope telling the story, to ensemble members acting the story, to choral/choric recitation and dance by the maids, or sailors, or even at one point a flock of ducks. The story moves smoothly and with compelling pace, as directed by Kristen M. Finlay, from Penelope’s birth to a naiad mother (Mandy Stewart) and mercurial King Icarius of Sparta (Angela James-Findlay), through her childhood, her marriage to Odysseus (Katy Yachimec-Farries), move to Ithaca, and then what happens to her through the timeframe of Odysseus long journey to Troy and then home, as first told in Homer’s Odyssey.

I had seen the Citadel production of this play in 2013, using 13 talented young artists in that year’s Citadel/Banff Centre Professional Program. The Walterdale production is funnier than I remembered, and in the intimate Walterdale space I felt more engaged with the dangers and challenges of Penelope’s situation. I loved the costumes of the current production (Alodie Larochelle design) – all the maids wearing the same fabrics in grey and black, but in silhouettes that were different for each individual, with braided rope belts in different colours. The songs and poems of Atwood’s script were set to original music, lively or lyrical or haunting as appropriate (Gibson Finlay and Kristen Finlay, composition, Sally Hunt musical director).

Three things about the plot/theme struck me hard this time around. I’ve been thinking about them for days, and I’m planning to return this week for a second viewing, after which I will think about them some more.

  • The relationship between Penelope and Odysseus is shown as nuanced and mostly positive. Classic tropes/assumptions of a girl married off to an older warrior do not hold. It is refreshing to see Odysseus gentle with his new bride and wooing her with stories, and their reunion after the many years of voyaging is equally gentle and consensual. He’s still the product of that particular patriarchal society and family, though.
  • If one focuses on Penelope, it’s a relatively happy story – she overcomes early mortal danger, learns from many mentors and supports, manages the kingdom in Odysseus’ absence, and develops a famous ruse to protect herself from impatient suitors. But Atwood’s script and Finlay’s direction keep reminding the viewer that the story of the maids is just as important. Penelope’s monologue recounting life as an unappreciated girl-child of a royal mixed-marriage is followed immediately by a chorus of maids speaking bluntly to the audience. “We too were children. We too were born to the wrong parents. Poor parents, slave parents, peasant parents, and serf parents; parents who sold us, parents from whom we were stolen.” And the story of the maids is a tragedy. They do what Penelope asks of them – and it has terrible results for them.
  • Those terrible results are due to some of Penelope’s strategies and choices. She acknowledges her mistakes in monologues from her afterlife. But they are also directly due to the customs and expectations of that patriarchal culture. Odysseus acts to punish them using limited information and an offensive set of assumptions. But he gets that information from his son Telemachus, a young man by then, and from his old nursemaid Eurycleia. Both actors in the Walterdale production were compelling, Stephanie Swensrude as the spoiled boy turned resentful young man and Vivien Bosley as the nurse/governess who petted and encouraged young Odysseus and then spoiled his son, turning him against his mother Penelope. I was reminded of how important it is for any society to raise boys to be compassionate and justice-seeking, and how wrong things can go when this does not happen. Unfortunately, this continues to be a timely and critical reminder. And as we move closer to Mother’s Day, I’m thinking about how the responsibility of setting the next generation on a better path should not just be placed on mothers, but on all of us.

Alora Bowness as Penelope, Katy Yachimec-Ferries as Odysseus, Vivien Bosley as Eurycleia. Photo credit Scott Henderson, Henderson Images.

Thank you, cast and team of The Penelopiad, for making me think. The Penelopiad continues at Walterdale Theatre tonight through Saturday night, with an 8 pm curtain. Tonight, Wednesday, is pay what you can night; tomorrow, Thursday May 11, is limited capacity night, for patrons who would prefer more elbow room for better air quality. Masks are recommended but not required at all performances. Advance tickets are available here; some seats will be available at the door an hour before showtime.