Tag: Evergreen

She’s Come Undone

Photo by Dahlia Katz

There’s something strange, if marvellous, about seeing a character you think you know in a new light. Sure, your expectations are upset (who goes to the theater without a shred of them, really?) and the image you may’ve held in your mind’s eye might become woozy, if not outright shattered — but isn’t that a good thing? What’s presented before you in a live setting isn’t meant to conform to your specific worldview; it’s meant to challenge it, and offer new, sometimes surprising ways of looking at people and situations. This new presentation enlightens even as it may enrage, making both the micro and macro details of every day living both more understandable and inscrutable, asking us to open hearts and minds in an attempt to bridge our individual selves with a larger ‘self’ that connects all humans.

All of this comes to mind with M’dea Undone,a world premiere from Toronto-based Tapestry New Opera (with Scottish Opera), and currently on now through Friday. Essentially a re-telling of the Greek myth of Medea, the story (with libretto by Marjorie Chan and music by John Harris) has been stripped of its mystical elements and placed firmly in the present, with the titular Medea (Lauren Segal) now a kind of war bride (if not an officially-married one) to Jason (Peter Barrett), a decorated military figure and close advisor to the President (James McLean). Medea is a survivor of war atrocities, and is presented as having a Middle Eastern background, giving her and the work a contemporary feel that is greatly enhanced by the company’s choice of location, an old warehouse, open to the elements, at Toronto’s Evergreen Brickworks. As the sounds of traffic and birds co-mingle, the voices of the ensemble rise up, offering a sound that is both against and absolutely a part of nature. This isn’t theater as cold, rarified, high-art-museum stuff, but rather, a kind of a home, one that is welcoming, inclusive, and, it’s worth noting, interactive. (The audience and performers freely mingled in the yawning stage space following the evening’s final bows, something I wish would happen more at live cultural events. This kind of friendly, unpretentious, intimate interaction needs so much to be a larger part of the performing arts.)

Photo by Monika MacMillan

English director Tim Albery expertly makes use a set that spans the warehouse space and is composed of various staircases, bridges, and simple set pieces, allowing for a world that is at once exposed and vulnerable as it is cloistered and confined. These elements gain in importance as M’dea Undone unfolds through its tight 70-minute running time. The work is a gripping ride of tragedy, torment, and it must be said, terrifically great singing and acting. Jacqueline Woodley, as the President’s daughter Dahlia (Glauce in the Greek myth) expertly twists her pretty soprano tone into a sneering, squealing expression of haughty entitlement, while McLean, as her father, veers between rumbling bonhomie and self-congratulations before moving to aching anguish. Peter Barrett, as Jason, offers a truly heartbreaking performance, his elastic tenor providing just the right amounts of tenderness, anger, outrage, and desperation, never indulging in one too long or veering into melodrama. Segal offers a towering portrayal of a woman wounded by love and war; her rich, luscious mezzo-soprano tone perfectly captures both the sensual allure of the character, with a wonderfully incisive reading of Harris’ jagged score that underlines and continually re-emphasizes the character’s inherent humanity.

It’s this quality that makes one re-think the character of Medea herself. I’ve always liked and been drawn to the mystical elements of the character — a kind of Greek-mythological Stevie-Nicks-type, casting spells and spouting incantations — but it’s the woman beneath the sparkling veils (literal or figurative) that makes M’dea Undone so special. There have been many great Medeas to have graced the stage (Diana Rigg, Helen McCrory, Seana McKenna) and all of them offer a special take on the damaged woman of Euripides’ great tragedy. Tapestry’s work continues this tradition, but forces audiences to see past the sorceress elements; while they are certainly central to her character, M’dea Undone asks us to consider what power the character might have if she was stripped down entirely, robbed of her spirituality, robbed of her country, robbed of her culture, and ultimately, the man she loves. What would she do? As the New York Times’ Vincent Canby noted in 1994, “(t)o play her mostly as victim is to humble one of world literature’s most titanic creations.” No kidding.

Photo by Dahlia Katz

It’s good Tapestry doesn’t fall into this trap — Medea here is certainly ill-treated but she’s hardly a victim. And though the way she chooses to exercise her power is horrific, there is something horribly, disconcertingly human about it. We recognize her in a chilling way, and we know the way things will inevitably end. But, knowing the ending in no way diminishes the overall power of her choice, or of the work itself. Instead, what we are left with is an unsettling portrait of damaged people in damaging circumstances, grappling with issues of love and betrayal. As with many Tapestry productions, M’dea Undone gracefully push the boundaries of the live opera experience into new, fresh territory. It may not always be a comfortable ride, but it’s one well worth taking.

Choking On Sun

Appropos of nothing, I’ve been thinking about sunchokes recently.

Actually, there is a reason I’m bringing them up; I enjoyed a beautiful dish with them before I went to New York. Accurately described as “gnarly little tubers”, they’re also called Jerusalem artichokes, though they more closely resemble ginger root than normal artichokes. Yummy grocer Dean and Deluca happened to be conveniently close to where I stayed earlier this week, and it was with much interest that I noted they carried the nubbly little root veggie. Upon setting eyes on them, I was immediately taken back to my memorable evening spent at Toronto’s Bricksworks (run by the Canadian not-for-profit company Evergreen) for their inspiring inaugural GE Cafe Chef’s Series.

With the aim of simultaneously entertaining, and educating Torontonians, the series boasts an impressive array of big names in the Canadian food scene; writer/host Ivy Knight, Chef Anthony Rose, and food/wine journalist James Chatto are just some of the impressive names who will be taking part in the bi-monthly series. The combination of info and eats was launched a few weeks ago with Chef Jamie Kennedy, winemaker Dan Sullivan, and Executive Director of the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance, Rebecca LeHeup. Together, the trio talked up the role of Prince Edward County and its bounty of incredible food and wine producers. Personal experiences, cooking techniques, and local events were all chatted up between the beautiful four courses served as part of the event.

Prince Edward County is located about two hours east of Toronto, and contains the town of Picton, popular with summer holidaymakers. Nearly everything served within the gorgeous three-hour event was from the area -including the sunchokes Chef Kennedy used for a beautiful, velvety soup. Chef Kennedy told the assembled crowd how he came to buy his farm in the County, his love of the land, and how his passion for food and wine have guided his style of cooking -fresh, approachable, and deeply connected to the concept of terroir. His original idea was to serve goat in its various aspects: the cheese, the milk, and the meat. However, unable to find local goat meat, he substituted lamb, and… it was magical. Lambs shoulder was braised in goat milk (an Italian technique, the chef noted), while leg was served roasted, succulent and sweet; the lot came with little happy pillows of goat cheese gnocchi, laced with a thin, flavorful gravy. As I told Chef later, I experienced a “Sally-in-the-diner” moment eating it. No kidding. And to think it was the first time the award-winning Order Of Canada chef had tried that recipe! Color me shocked… and utterly, thoroughly, deeply satisfied.

Satisfaction continued with a luscious dessert of homey apple strudel with nutmeg ice cream; I wound up skimming the serving dish with my finger, which should tell you something about how often I eat homemade ice cream. Kennedy happily shared the recipe after he’d carved up pieces for everyone. There was something truly rewarding about seeing Kennedy work in the simple Brickworks kitchen, with its home-style oven and smooth-top elements. The way he carved bread, chopped veg, even washed and sharpened his knife conveyed both intense skill and innate gentleness. I enjoyed watching him go about his culinary business as much as the information being provided by LeHeup and Hill, though in a different way; it was, really, a beautiful, silent, poetic counterpart to the torrent of words and images, a soothing glass of red to the sparkling bubbly of LeHeup’s passionate presence.

In the wine vein, Sullivan’s handywork paired beautifully with every course; the affable vintner shared stories of his challenges and quickly, clearly answered all questions directed at him with simple, everyday language. I especially enjoyed the red selection he brought, a rich, fruity red that operatically sung with the succulent, tender meat of the main course. Sullivan planted his vines in 2001, and he joked about having “an overnight success in a decade” with Rosehall Run. Kennedy’s interest in the region was, he told us, sparked by the wine potential there; he described himself as a “committed oenephile”, and it showed in everything he cooked for us. “What grows together goes together” was the theme of the evening, and I left determined to visit Prince Edward County once the nicer weather comes.

But, being in New York this might prove difficult. We’ll see. In any case, I have a whole new appreciation of the riches of the region, the talents of its food producers and winemakers, and just how good sunchokes -despite their “gnarly” appearance -really are.

When Culture is Delicious

“F*ck Nuit Blanche.”

So said by a good friend of mine, when asked about whether she had partaken of the all-night “art thing” that takes Toronto by storm every autumn. We both smiled. I knew what she meant.

I have to admit, the past years I’ve attended have been wonderful examples of community colliding with curiosity. Everyone is out and about, pointing, looking, chatty, silent, laughing, and having a rambling nice time. Then again, there are also whacks of drunken people stumbling along in bad outfits posing as serious artistes. There’s also dreadful lines. And rampant pretentiousness. And gimmicky aplenty. And as Lynn Crosbie pointed out, there’s also the annoying kid-factor. Eeek.

I didn’t attend this year’s Nuit Blanche. It wasn’t out of any malice so much as the strictures of gut instinct telling me to save my energy. Not only have I been sick more often this year than in any other, but I had what I consider a higher calling: I was attending the Brickworks Picnic the following day. It’s no surprise to followers of this blog that food is a passion for me; it’s also art, and so it follows that I put my arty Nuit Blanche-esque, curious-arty energy into meeting chefs, sampling cuisine, and contemplating flavours, colours, textures and shapes. I wanted to engage in a person-to-person-to-soil-to-mouth-to-person connection -otherwise known as, yes, culture.

The Brickworks Picnic is all about creating awareness of local food issues and linking local food sources with chefs, and, in turn connecting that with consumers, who become, in the process, more involved in the entire symbiotic relationship between production and consumption. Intended as a benefit for Evergreen and Slow Food Toronto, the Picnic boasted an impressive array of beautiful food, gorgeous wines, and curious attendees. With 1300 people, the affair was anything but intimate, and yet, in meeting and shaking hands with such wonderful, talented people as Brad Livergant (of Veritas Local Fare), Ezra Title (of Chez Vous Dining), and Olivia Bolano (of All The Best), I felt an immediate connection with the arts of both cooking and growing.


One of the trends I noticed at the picnic was the theme of Latin and South American-influenced dishes. There were empanadas, tongue dishes, salsas, and beef, all infused with the gorgeous, rich flavours of afar -and yet made with ingredients that were local. How wondrous. Same goes for the many Persian and Middle Eastern nibbles, including yummy stews, spreads, kabobs, and delectable Eastern European treats (including delicate plum dumplings, above, courtesy of Hungarian-born David Kokai of Loic Gourmet -Köszönöm, David!). Again, the incredible richness of my own home province was made clear to me through this magical melange of flavours. The riotous meeting of colour, texture, shape and flavour with each and every station I encountered made for a beautiful, memorable afternoon.

The time at the Brickworks Picnic was even more enhanced by the beverage education I received courtesy of the many wineries on-site for the event. Reps at each were truly friendly and happy to pair dishes being consumed -or ready to be consumed -with their offerings. Owing to a chilly, rainy afternoon, I stuck to warming red selections. My favourites included Malivoire, Rosehall Run, Frogpond Farm, and FlatRock Cellars. After that, I headed over to Merchants of Green Coffee, where I gleefully roasted coffee beans in a metal pan with a lid over a high gas flame (“Think of Jiffy Pop!” I was told). Following a thorough education in the terroir of coffee beans and the proper methods of brewing, I enjoyed a gorgeous, rich cup of the resulting brew. With a syrup-meets-molasses flavour countered by a nice bitter astringency, it was coffee that made Timmy’s look like the Naked Emperor it truly is.

Merchants of Green Coffee was ideally situated between two of my favourite items at the Picnic: Jamie Kennedy‘s scrumptious bean pakoras and Oiko‘s warming, satisfying Orange Pekoe tea. With dampness abounding through the Brickworks’ environs, it was a relief to be afforded (make that saved by) so many cups of gorgeous, delicately-brewed tea, and a few crunchy-soft, flavourful (and deeply satisfying) bean pakoras with either roasted pureed eggplant or tomato raita toppings.

In watching the chefs and producers pack up as the Picnic drew to a close, I was reminded of the incredible work that goes into event such as these, and, in a wider sense, of the awesome work it takes to produce the very things we need to survive. And yet food has become too easy for us. It is something that surrounds us, but we continually take it for granted. The Brickworks Picnic is a magical event for so many reasons, but one stands out in my mind, in retrospect: it balances the connecting, life-giving force of food with the more rooted reality of its centrality to culture. And that culture means growing, producing, sustaining, supporting and educating. It’s not about the quick fix anymore; it’s about the process. It’s not about impressing with a final product; it’s about educating for a more rewarding and sustainable journey. Everyone who took part in the Picnic seemed to have an inherent understanding of these realities.

Nuit Blanche? Whatever. I think I may have found where the real art in Toronto was this weekend. I was so artistically inspired, I went home and… cooked.

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