Tag: Young Centre

Come Drink The Wine

A recent exchange with performer Sharron Matthews for Love, Loss And What I Wore inspired a bevvy of ideas around the artform of cabaret. As she told me, cabaret is “a form of storytelling.” I like the idea of sharing stories within a musical realm; it’s something that my friends and colleagues at Givernation understand very well, in fact. Storytelling is, for many, central to one’s experience of art itself.

Sharon performed her own cabaret shows at the Young Centre recently. The busy Toronto arts complex in the Distillery District has had a few solid nights of cabaret happening over the past few months. The Saturday Night Cabaret Series has featured performers Patricia O’Callaghan, DK Ibomeka, Heather Bambrick, Denzal Sinclaire, and Don Francks. Upcoming artists set to take part in the series include Elizabeth Shepherd, Mary Lou Fallis, and Micah Barnes.

It’s an eclectic mix, to be sure, but one that underlines the importance of keeping the programming diverse and unpredictable -two things I feel are central to the artform of cabaret. I couldn’t imagine week after week of crooners, soulsters, fiddlers, jazzsters, or divas. Mixing them up, however, produces just the right zesty flavour befitting a good, engaging music series devoted to the cabaret style.

In attending a few of the first shows this season, what struck me immediately was the intimacy: the gap between performer and audience member has never been so minimal. Cabarets are situated in the tiny, black-curtained Garland cabaret space where the close quarters of piano, bar, chairs, tables, and stage implies an immediacy you don’t get in many other small, clubby spaces. The performers are very-nearly in the laps of the mainly silent, awe-struck audience. Musical styles run the gamut from German arthouse (O’Callaghan did portions of Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins) to sexy, soul (with Ibomeka using his enormously rich bass voice to full, spine-tingling effect on Cohen’s “Hallelujah”). Again, diversity’s the name of the game here, making for what I felt was a good, if occasionally challenging, listening experience. Cabaret isn’t about making you comfortable however, and I was happy to have experienced that diversity, if only to expand my own knowledge and sonic repertoire.

Perhaps the most entertaining cabaret I attended was one that featured a gaggle of “roaring girls” -the Roaring Girl Cabaret, that is. With fiery fiddler and frontwoman Miranda Mulholland, the musically-tight band delivered a walloping blend of Celtic-meets-bluegrass-meets-nasty-blues-rock sass with attitude, aplomb, and plenty of good cheer. It was great to actually see Mulholland’s eyes sparkle, and small mouth smirk as she delivered line after line of cheeky lyric, interspersing each with meandering if powerful East-Coast-violin sounds. At points she even vibed Nick Cave’s dark-lord lyrics and style: quiet and poignant one moment, roaring and bombastic the next, it was thrilling to behold, and refreshing to see Mulholland go against the cute-girl stereotype others might put on her. Don’t put this roaring girl in a box -she’ll kick your ass. Seriously.

An evening at a Young Centre cabaret is to be transported to another time and place –not merely the “gold lame outfits”-type thing Sharon Matthews referred to -but one that exists entirely by you and for you, meticulously moulded and shaped by any given performer on any given Saturday. Each comes with their own stories -tales of heartbreak, triumph, of lives fully lived -but it’s totally up to you, at evening’s end, to choose what to take home. In my case, the doggie bag was full of goodies I’m still enjoying, many weeks later.

Cabaret, for me, isn’t about being transported to “another time and place” as the old saying goes… it’s about feeling, fully and entirely, grounded in the wonder of the present moment, with every passing note, crooned syllable and extended vowel. There’s a story in every sound, the cabaret whispers, just sit still. You’ll hear it.

Photos by Chung Wong
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What She Wore

Clothing is a personal thing for many women. That material intimacy is something the Nora Ephron and Delia Ephron understand very well.

The award-winning duo, who’ve penned some of my favorite movies (including Nora’s “When Harry Met Sally“), have brought their award-winning play Love, Loss, And What I Wore to Toronto. It runs at the cozy Panasonic Theatre through the end of the summer. A portion of ticket sales will, appropriately, benefit Dress For Success, a fantastic charity that provides professional services (including attire) to disadvantaged women. What a perfect fit.

The Ephrons’ monologue-style play features a collection of stories that connect certain outfits with special, significant life moments. There’s the story of wedding dresses, sexy boots, and the joys (or not) of purses, the challenges of mothers, the pangs of body types, and the perfection that is “BLLAAACK!”. It’s all melded together with happy/sad/bittersweet/funny flavours. Performers Andrea Martin, Mary Walsh, Louise Pitre, Sharron Matthews and Paula Brancati do a truly fantastic job of combining the happy and the sad with equal dollops of grace, charm, wit, and sensitivity.

I asked the Toronto-based actor and performer Sharron Matthews about her thoughts around clothing, creativity, and cabaret recently. She has a long history of performance, with everything from Les Miserables to Mean Girls on her resume, and is a positively radiant stage presence. Her responses are very enlightening and refreshingly honest. Enjoy.

Which aspects of Love, Loss, And What I Wore do you most relate to?

That is a hard question. Not because I don’t feel like I relate, but because the things that I seem to relate to are a bit challenging for me to acknowledge. My first monologue is about a child losing a parent and when the material assignments were sent out I was hoping and dreading that I might get this piece. I lost my dad when I was very young and it had a huge impact on my family. I also talk a lot about my weight, now it fluctuates and how hard being a big girl can be. I was a bit nervous about doing these pieces as well but the more I read them the more I thought, “Well, these are truthful and this a group of women that needs to be represented in fabulousness as well as in hardship.”

Why do you think so many women associate clothing with other things? Do you think women are more prone to association (& connection) than men?

I think that women are more ‘collectors’ then men are: (of) shoes, jackets, purses. Men don’t have as many accessories as we do, as a rule. Some of us have closets that are like art galleries… I know I do… featuring shoe boxes with pictures of the shoes on them. And yes, I do think we are more prone to association and connection. We are also, for the most part, more sentimental. We see “a shirt that a wore on my first job interview, the day I was hired to begin my career”…and men see a shirt. I think that it can be a sensual thing, the feel of a fabric or the smell but is also a sense-memory thing… we feel something and we sometimes be in that place again… recalling our emotions.

How much has your other work, specifically in TV and film, has been useful in doing the Ephrons’ work?

Though I have worked in TV and film -of course not as much as Paula, Mary and Andrea -I think that my work in cabaret, as a storyteller has been my greatest asset with the stories in Love, Loss And What I Wore. I feel right at home in this piece. The audience is present and a part of the piece and the stories are brief… like a song.

Define ‘cabaret’ as it is, now. What does it mean to you? What do you think it means to audiences of the 21st century?

I went online to look for some definitions of cabaret. They are all very dry and general: “a form of entertainment featuring comedy, song, dance, and theatre, distinguished mainly by the performance venue.” I recently did a cabaret that was a part of the Young Centre’s Saturday Night Cabaret Series and (their) description is one of my favourites: ”Cabaret is a combination of intimacy, personality, and social contact.”

So my definition of cabaret is a evening of musical storytelling including themes that are universal and accessible, but challenging at the same time. I love cabaret. It is the way I best feel (able to) express myself and really explore my creativity and my artistic voice.

I also think that cabaret can be performed “intimately” in a huge theatre. (It) is an art form that is not fully recognized in Canada.

To some, the word ‘cabaret’ conjures up images of singers belting out “My Way” in gold lame outfits . I am slowly trying to change that perception. I believe that cabaret is a journey, not the picture I just described. It is a form of storytelling to me. A way of breaking down the fourth wall an reaching out to people.

Stage or screen -what’s your favorite?

Having done screen work, I have a huge respect for people who work in film and TV day in and day out. Film acting is a true skill and the people who do it well are artists as well as technicians. I enjoy the spontaneity that is the stage. It is so live in front of an audience and you can never be totally sure what is going to happen. I like to feel an immediate response to what I do… it fuels me to move forwards. I love the stage.

Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Angry Magic

Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre has remounted its hit production of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. It’s running at the beautiful Young Centre in the Distillery District through June 5th.

In prepping for my live radio interview with actor Jordan Pettle last week (he plays tough nut office manager John Williamson), I returned to my review of last year’s production. Shock and awe aside (“I wrote that?! No, really… I wrote that???”), I was struck by how much had changed, and how much had stayed the same in this year’s version. The chemistry between the six cast members is as pungently male as ever, its energy as snappy and smart as the salty dialogue. Director David Storch has the performers -Eric Peterson, Albert Schultz, Kevin Bundy, William Webster, Peter Donaldson, and Pettle -play, literally and figuratively, with their own energies, reactions, and relationships with one another. Most noticeable in this year’s revival is the sheer physicality on display; chests and chins jut forwards like prize fighters daring their smarmy mugs for a loud, proud shiner. Spit flies around with as much aplomb as big promises and dead contracts.

There’s a kind of manic, angry magic at work here; between Ken MacDonald’s sexy, shiny design and _’s slithering sound design, a kinetic energy comes sparking from the stage, full-throttle. It’s exhilerating, exhausting, and ultimately enlightening. Jon Stewart and his gaggle of writers are equally foul, fierce, and funny about financial ruin -in a way, they’re Mamet Circa 2010, with every ounce of anger, wit, and that alchemical transformation that happens in the arena of performance; a kind of magical inversion of “reality” happens, with equal gasps and guffaws bouncing off sets, sofas and stages. There’s something so powerful about the mix of funny and angry -it makes the underlying rage all the more bitter, and strangely, cathartic.

Storch nicely captures this magical combination. You’ll leave wanting to either jog a twenty-mile marathon, or take a long, hot shower. Maybe both. Whatever you do, channel that energy into something positive that doesn’t involve selling bad stocks or properties in Florida.


Photo of Eric Peterson by Cylla von Tiedemann.

The Sweet Smell of The Season

There are very few truly delicious, filling dishes to be had, at least in theatrical terms, amidst the saccharine offerings through the Christmas season. Everything is so sweet and frothy, it’s enough to make one’s teeth rot from the cutesy-overload. So it was with more than a little curiosity that I attended the opening of Miklos Laszlo’s 1937 play Parfumerie at the Young Centre last week. What did this have to do with the season?, I wondered. Why choose an old, rarely-performed work to fill out the last gasp of the admittedly-varied 2009 Soulpepper season? Where’s my Scrooge?

As it turns out, my fears were calmed and entirely unfounded –and I didn’t miss the old Dickens chestnut one bit. Parfumerie is a truly perfect choice for the silly season, and a beautifully romantic, thought-full way of ending the year. Laszlo’s endearing, romantic work centers on the activities of a Budapest beauty shop in the 1930s. As Associate Artist Paula Wing notes in the show programs, Laszlo nicely integrates all the people he knew and observed in his home city, from the “well-heeled denizens” of posh Buda, to the working-class shop clerks and service employees of bustling Pest. The tension between them, while extant, also highlights the struggles and heartaches of each, and ultimately the work celebrates humanity in a grandly messy, heady mix of zany comedy and serious drama. No wonder the work has been adapted so frequently; one musical (She Loves Me) and three films (The Shop Around The Corner, The Good Old Summertime, and You’ve Got Mail) have all taken as their basis the Laszlo original, of unknown love amidst the hustle and bustle of the season.

The plot is more of a premise, but it’s rich with character exploration and theatrical possibility. The employees of Hammerschmidt and Company, a beauty shop, race around to prepare for the holidays, while revealing their inner lives in small but telling ways. Two of the shop’s employees, the scatty Rosana Balaz (Patricia Fagan) and the uptight George Asztalos (Oliver Dennis) are constantly sparring, spitting insults at one another and rolling their eyes in frustration. As it turns out, each has been unknowingly exchanging love letters with the other. This undercurrent of unspoken and unknown affection is the premise that fuels the action around the other subplots, involving the cheating wife of the owner, Mr. Hammerschmidt (Joseph Ziegler), who suspects George as the seducer. Dennis is keen at widening his big eyes and using his considerable experience in physical comedy to convey the confusion of a man who pipes up in his work but shuts down in his emotions. It’s refreshing to see Dennis finally play a romantic lead, too, particularly since he’s almost always cast as the amusing sideman.

Equally, Ziegler, who usually plays Scrooge for Soulpepper this time of year, brings a load of heart to the huffy boss. He employs stiff body language and keen, knowing silence to punctuate the new adaptation by Adam Pettle and Brenda Robins. This smart approach brings a kind of Chekhovian gloom to the proceedings (not entirely unsuitable, considering the infamous “Suicide Song” originated in Hungary) and a deep thoughtful quality to his performance, making Hammerschmidt less officious and more human, fallible, and ultimately, vulnerable.

This vulnerability especially extends to the way in which director Morris Panych has staged the scenes between the male employees. Mr. Sipos (Michael Simpson) sits on the shop’s round settee and shares a guilty secret with George at one point, their faces both portraits of pain and genuine confusion. It’s not difficult to recall a similar scene of understanding staged earlier between Mr. Hammerschmidt and his eager-beaver delivery boy, Arpad (Jeff Lillico), who acts as a kind of default son to the childless boss. Arpad runs to bring his crusty boss breakfast the night after an attempted suicide which the delivery boy helped to prevent. Ziegler balances a mix of gruff dismissal and shame-faced grief, while Lillico is wonderfully pure in channeling his character’s fierce protectiveness for his boss. There is a real hum of affection and a moving frankness between the male characters that is entirely in keeping with Laszlo’s loving look at human relationships.

In watching these scenes, I was reminded of Soulpepper’s production of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple two seasons ago, where a similar tone of male understanding rang through many scenes. It’s this tender vulnerability that immediately gets shut away the minute any women appear, in both Simon’s or Laszlo’s worlds, as if a man betraying what could be perceived as weakness is unforgivable and entirely unfathomable. The Hungarian playwright uses the letters between George and Rosie to create a bridge, however –between genders, life experience, perspectives, and ideas, allowing a greater intimacy to creep in as a result of both characters allowing themselves to be vulnerable not only on paper, but face-to-face. You’re torn between wanting to stand up and cheer, or softly sigh, when George finally tells Rosie he’s actually the man behind the Abelard-and-Heloise poetics within the letters.

This beautiful bridging could’ve only happened with the care and class of director of Morris Panych, really. The award-winning director and playwright guides his gifted cast with a keen, knowing hand, playing up the comedy of the piece at one moment, turning down the volume to allow the drama to come through at others. We barely notice the shifting tenor of moments as he expertly navigates the emotional landscape Pettle and Robbins have laid out, and it’s a relief, because a work like Parfumerie could so easily veer into the trite and ineffectual, becoming another puffy comedy piece set in a pink-heart world. But, just as he did with The Trespassers at the Stratford Festival this past summer, Panych carefully reveals the layers of tender humanity contained within Laszlo’s world -with humour, patience, understanding, and affection. With Parfumerie, we have a marvelous, moving night of truly delightful theatre, with just the right touch of holiday spirit. Tooth-rotting, cutesy sugar plum shows be damned –this is exactly the sort of Christmas meal I wanted. Thanks again, Soulpepper. Yum yum.

All Parfumerie photographs by Cylla von Tiedmann.

Try This (or this)

I’ve been so busy over the past few weeks, I haven’t been updating as much as I’d like. And I can’t blame the weather, because summer seems to have generally missed much of the country. Still, here are a few ideas for things that have been inspiring me lately:

1. Sundays @ the Young -Started by Albert Schultz when he announced his Resident Artists back in December, the series of Sunday shows is a nice, classy mix of urban sounds and crunchy Canadiana.

I attended this past Sunday’s tribute to Gordon Lightfoot, which featured the talents of Patricia O’Callaghan, Gregory Hoskins, Andrew Craig, Miranda Mulholland, Lori Cullen, and others, all under the direction of actor/musician Mike Ross. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” was a real highlight, with a swampy, Raising Sand-esque vibe, and the sight/sound of the feisty, gorgeous Mulholland belting out “That’s What You Get For Lovin’ Me” was just… excellent (Lightfoot’s work definitely takes on a whole new spirit when his words are sung by women!). Actor Kenneth Welsh, currently acting in Soulpepper’s production of the David French play Of The Fields Lately, joined the musicians, offering his own rousing, passionate interpretations of Gordie’s work.

If this concert is anything to go by, the series -running through to mid-August -should be sizzling. Oh, and one more thing: this is just the kind of proper, adult entertainment I happen to really like for a Sunday afternoon. Good music, beautiful surroundings, and easy access to nice bars. Well done, YC.

2. Harvest Wednesdays at the Gladstone Hotel -I was initially a bit nervous about attending a Tasting Wednesday. Would it be full of hippie farmers wagging fingers at me for eating meat and wearing leather? or populated by urban foodie snobs rolling their eyes over the latest resto reviews? Turns out I was wrong on both accounts.

While the Gladstone’s beautiful second floor did, indeed feature hippie farmers and in-the-know foodies, everyone was super-friendly, informed, and extremely helpful. The crowd was a nice mix of old and young, urban, suburban, and rural -everyone was interested in talking, connecting, and sharing ideas over plate-fulls of fresh veggies and glasses of wine or beer. The vibe was refreshingly relaxed, if also equally curious. There was a live two-man band playing good roots-style music, and there were plenty of smiling faces in every room.

Now, what exactly is Harvest Wednesdays? Well, exactly what it implies. No, they don’t make you go into a yard on Queen West and pick berries or husk corn. Rather, every Wednesday features either a tasting (monthly) or a prix fixe meal (three consecutive weeks), with a spotlight on local growers and seasonal ingredients. On the night I attended, Chef Marc Breton’s menu consisted of lovely little nibblies served by chatty, friendly servers who walked around and offered their edible wares to people who were perusing and interacting with food producers of all stripes spreading across the rooms on the hotel’s second floor space. My favourite tastings: lamb meatballs and sausages, + dessert crepes made with red fife and filled with strawberries and lavender-rhubarb cream. Mmmm.

Tasting Wednesdays are a great way to meet and connect with other casual foodies, as well as with those who grow the food (and sometimes feature their own neat foodie evenings!). Also, to quote a friend I met up with the next day, “it seems like a really nice, fun, adult thing to do during the week.” Yes! And delicious too!

(Photo courtesy of the Gladstone Hotel’s Flickr Photostream)

3. Amadou and MariamThe Magic Couple -I love this album. I wish I’d seen them live when they were here in Toronto. Bah. The Malian pair are currently the opening musical act for a little band called Coldplay. Chris Martin & co. are not the only famous fans they have, though. Keith Richards and Robert Plant are also fans. If you’re into blues sounds -heck, if you just plain love rock and roll – you’ll love Amadou amd Mariam. Their best-of compilation is the perfect introduction to their work. I dare you to listen to “Beki Miri” without dancing.

(Photo courtesy of Wrasse Records)

4. The Beaches Jazz Festival – Now in its 25th year (eeek, I’m getting old), the big outdoor music party officially kicked off this past Friday. I interviewed rapper PHATT Al from the band God Made Me Funky and will be seeing them play live this Thursday along Queen Street East. As with Amadou and Mariam, if you haven’t seen/heard GMMF play -especially live- this is one show to put on your calendar. Their infectious brand of fusion-funk, with traceable influences of Stevie Wonder, Grandmaster Flash, and of course, George Clinton, is ideal music for chasing away the clouds, be they mental or physical.

5. I still haven’t found a book to satisfy. I’m looking for fiction, in the vein of Miriam Toews-meets-Nicole Krauss-esque. Anyone have suggestions?

Random Acts of Play

1. Speaking to an unmanned camera; I was filming an introduction to my latest video interview piece (on Awake and Sing, currently on at the Young Centre) and kept flubbing it. Thinking his presence might be throwing me, my sweet/awesome/brilliant cameraman/editor walked away to look out the window, leaving me to speak one-on-one with the lens. It worked.

2. Going or ice cream at La Paloma, one of Toronto’s best places for yummy, homemade gelato. It was a hot day, and it was perfect for a cone. I walked down the street, me and my chocolate hazelnut, enjoying the sights and the sunshine. Oh, simple joys.

3. Overhearing my neighbours’ nephews playing in their swimming pool as birds chirped. Remember when pools were such a big deal as a kid? Like, a really big deal? Yeah, me too.

4. Going for a bike ride and calling out to a raccoon perched carefully on a wooden fence, only to be greeted by five little raccoon faces. Now, I know they aren’t necessarily the most wanted creatures (especially now that Toronto has a strike involving city workers -who collect trash among other duties -on its hands), but it was just a dear little moment to have five little heads come popping up from the fence at my Doctress Doolittle moment.

5. I’m going to the Shaw Festival tomorrow. Seeing lots of comedies, which I love. Laughter = good.

Also?

My Goran Bregovic interview is posted
.

Zivalo!

This Is What I Mean By “Play”

The key word for the inaugural New Waves Festival (running as part of Luminato) at the Young Centre this past weekend? Playful. Yeah, “play” as in theatre and performing -but “play”also, equally, as in playing-around. Comme un enfant.

Take the Artists in the Closet series. A limited number of people were invited into a weensy little space –okay, a bathroom –to sit and chat with an upcoming Canadian artist for five to ten minutes. My friend and I had the pleasure of being part of Toronto rapper Theo3’s little ‘crib’ –he introduced us to the artists who influenced him growing up (vinyl album covers lined the small perimeter of the loo) and talked about how being in such an intimate environment made him feel both inspired and intimidated. Ha. Says you, I thought, perched on a little makeshift bench (apparently the real “throne” was off limits, with a big ‘DON’T SIT HERE’ scrawl written across the bowl in red sharpie. Art? You decide.).

The rapper also presented his own unique take on Coldplay’s monster-hit “Clocks.” Love them or loathe them, you have to admit, the tune has a good, catchy intro. Theo used it to full effect, playing a loop of it on a boombox as he launched into a rap about his background and interest in rap. Kind of neat to hear him smoothly integrate the past with the present, even introducing his girlfriend, standing shyly around the corner from the entrance with a big, proud grin. Aw.

Equally affecting was the Bedtime Stories feature, in which a violinist/singer serenaded a roomful of strangers, all of us laid out on cots.

“This is like something out of the Hurricane Katrina relief effort,” remarked my friend as the harsh, flourescent-lit room transformed into a dark cave with swirling projections of stars and galaxies overhead.

The scene reminded me of having sleepovers with my childhood buddy, who had a veritable galaxy stuck up on his own bedroom ceiling. We’d hit the lights and walk around with light sabers (okay, empty wrapping paper rolls) as the stars twinkled overhead. Yup, playful, and a direct route back to childhood.

One of the most interesting activities was Seven Singing Structures, featuring, among others, Canadian singer (and YC Resident Artist) Patricia O’Callaghan. The seven entertained onlookers in the Young Centre’s palatial lobby by singing in harmony, with huge, architectural headgear balanced precariously on the performers’ lids. Huh? One singer had the Eiffel Tower balanced atop his head. Talk about your overbearing culture. No matter. Everyone seemed to be enjoying it, and the singing was damn beautiful.

Once the Towering-Headgear Singers finished, fellow YC Resident Artist David Buchbinder played his trademark mix of klezmer-meets-Cuban sounds with a quartet at the other end of the lobby. To quote Jenny Holzer, contradiction is balance.

Outside the Young Centre, Cellular was being presented by actor/director David Ferry and a troupe of Canadian playwrights and performers including Maja Ardal], Florence Gibson, Catherine Hernandez, Kate Hewlett, and Daniel Karasik. the art machine, one of the works under the Cellular banner, and written by Marjorie Chan, involved dialing a number with a cell phone, before following a series of commandments by a disembodied voice (the “Jump up and down” bit seemed to really amuse passers-by, natch).

The voice also queried participants with questions like, “Have you ever stolen anything?“, “Have you ever lied?” and required a public show of hands. You think I’m going to reveal this stuff in public? Ha.

The last question was for the participants to reveal a secret they’d never told anyone before. Ooooh, what a dandy. After a long, awkward pause, one brave participant revealed he’d once … (drumroll)… pinched a baby.

My own mobile unfortunately died midway through (irony, perhaps?) and one of the hosts for the mini-show loaned me his. What my dead-mobile did allow was to note the reactions of participants –glancing at each other for validation, laughing awkwardly, and being generally involved in communicating with a machine, as opposed to one another -which, all told, was (is) probably the point of Cellular itself. It was an interesting juxtaposition of modern communicating and theatre community.

Walking around the Young Centre Saturday, it was hard to believe this was the same building that had housed (and produced, via Soulpepper Theatre) such serious works as Chekhov’s Three Sisters, Shakespeare’s King Lear, and Marsha Norman’s ‘Night Mother. The Centre’s resident artists have created something that allows for participating as well as communicating, juxtaposing, and –perhaps most importantly –playing. Play, what it means and how it’s perceived, is what’s being examined -an celebrated. Hell yeah. Play on.

Addendum: For more photos from the New Waves Fest, check out my Flickr photostream.

I, (insert name)

“That is my very favourite Canadian play.”

These words were spoken by a friend Friday night as we came out of I, Claudia, Kristen Thomson‘s one-woman tour-de-force, now on at the Young Centre in Toronto.

The work is a mix of mask, mime, comedy, tragedy, and Thomson’s biography. It concerns the experience of one Claudia, who is, she tells us, “twelve-and-three-quarters” and struggling with her parents’ divorce. She hides in her school’s basement, where she makes up a fantastical world of her own devising, sharing her worries, torments, and passing thoughts with us (not to mention her ill-fated science project). Thomson plays Claudia with a big-cheeked mask, red beret, and uniform kilt; her body language is awkward and gawky, but she imbues Claudia with a bright, shining light of hope and playfulness. Thomson also takes on the roles of the school’s “Bolgonian” caretaker, Claudia’s paternal grandfather, and Tina, Claudia’s new stepmom. Each is given their own unique masque -the grandfather’s, long and wizened, the stepmom’s tight and over-make-up’d. Again, Thomson fully inhabits each of the characters physically, giving each their own unique life.

Developed with Chris Abraham of the lauded Crow’s Theatre and first performed in 2001, the work is breathtaking in its emotional scope and creative presentation. With a small gesture -a turn of the head, a shrug of the shoulder -Thomson suggests a world of hurt, loss, and yes, hope within the lives of the characters she portrays. We’re never in doubt about the fact that Thomson is taking us on a purposely-theatrical journey, changing between scenes and bopping to musical interludes, showing the funny, strange, sad lives of a diverse group of people and the common threads of humanity that bind them. The intimate, twisted relationships between children and parents are deftly, delicately explored, with great care and grace. You get the feeling when Thomson’s janitor refers to a son who lives in the United States, then quickly adds, “we won’t talk about that…” that there’s a mountain of hurt there that doesn’t require explanation.

Since the work is based on real events in Thomson’s past, I was curious to see how Claudia might represent her own hurt little girl within; it’s a personal theme I found myself relating to, on several deep levels, more than once through the evening. As a child of divorce myself, the feelings of abandonment, rage, loss, and confusion were easily recognizable. To publicly share one’s hurt over such events is incredible; to translate that into a piece of theatre, and in so doing, allow for a possible healing, is miraculous.

I, Claudia might just be my own favourite Canadian work too.

Lovely Peggy

Amidst a day filled with news of job loss, bombings, and gloomy predictions, I found myself meditating over the final scene in Radio Play. Dancer Peggy Baker and actor Michael Healey sit together, on a raised table, their faces nearly touching, their hands joined. It’s the end of a beautiful, poetic journey, and a powerful symbol of connection.

Though I’m not well-versed in modern dance, I found myself entirely entranced with the movement-meets-theatre piece. It asks nothing more than turning off that part of your brain that constantly seeks to understand, to make sense of, to explain. As Marcel Duchamp said, “This desire to understand everything fills me with horror.” Like art, there’s something resoundingly primal about dance -particularly modern dance. One either reacts by shutting down at its confounding nature, or opens up entirely to its instinctual roots. I found myself willingly knocking down my walls of intense rationalism watching Radio Play, frequently relating to the trials and frustrations faced by Marnie (played by Peggy Baker); the changing nature of her relationship with Angus (played by Healey) was equally compelling, and was expressed with brushes of subtlety and grace.

I also found myself connecting some of the issues Radio Play raises -namely the idea around how artists make a living -with yesterday’s layoff of the members of the B.C. Ballet. There is still a predominant attitude, at least in certain circles, that working as an artist doesn’t constitute “real art.” I’d argue that a dancer is every bit as vital to the economy as a Magna employee. And after seeing a piece like Radio Play, I’m more convinced than ever of the importance and vitality of culture in harsh times. It’s only by turning that needling, analytical voice off, and allowing a few subconscious realizations, that one finds any sense of clarity. If you’re in or around Toronto, run -there are only three more performances.

Bipsy, Balls, Weill & Northrop

I didn’t realize how much I enjoyed puppet theatre until I saw Famous Puppet Death Scenes, put on by Calgary’s Old Trout Puppet Workshop, last year. It was bizarre, it was gross, it was moving. It had moments of extreme insight, and others that wallowed in the most deliciously macabre humour. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and some of the powerful images it presented. Puppets may just be “blocks of wood”, as Old Trout puppeteer Judd Palmer told me last week, but what they convey in the hands of such skilled masters is something far past the corporeal. To quote my first PlayAnon interviewee, they’re “show(ing) us who we really are.” Quite an achivement for mere blocks of wood. Run, don’t walk, to see one of the best pieces of … well, whatever you want call it. The pseudo-kiddie skit “Das Bipsy and Mumu Puppenspiel” is worth the price of admission alone.

The Young Centre, where you’ll find the Old Trouts’ puppet show, just came off a successful run of shows in their first-ever cabaret series, sponsored by Canwest. With roughly 150 artists ranging from gospel (Jackie Richardson) to world sounds (Waleed Abdulhamid) to classy jazz (Patricia O’Callaghan) and much more, the Canwest Cabaret Series, was, by all accounts, a smashing success. I was able to take in the Cabaret’s Kurt Weill Songbook Saturday night, pre-Nuit Blanche-ing, and I must say, it had some of the best performances of Weill I’ve ever seen. Peppered with a range of interpretations and styles (including beautifully lyrical readings by Mike Ross and Sarah Slean, sexy, classic renditions by O’Callaghan, and decidedly scatty, quirky performances by Mary Margaret O’Hara), the Kurt Weill Songbook was a great example of an important idea: bringing supposedly “high” and/or “obscure” art to the masses -as in, to the ordinary grubs (us, that is) who happen to love it. Just days before, German songstress Ute Lemper had captivated a sold-out crowd at Roy Thomson Hall with her Dietrich-esque readings of Weill, and while the dressy crowd surely ate it up, the audiences assembled Saturday at the Young Centre were definitely more casual -in jeans, sipping beers, chatting with others at the numerous little tables set up in the Bailie Theatre so as to give a club-like feel. It was intimate, casual, and smart.

Monday night I attended the evening of skits and sketches put on by national political theatre group The Wrecking Ball. Made up entirely of pieces written only in the past week, and having had only one rehearsal, the show was part of a national effort to bring attention to the arts cuts that have so coloured the lives of Canadian artists these past few months. Along with clever work by Rick Roberts and Pierre Brault, the evening also featured work by Canadian playwright Judith Thompson, whom Kelly Nestruck, the Globe’s Theatre Critic, rightly says is “swiftly turning into Canada’s David Hare.” Dead on. My favourite, however, was Teresa Pavlinek’s tale of two ordinary people who share a bus ride, along with stationery, and eventually, their dreams and ambitions. Called “The Road to Ordinary”, it was perhaps the least partisan piece of the evening, but for me, it was also the most moving, notable for the subtle ways in which Pavlinek showed how culture has the power to change lives. Great acting too, from Ieva Lucs and Hardee T. Lineham. Best Speech of the Evening Award went to Michael Healey, who reminded the packed Tarragon that, despite what we may think of him, Prime Minister Harper is a patriot too. It was brave, good, and ballsy. Kudos, Michael.

The last word goes to Northrop Frye, again, taken from The Educated Imagination. I like this one, because, based on the artists I’ve spoken with, including my next PlayAnon interviewee, artists of various disciplines in this country didn’t really speak to one another until the arts cuts were made public. What a way to foster discussion. Still, there’s a long way to go in terms of cultivating those connections. So, without further adue, Mr. Frye’s thoughts…

… just as it’s easy to confuse thinking with the habitual associations of language, so it’s easy to confuse thinking with thinking in words. I’ve even heard it said that thought is inner speech, though how you’d apply that statement to what Beethoven was doing when he was thinking about his ninth symphony, I don’t know. But the study of other arts, such as painting and music, has many values for literary training apart from their value as subjects in themselves. Everything man does that’s worth doing is some kind of construction, and the imagination is the constructive power of the mind set free to work on pure construction, construction for its own sake. The units don’t have to be words; they can be numbers or tones or colours or bricks or pieces of marble. It’s hardly possible to understand what the imagination is doing with words without seeing how it operates with some of these other units.

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