What: TO LIVE—Living Rooms a series of 100 artistic episodes created virtually by artists living in Toronto for the most part.

Where: https://www.tolive.com/livingrooms

When: Now.

Why: A chance to champion the many independent artists living in Toronto and is a celebration of the power of the arts to heal and inspire.

Who: See Why above.

There’s a wonderful initiative here intitled TO LIVE—Living Rooms. (TO LIVE is the name of the organization that manages The St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, Meridian Hall and Meridian Arts Centre in North York.)

TO LIVE—Living Rooms is a series of 100 performance pieces created by independent artists living mainly in Toronto and presented from their living rooms (for the most part) to us. Each episode is about five minutes or less. The selection of artists spans cultures, ethnicities, race, gender identification and the performing arts.

Josephine Ridge, Vice President of Programming for TO Live wrote of the artists who contributed:  “Their contributions have given us a remarkable snapshot of this moment in history and together are a celebration of the power of the arts as a force for healing and inspiration….In addition, we knew that independent artists would be particularly hard hit so we decided to focus on them.”

Besides referencing their art the artists were asked to address three questions:

How is art helping you get through this challenging time?

What’s your favourite part about your neighbourhood?

What would you like to share with people to help?

I found every single one of these artists who did answer the questions to be thoughtful, compassionate, open-hearted, generous of spirit and in many cases, spiritual. Often an artist ended by telling us to be safe, take care of each other and be kind. I loved how Indigenous artists in particular thought of the earth and the land and how we should take care of it as well as ourselves.

This is just a taste of the cross-section of the artists and the broad spectrum of their performance genres.

The episodes began recording in March and finished in mid-July. It started with OKAN, a musical Cuban duo of Elizabeth Rodriguez, (playing what I’m describing as a mini-marimba) and Magdely Savigne who played the box she was sitting on as a drum. They sang a beautiful song acapella. And because they grew up under communism, they are used to doing without. Their advice to us was to think of community and do what you can for your community.  

The last episode recorded in mid-July waspresented by Tawiah M’Carthy, a Ghanaian-born, Toronto-based theatre artist, playwright, actor, director, curator, and facilitator. He recited a speech from his play Black Boys about the idea of being a man and not crying when grief overcomes the person. Quite moving.

Singer-songwriter Quique Escamilla learned music in his native Mexico from his mother. He now lives in Toronto and is celebrated for his world music. He sang a song beautifully in Spanish of hard times. At the end he said: “Be safe and take care of each other.) He has a wonderful, clear voice and he sings with passion and conviction.

Emmanuel Jal got hisstart in life as a child soldier in South Sudan in the early 1980s. He has survived immense struggles to become an acclaimed recording artist, actor, author and peace ambassador now living in Toronto. He performed his song as free style rap and sings of piece and hope. His spoken words of wisdom are simple, clear and wise:

“Creativity comes out of pain.”

“Fear will make us see obstacles.”

“Courage will make us see opportunities.”

Irma Villafuere is a Salvadorian-Canadian dance artist, involved in community arts initiatives and performances in Toronto, Latin America and the Caribbean. Her work speaks out on violence against women through artistic expression, storytelling, and the moving body. She performed her dance piece on her balcony. Her concerns are for the planet and that we should care for it.

Some episodes were not performance driven, but were personal statements and were intensely moving such as the ones for Ronnie Burkett and Chief Lady Bird.

Ronnie Burkett is a prolific writer, avant-garde designer, and acclaimed puppeteer who has been entertaining audiences with theatrical productions for over 40 years. As a playwright, he focuses on original and innovative work, creating puppets of his own design. His stories are deeply thought and illuminate a dark side of society and issues.

He didn’t perform a scene as much as he joyfully showed us his meticulously kept work space where he designs and creates his puppets. He calls it the best place in the world to work. He is buoyant in the telling but there is a tinge of concern.  He worries about his community and the businesses in his neighbourhood. He says that we will be changed (when we come back from this) and he will make a story about it and can hardly wait to present it to us. This episode gives us a glimpse into his creative world but also the ideas that he ponders and worries about. I found his episode so moving and personal.  

Chief Lady Bird’s episode is also personal in nature. Sheis a Chippewa and Potawatomi artist, illustrator, educator and community activist from Rama First Nation and Moosedeer Point First Nation. She is Toronto-based and uses illustration, mixed media painting and street art to bring empowerment to the forefront of discussions about the nuances of Indigenous experiences.

Her episode is a very personal philosophical look at the whole question of creation in this pandemic. She questions if it is important to create art during this time? Her answer is poignant and thoughtful. She delivers this message from Rama First Nation to where she returned to reconnect. She is outside where the sky is a rich blue, there is snow on the ground and high brush behind her. Towards the end of her episode one of her paintings is ‘recreated’ on the screen. Beautiful. Self care is the most important aspect in this piece. Loved it.

Santee Smith is astonishing. She is a multi-discipline artist from Six Nations Grand River. She’s a choreographer who created a gut-twisting dance piece called The Mush Hole about the notorious Mohawk Institute—a residential school. Santee Smith is the Chancellor of McMaster University in Hamilton.

For her episode she shows us pottery made by four generations in her family that is beautiful and symbolic. Her grandmother, Alda Smith, revived the lost art of pottery-making to Six Nations.  Santee Smith and her daughter Sehmia created and sang a glorious song. (Her daughter’s pottery is also beautiful and full of symbols.)

d’bi.young anitafrika is a Jamaican-Canadian feminist dub poet and activist. Her work includes theatrical performances, four published collections of poetry, 12 plays, and seven albums.

d’bi.young anitafrica has created a piece of writing that is a letter of sorts to a person named Ranka (sp?) expressing the fear of being under ‘lock-down’ or as she describes it: ‘house-arrest’ because of the pandemic.  It vividly expresses concern over every twinge of pain, sore throat and flu-like symptoms making the person fear she has the virus. She writes about running out of food, being afraid to leave the house to shop and wondering when it will end. d’bi.young anitafrica delivers it with seriousness, in a musical, lilting Jamaican accent that flavours the particular language and expressions of that culture. It’s funny, vivid, bracing and captures all the mixed emotions people are going through.  And when she is finished d’bi.young anitafrica smiles her broad smile and says, “Thank you, Toronto” and somehow you get the sense that it will be alright.  

Not all the presentations are serious as exemplified by Tita Collective. This comedy group of six women created a very funny song of the trials of quarantine—toilet paper hording for example. The song was funny and the technical difficulty of jumping from one screen to another, with close-ups etc. and the proficiency of carrying it off, was really impressive.

Sometimes an artist veered in another direction from their ‘usual’ form of expression to present a fascinating episode. Such a one is Susanna Fournier.

Susanna Fournier is a Canadian theatre-maker, actor, and educator. She is best known as an award-winning playwright but for this episode she recited a poem she wrote (as part of a book of poems) in January before she knew theatres would be closed down. It is a poem for two voices who talk of connection, reaching out and forgiveness. Fournier’s graceful, sensitive reciting of the poem offers comfort in these difficult times. Her gentle care and concern filled that poem.  Wonderful.

Yolanda Bonnell is a Queer 2-Spirit Ojibwe/South Asian performer, playwright, and poet originally from Fort William First Nation in Thunder Bay. She praised TO LIVE’s Living Room series as “an amazing way to connect us all.”

She performed a ‘hand-drumming song’ entitled “Moon-Eye Song” from her play Scanner now in development at Factory Theatre. She says about the song, “At the base of it the song is about connection and surviving through something terrible and how we’re connected through that. And I thought it was apropos considering that we’re all going through this right now.”

Yolanda Bonnell’s drum is obviously important to her: her sister ‘gifted’ it to her and also painted meaningful aspects of Indigenous life on it. The drumming melds beautifully with the song. The lyrics reference another story than the pandemic and Bonnell melds that story to what we all are experiencing. The lyric: “We will not forget” has particular resonance. Indigenous life, tradition and the land grounds Yolanda Bonnell’s life to its core and it’s to her credit as a poet and writer that she is able to convey that importance to those who are not Indigenous. 

Suzanne Roberts Smith is a critically acclaimed actor, director, theatre maker, and dynamo collaborator

Suzanne Roberts Smith performed a scene from the play Offensive to Some by Berni Stapleton. The scene was filmed in her apartment on a cell phone by her husband Sérgio Xocolate.

The scene hits you in the guts especially because of Suzanne Roberts Smith’s light, delicate touch as the character gives details of the story. That juxtaposition of the breezy manner with the telling of how the character’s husband was physically abusive makes it all the more hard-hitting. This scene is an indictment of spousal abuse, insidious mental illness that goes undetected and a legal system that toys with the ‘prisoner’s’ rights.  The writing is spare yet full of details that create a full story that makes you suck air at its implications. It’s very ambitious to film on a cell-phone as Suzanne Roberts Smith plays a woman obviously in a prison uniform as she flits around the apartment as we realize how mentally fragile she is. I appreciated the ambition of the episode.

TO LIVE—Living Rooms is a wonderful initiative to address what we are all going through as seen through the eyes of independent artists. Bravo.

You can check all 100 performances piece of T.O. LIVE—Living Rooms at:

https://www.tolive.com/livingrooms

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What: I See the Crimson Wave

Where: The back lawn of The Bruce Hotel, Stratford, Ont.

Why: To tell the story of Nat Love, an African-American former slave who was a cowboy at the turn of the last century, who loved words and had vivid adventures.

Who: Roy Lewis wrote and performs the piece.

When: Once a week until August 22, 2020.

I saw the very first performance of I See the Crimson Wave on Saturday, Aug. 1. It’s part of the wonderful Here for Now Open-Air Theatre Festival playing on the back lawn of the Bruce Hotel, Stratford, Ont.

The play was written and performed by Roy Lewis. It’s billed as a workshop production because it’s so new. Reviewing it would be totally irresponsible. So I’m not reviewing it. What I’m doing is writing an appreciation of the work, the writing, the imagination in the story-telling, the gift of language, the poetry and the joy in the telling of Roy Lewis.

Roy Lewis writes about Nat Love who was an African-American ex-slave who was taught to read and write by his father. At the get-go Lewis hits us with a piece of information that is stunning–that teaching a Black person to read and write at that time was a crime.

Nat Love became a cowboy moving west. He even wrote his autobiography detailing his exploits: Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as ‘Deadwood Dick,’ by Himself. Roy Lewis recounts how Nat Love wrote about the rules and regulations governing a cowboy’s life. He wrote about adventures taking a huge herd of cattle to market; dealing with rustlers; meeting notable cowboys of the day; meeting Lily Langtry who was on tour across America; he wrote about being a porter on a train and discovering the beauty of poetry, specifically haiku. (From trusty Google: “A traditional Japanese haiku is a three-line poem with seventeen syllables, written in a 5/7/5 syllable count. Often focusing on images from nature, haiku emphasizes simplicity, intensity, and directness of expression.”)

I knew that Roy Lewis loved poetry, particularly the challenging haiku form. How fortuitous that Roy Lewis connected with Nat Love who lived more than 100 years ago; is little known today but was a notable hero as a Black man and a cowboy and wrote in haiku.

One of the many beauties of transporting theatre is that it makes you suspend your disbelief to engage in a story and trust a character to tell it. Years ago, a director asked an actress to play Cleopatra. The actress was incredulous at the request and said to the director, “You want a menopausal dwarf to play Cleopatra?” And Peter Hall said to Judi Dench, “Yes, I want you to play Cleopatra.” So Judi Dench, at 54 years-old, played Cleopatra at the National Theatre in London. She was the best Cleopatra I have ever seen. Ever.

Roy Lewis is an engaging actor, charming us with his bass-baritone voice, commanding, full of nuance, subtlety and depth, then catching us up short when he sings in the most delicate of soprano/tenor voices as Lily Langtry or as another character who sings a lilting lullaby. When he says that Nat Love wrote everything he is going to read to us, including all the poetry and haiku, all the dazzling descriptions and hilarious encounters, we believe him. Lewis punctuates everything with a smile and perhaps a wink. And if we might knit our eyebrows just for a second wondering if what he’s saying is true, we brush it away.  Roy Lewis instills so much joy in the telling, makes the words sound delicious and makes us fall in love with the beguiling Nat Love, of course it all must be true!

Don’t miss this.

https://www.herefornowtheatre.com

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The good people of The Bruce Hotel in Stratford, Ont. are providing their back lawn for the Here For Now Open-Air Festival. The small audience sits on plastic chairs that are appropriately placed for health and safety. (The Bruce as it is known, is owned by the Birmingham family—huge patrons of the Stratford Festival. The Birmingham Conservatory that offers training to actors beginning their careers, is named for the family.)

When ‘nature calls’ we are allowed to use the ‘indoor plumbing’. The hotel is very grand from my point of view. Prices start at $500 a night. I can’t even imagine what you get for that—Egyptian sheets at a thread count of 1000 plus a whole box of Réo Thompson Mint Smoothies on the pillow?  

The place is ‘hidden’ behind a tall hedge or a taller bank of trees on one side or a wall as it fronts on Ontario St.  The staff wear what look like tailored suits/uniforms with matching masks, it seems to me. You are greeted by the masked/uniformed young man outside who presses one of those automatic round thingies that slowly opens the double doors revealing the quiet elegance of The Bruce.

Those slowly opening double doors were quite dramatic. I recall the film Cleopatra in which the huge gates of Rome opened slowly to allow in the impressive entourage of a hundred beefy men hauling a high throne on which was Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra. That girl could make an entrance.

I didn’t so much make an entrance as much as I enjoyed the drama of the slow doors. Everybody at the reception desk said hello. I said I was just going to the bathroom. I could tell they were all smiling behind their masks.

A “W” denoted the Women’s Washroom. The wood is a rich, dark brown. The lighting is bright but not glaring. There are several cubicles each with its own wood door. The cubicles are spacious and not small compact affairs. I notice the top sheet of the toilet paper is folded in a V and it’s resting gently on the roll.  Wow.

You know how in hotel rooms of spiffy hotels the top sheet of the toilet paper in the bathrooms is folded into a neat V as it rests on the roll. I guess it’s the way the hotel brains think guests would know that the place had been cleaned—that origami on the toilet paper. Like the fact that the bed is made perfectly, everything is dusted, cleaned, emptied, and smells nice would not give us the clue. We need the people cleaning the rooms to add that V touch. (An aside that took this into outer space. At one hotel the place was not content with just folding the top sheet of the “loo paper” into a V, they also added a round sticker that stuck that V to the roll. So I’m sitting there, NEEDING the paper at the ready and I had to turn and contort myself because it wasn’t a matter of just putting my hand out to grab hold. Nooooooooooooo. I had to turn then with both hands had to tear off the sticker and several sheets of paper in the process and got a cramp in the process. A sticker on the bloody toilet paper. Stupid! But I digress.)

So the toilet paper in the public restroom of The Bruce Hotel got the origami treatment too. When I ‘finished’ and used what toilet paper I needed, I then folded the top sheet into a sort of neat V (but not as neat as this staff) and rolled it up so that it was just resting on the roll.

I washed my hands thoroughly with the lovely scented liquid soap. Then got one of the sturdy paper towels, folded in a rectangle with “The Bruce” beautifully printed on it. Those paper towels are rather large when unfolded and so absorbent. For whatever reason—messy people, poor design of the faucets—the counter had splashes of water on it. So, yes, I used the paper towel to wipe down the counter as well. Then tossed it; took a tissue from the brown box for future use and left. Am I my mother’s daughter, or what?

When I was leaving the hotel I seemed to have gotten into a race with the person behind the desk to see who would get to the thingy one pushes first to open the double doors. I’m not sure if it was for cleanliness purposes but I gently punched the thingy with the side of my fist and the doors opened.

The Bruce has its own veggie gardens in huge wood planters at the back. The tomato plants are a tangle of every single kind you can imagine all crowded in. And not tied up. I did not bring my own ties for that. Nor did I think it right to snip off the ‘suckers’. I saw three huge cucumbers in that part of the planter There were zucchini flowers but I didn’t delve into the tangle to see if there were any zucchinis.

On one of my trips to see the plays on the lawn someone from the kitchen went out to get some edible flowers. I was curious—what did he get—he got nasturtiums, a cucumber flower and some others. All edible and all ready for decorating the food. Peppers were coming in as well. Every single person I dealt with there was polite, curious, accommodating and kind. Loved that. I will be practicing my V making when I get home.    

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What: Gabi Epstein presents an intimate evening of songs and stories.

Where: https://www.hgjewishtheatre.com/2019-2020-Gabi-Epstein-onLIVE.html

When: Streaming on demand until Sat. Aug. 1, 7:30.

Why: It’s Gabi Epstein. She’s talented. That’s reason enough to watch and hear. And it’s in collaboration with the Harold Green Jewish Theatre.

Who: Gabi Epstein is joined by Avery Saltzman, the co-artistic director of the Harold Green Jewish Theatre who sings as well and beautifully. She was ably accompanied by Mark Camilleri.

Gabi Epstein, singer-actress-extraordinaire—put on a concert from the comfort of her own home through the magic of digital transmission, on Wed. July 29 (it will be available for streaming until Sat. Aug. 1 at 7:30 pm). Kudos to Stream Stage (Daniel Abrahamson and Kayla James) for the technical expertise of great sound and lighting. The concert was in collaboration with the Harold Green Jewish Theatre, who gave Epstein her start really after she graduated university.

Epstein has a powerful singing voice, a natural charm and an affinity for the stage. It seems to run in the family. Her mother is writer Kathy Kacer and her brother is sing-actor Jake Epstein.

The programme was made up of mainly Broadway songs: “On My Own”, “The Music that Makes Me Dance”, “Beautiful”,  “Waving Through a Window.” “I Feel Pretty,”

Gabi Epstein has a close connection for the music of Barbra Streisand—she’s done benefits for the Harold Green Jewish Theatre on a Streisand theme and she’s starred in a production of Funny Girl in Montreal. So naturally a lot of the music in the program centred on music from Funny Girl: “Don’t Rain On My Parade,” “Second Hand Rose”, “People”, “My Man.” Epstein sings with a strong voice and keen understanding of what the songs mean. Her performances of these songs are never an imitation of Streisand, but rather are Epstein’s own rendering of them. Her patter between songs is confident, humourous and full of charm.

Her duets with Avery Saltzman (“Almost Like Being In Love”, “Zing Went the Strings of My Heart”) are effortless and show the lovely friendship and respect each has for the other. And Saltzman’s performance of “Being Alive” is full of conviction and emotion.

Epstein did a brave thing—she called for and got suggestions of songs to sing from the ‘listening’ audience. Then she and Mark Camilleri fashioned them into a smart, cohesive medley that began and ended thoughtfully.

There was applause from the ‘three people in the room:” her husband Jeremy Lapalme and Daniel Abrahamson and his wife Kayla James (the last two taking care of tech duty).

As with these intimate affairs the folks in the room laugh loud at everything to keep things buoyant. I thought that might have been a bit of overkill by her devoted husband Jeremy—they’ve been married a year. But I realize that the boisterous laugher was from Daniel Abrahamson which is excusable because he and Kayla James got married only last week so he was probably still giddy about the whole thing.

A quibble is that occasionally the register of a few songs are too high to sound comfortable for Gabi Epstein. This is easily remedied.

On the whole, Gabi Epstein is a natural singing, acting talent. She loves the stage and performing and it shows. She has an natural connection with her audience and the result is irresistible.

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What: An open-air theatre festival of six plays presented live until August. 30.

Where: On the back lawn of the Bruce Hotel in Stratford, Ont.

Why: To present live theatre safely by local actors of Stratford.

When: The plays run from Friday through Monday, from late-ish afternoon into the evening.  

How: www.herefornowtheatre.com for tickets.

Fiona Mongillo is the fearless Artistic Director of Here for Now Open-Air Theatre Festival. She has fashioned this six show festival to bring live theatre to the people of Stratford (and those who think nothing of driving from Toronto to Stratford to see live theatre) using local talent. Storytelling is the most important endeavor of the festival.

I saw five of the six shows over two days this past weekend. I will see the last play—I See The Crimson Wave–next weekend. The plays are eclectic in nature and tone, varying from the true story of an abused wife who got even in Whack!; the wildly inventive Instant Theatre in which the audience provides the suggestions and the cast of four improvises the plays; The Dark Lady is a wonderful work of imagination about who ‘the Dark Lady’ was in Shakespeare’s sonnets; A Hundred Words for Snow is a story of love, devotion, and fulfilling a wish to a parent; and Infinite Possibilities is a bit of whimsy about the truth about Shakespeare and others told by Shakespeare himself who appears in balloon pants which he stole from Geraint Wyn Davies’ trash.

WHACK!

Written by Mark Weatherley

Directed originally by Lucy Jane Atkinson

 Associate Director, Monique Lund

Cast: Fiona Mongillo

Siobhan O’Malley

Olivia Viggiani

In 1911 Angelina Napolitano (Fiona Mongillo) admitted to a neighbour that she had just killed a pig. The ‘pig’ was her husband, Pietro (Olivia Viggiani). She killed him with an axe. In his sleep. She was arrested, tried and found guilty.

In spare, clear detail, Mark Weatherley has written an absolutely gripping tale of spousal abuse, revenge and justice that has such resonance for us more than 100 years after the fact. Angelina and her husband Pietro first emigrated from Naples, Italy to New York City because Pietro felt he would get rich there, buy a house and live well. Except that he was lazy, impatient to make it rich and couldn’t keep a job. They eventually moved to Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. where he got a job as a labourer. In the meantime, they had four children. He was an abusive husband who beat Angelina and even attacked her with a knife. When she complained to the police Pietro was charged but he got off. Times have not really changed. When Pietro told her to make some money through prostitution—she was 6 months pregnant—and he threatened her if she didn’t, it was the last straw.

The production is terrific. Monique Lund has realized the original direction of Lucy Jane Atkinson. All the parts are played by three gifted actresses. Angelina Napolitano (Fiona Mongillo) makes her dramatic entrance walking slowly, as if in a trance, dragging a very large, long-handled axe along the pavement. She approaches the stage and stands in a space encircled by a rope. That confinement symbolizes Angelina’s life in that marriage. Fiona Mongillo as Angelina is both concerned by her husband’s quixotic changes of his mind and feisty when defending herself against him.  Mongillo beautifully conveys how trapped Angelina was as a wife in that marriage and as a woman in regards to the legal system.

Olivia Viggiani plays various parts but mainly Pietro. She swaggers and struts with a sneer and seems to loom over Angelina. There always a sense of danger as Pietro. Siobhan O’Malley also plays various characters but mainly Angelina’s inexperienced but committed lawyer.

It’s a fascinating, unsettling, gripping play.

Instant Theatre

Cast: Rebecca Northan

Ijeoma Emesowum

Bruce Horak

Kevin Kruchkywich

The improv group, Sidewalk Scenes and An Undiscovered Shakespeare, has created Instant Theatre which are four completely improvised playlets partially devised from the audience’s suggestions. Each scene is ‘directed’ by a member of the group and improvised by the rest. The director calls “scene” when he/she feels the scene has accomplished its purpose. The audience then votes on which scene they want to continue and which scene bites the dust.  There are set aspects to each scene so that the group can use a rack of costumes when appropriate. Needless to say, no two plays are the same; each performance is different.

What is consistent is the furious paced invention, imagination, nimble playing and sharp improvisational skills of this group. This group of four is so attuned to each other that they can riff from idea to idea with ease. As with any improvisation, some ideas work better than others. But the skill and boldness of this group is just inspiring to watch.

The Dark Lady

Written by Jessica B. Hill

Cast: Jessica B. Hill

Rylan Wilkie

Curiosity is a wonderful thing and actress Jessica B. Hill is loaded with it. She was preparing for a role with the Stratford Festival Company and was reading through Shakespeare’s sonnets for curiosity. She read all the sonnets and found the later ones, the Dark Lady Sonnets, were full of jealous obsession and borderline cruelty. There was such a difference between the man who wrote such vivid women as Rosalind, Beatrice and Cleopatra etc. and this misogynistic man in the later sonnets that it got her thinking, imagining, pondering and creating a way to connect the two.

It’s believed that Emilia Bassano is one of the possible models for the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets. She was an English poet of Italian descent and musician who lived from 1569-1645. Her father was a court musician of Elizabeth 1 and Emilia was educated in royal circles. It is conceivable that she could have met Shakespeare (1564-1616). On the basis of her one volume of poetry she professed herself to be a professional poet. (seems reasonable to me).

As Jessica B. Hill writes in her note: There are 12 of Shakespeare’s Dark Lady sonnets in this piece, text from 20 of Shakespeare’s plays, and 5 excerpts from Emilia Bassano’s sole book of poems “Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum”. I love to think that these two brilliant minds found each other, learnt from each other and influenced each other. This narrative I’ve weaved through their poetry paints their story through their works and finds her voice in his words.”

The Dark Lady is a compelling, engaging creation of theatre. Hill poses several questions: “What if—Shakespeare and Bassano met, had a relationship, informed each other’s work? Hill also creates a heady world of words, images, court intrigue, a woman’s place in that world, having to be as wily as a man to navigate the murky waters or court politics etc.

As Emilia Bassano, Jessica B. Hill is feisty, confident and commanding. She has to make her points and stake her space against this literary star of court with grace but not be a pushover. As Shakespeare, Rylan Wilkie plays a man who certainly is curious about this intriguing woman and learns quickly not to underestimate her. It’s a performance of a man who is always surprised by some new aspect of this women.

Jessica B. Hill also pricked my curiosity about other accomplished women who also lived around this time. I wondered if Emilia Bassano knew about Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi (1569-1645) who was trying to forge her own career in a man’s world. And I bet Aphra Behn (1640-1689), the first woman to make her living as a playwright in London, knew of Emilia Bassano, even though Behn was born five years before Bassano died. Good theatre makes you think about a lot of things.

A Hundred Words for Snow

By Tatty Hennessy

Directed by Jonathan Goad

Cast: Siobhan O’Malley

This is a wonderful coming of age play about Rory, a young (teenage) woman who wants to do right by her late father and take his ashes on the trip of a lifetime.

Playwright Tatty Hennessy weaves a deeply layered, richly worded play that slowly ramps up the pace and has us gently gripping the arm rest, or at least the seat of the chair. It’s a story of the various situations a young woman can get into if they aren’t prepared, but are smart enough to deal with because of resolve and tenacity. And at its core is a love story of a daughter for her father.

The playing area is a raised platform and Siobhan O’Malley as Rory, uses the space with economy and control. She engages the audience in the most natural of ways, facing them, looking them in the face, making the performance intimate and compelling. It’s directed with meticulous attention to the detail of the words by Jonathan Goad and the result is a performance by Siobhan O’Malley that is mesmerizing.

Infinite Possibilities

Written and performed by Mark Weatherley

Directed by Monique Lund

Timing is everything in the theatre, and William Shakespeare certainly knew a thing or two about that. Except he miscalculated here. None other than William Shakespeare made an appearance on the back lawn of the Bruce Hotel to set the story right. He had heard about the Stratford Festival dedicated to his works and decided to come for the opening night but didn’t count on the pandemic to close the place. (He’s at the end of a long line of disappointed people—but I digress).

The charming, bearded and even boyish Mark Weatherley as Shakespeare appears in ‘balloon pants’ (those billowy pants the puff out at the waist and balloon to the knee—the rest are tights (or long shorts if you will). He says he stole them from the trash of Geraint Wyn Davies—who knows a thing or two about Shakespeare’s characters. Weatherley sets the stage immediately with light-hearted humour, impishness and a touch of silliness.

The aim of the show is to tell the truth. The most important truth is that Shakespeare wrote his own plays; not some Earl or other high-ranking man, not some other guy who was dead for the whole of Shakespeare’s life—Shakespeare. Weatherley nicely dispatches the myth that a simple man who was not high born or highly educated could not possibly know as much about all the many things that appear in Shakespeare’s plays.

Weatherley then goes on to other mysteries. The Mona Lisa for example. Who was she? Why is she smiling. Weatherley suggests that the iconic picture is really a paint-over for something else. And who is it a painting of? I’m not telling. You have to see the show.

There are other moments of intriguing “possibilities” that Weatherley poses. It’s all done with good humour, a brisk pace thanks to director Monique Lund, and a lovely connection with the audience.

Bravo to Fiona Mongillo and her company of stalwart actors who put this festival together on the back lawn of the spiffy Bruce Hotel in Stratford. I know I miss hugging during these weird times. This festival made me realize how much I also miss applauding live theatre. Every one of my audiences clapped loudly and long after each show.

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What: Six digital plays on line about the personal effects of being in isolation.

Where: At the Necessary Angel website: https://www.necessaryangel.com/the-resilience-project.

Theatres are busy creating digital productions since we can’t gather together to watch a play in a theatre. The Resilience ProjectShorts is a project of Necessary Angel.

Two definitions of “Resilience” are offered:

  1. “The capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress.”
  2. “An ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.”

Alan Dilworth, the Artistic Director of Necessary Angel, commissioned several artists to create short digital works in response to their personal experiences of isolation and change during the COVID-19 Pandemic. The only constraints were that they had to be between one and five minutes long and they needed to be both a personal statement and an offering for others. The results are six fascinating pieces that vary from being deeply thought, whimsical, poetic in repetition and an homage to nature. The artists are a cross-section of ethnicities, backgrounds and experiences.

When Time Wants to Be Seen by Marie Farsi

It’s a meditation of Marie Farsi on her situation. We hear just her voice. She talks of how the closings of theatres have taken away the spaces in which she creates as a director. The loss of that space makes the present come in. She muses on how the world as we know it is coming to an end. Her days become less defined. The change in weather dictates her schedule now. She asks us to accept our fragility and mortality; to reconnect, to listen and to open our eyes. Lovely thoughts and much to think about.

These Days by Azad Imanirad and Sina Gilani.

It’s a film about a man and his partner—his bed. He sleeps fitfully in the bed and wants to get up to make a bagel but the bed seems to keep him there. Until he can no longer ignore the urge and he gets up to toast the bagel in the kitchen. It’s a bit of whimsy with esoteric musings.

As Stillness Hinges Chaos (Light and Truth) is a wonderful dance piece choreographed and performed by Aasim and Tehseen Jaafri.

Directed by Tehseen Jaafri

With Music  by Aasim Jaafri.

A man and a woman sit on the floor of their home, reading. He wears pants and a shirt and his head and face are covered in a patterned scarf. She wears a blue dress and her face and head are also covered in a scarf that is arranged to suggest her hairline. We cannot see their facial features. The action is speeded up so that we see a repeated pattern of the couple quietly reading; then they get up to do various yoga poses; then they both pray, bowing down on what I assume are prayer mats; then then go back to reading; yoga and praying. This is their life during the pandemic, through dance. To the viewer it’s not monotonous, it’s balletic. Fascinating.

Home Day by Erin Brandenburg

It’s a day at home taking care of children, cleaning and sewing. All the time the children call for attention. It’s seen through a distorting lens, as if it’s reflected in one of those mirrors in an arcade in which you can’t really make out the detail or real size of things. A woman cleans up a spill in a toy-filled room. She meticulously cleans the piano.  The music in the background is from keys on the piano being tuned—the repetitious striking of a key to find the right tuning. An adult couple are in the kitchen of the house puttering. A child is there as well.  

In another scene in front of the house a mother quietly talks to her son in which he comments that she is making a movie—one assumes of their day. Later the mother works at a sewing machine making masks I assume, while another young child reads a book and wants attention. In the last moment a child says he has to pee.

Home day, indeed.  I wondered who the adults were in the houses, how they are related and how they are related to the children. Just curious.

The Twisted Road by Alana Bridgewater 

Cast (passengers): Alana Bridgewater

Lyanda Pugliese

Nicola Goldson

 Shelita Walker

Alijicia Gibson

Julie Thompson

Kaiia Gibson

I found this to be the most emotionally sobering of the scenes. Alana Bridgewater has written a poem/song about the hard and twisted road of Black women. Her piece is not just about coping in a pandemic. Her piece is much more than that—it’s about coping as Black women in ‘normal’ times’.

Bridgewater recites it, unseen, in a voice over as the camera focuses on the sombre face of a Black woman, beginning with Alana Bridgewater herself. With every line there is a close-up of a new face. Bridgewater’s voice is clear but conveys the exhaustion of the journey. The words are compelling in describing the hard, twisted road these women are taking on a bus.

“Expectation.

Exasperation.

Pained faces of many shades await their destination.

Some sit. Others are forced to stand.

Some hide. Others cry….

The road this coach has seen explodes in a splendor of dead hopes…”

Bridgewater writes of women who don’t want to go on this journey but have to because “there’s hope in it.”

The resilience to continue, to move forward, is all. I loved the pain of the piece. As with true art, Bridgewater has told a specific story that also has resonance in the larger world.

Only You by Meegwun Fairbrother.

It’s a short film of a moving body of water. There are flips in the surface suggesting either drips are falling into it or something beneath the surface is blowing the water up. The flashes in the water get larger and more frequent as the camera pans the surface.

A guitar strums quietly and gets more urgent. A voice sings plaintively: “why do you turn away? ”The voice segues into what sound like chants or howls. Something appears below the surface then the camera pans away. The image appears—a man quietly rises to the surface of the water, slowly takes a breath and then disappears again under the water.

I loved the grace and mystery of the piece. It is like an homage to nature, the appreciation of it, the thing that calms in this uncertain world. The thing that is always constant. The juxtaposition of the song that suggests a pained situation next to this peaceful swimming was interesting. I’m not sure what the song means in this idyllic situation but found the whole piece interesting.

The Resilience Project – Shorts are on the Necessary Angel website at: https://www.necessaryangel.com/the-resilience-project.

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Written by Susanna Fournier

Directed by ted witzel

Voiced by Kristen Thomson

What Happens to You, Happens to Me plays until August 1 at:

www.csgrid.canadianstage.com

Canadian Stage is presenting a fascinating digital production called What Happens to You, Happens to Meby Susanna Fournier. Susanna Fournier is a celebrated, nimble-minded playwright, educator and theatre creator. Her work is always challenging and bracing as is certainly evident in The Empire, a trilogy of plays that spanned 500 years of imagined history, that played last year, live in theatres.   

In April in the throes of the pandemic, Canadian Stage Artistic Director, Brendan Healy reached out to Fournier to ask what she was thinking about. It was a simple question with complex answers.

Fournier created a piece she entitled What Happens to You, Happens to Me.  She describes it as a message in a bottle full of questions and the audience—the people who find the bottle—engage or not in answering the questions.

From the website: What Happens to You, Happens to Me is a unique participatory storytelling experience that captures responses to how people are feeling after months of isolation. Created by Susanna Fournier, this meditative audio experience is a letter, a questionnaire, a thought-experiment, a mindfulness exercise that takes the listener on a journey through grief and loneliness. Voiced by award-winning actor and playwright Kristen Thomson (and directed by ted witzel) the listener is asked to respond to a set of questions that delve into one’s inner self to examine isolation and our innate need for connection.”

Actually the piece is offered in two forms and the explanation is a beautiful reaching out, to comfort and put people at ease. Here is the explanation: “What Happens to You, Happens to Me was originally conceived as an auditory experience, but for those who want or need to engage in the content visually, we have created a lyric video of the piece. Choose which sense mode works best for you and allows your imagination to wander most freely.”  

I did both options to see how the experience varied. The more satisfying to me was the one voiced by Kristen Thomson. The presentation is full of nuance, subtlety and gives depth to the piece. You get the sense of the collaboration between the actress (Thomson) and the director (witzel). The questions are simple: How are you? Will you close your eyes and envision something?  One trusts the voice to do what it asks.

The ‘video’ version is flat, without nuance except for what the audience puts in while reading quickly.   

Susanna Fournier has divided the piece into nine short chapters, each with questions and themes that cover who, when, what where, why and other ideas that engage the imagination. We were also asked to consider what empathy was; what gives you hope; what of the future.

I also found it interesting that there was a component that suggested there be rules for this new situation, as if one was trying to impose the norms of the “pre-pandemic” onto the new world, perhaps to hold on to something familiar that would give us comfort.

What struck me most about the piece, and certainly as read by Kristen Thomson, is the kindness of the tone, the deep respect the speak had for the listener; the effort not to sound demanding or demeaning. These are unsettling times and the tone of this piece didn’t want to unsettle or upset anyone. And of course, there is a reaching out that while the questions are being asked, it’s hoped that the listener will answer by writing to the private e-mail address with thoughts. In true Susanna Fournier style she plays on the words of the title at the end of her piece and with just the inclusion/exclusion of a word and punctuation the meaning changes. It’s wonderfully engaging.   

Again, Fournier has created a thoughtful piece with huge implications that guides us into this time we have for deeper reflection about the world we now live in.

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Christopher Stanton, the Artistic Director of the Hamilton Fringe Festival, is not letting a pandemic get in the way of producing the Festival this year. While events can’t take place as usual in person in the theatre spaces in Hamilton, Ont. they are taking place virtually on line and on porches in the city.

The whole endeavor is called What the Fest and it runs July 21-26 to see shows when they first appear and then until Aug. 9 for further live-steaming. It’s an eclectic mix of plays, music, songs, stuff for kids and sound scapes. I was pleasantly surprised to see work from people who were of a certain age and not just young theatre creators starting out.

The work I saw was a cross-section that ranged from lightly whimsical, serious in implication, a beautifully written and performed piece that was based on a true story, a play in which a young man has to deal with his father’s disappointment and a sweet reminiscence from a beloved journal.

Strange Bedfellows

By Ray Z Rivers

Directed by Ray Z Rivers

Cast: Ilene Elkaim

Valeri Kay

Ryan Perera

Ray Rivers

Ridhi Kalra

Terry and Beth are returning home to Canada after spending the winter in Florida. Their car breaks down after they have crossed the border, right down the road from Donna and Phil. Terry and Beth knock on Donna and Phil’s door for help. Beth doesn’t feel well—she thinks it might be all that drinking she did last night. Or maybe it was the burger. In any case Donna says that they have to quarantine if they are returning from the States and so Terry and Beth spend the next 14 days with Donna and Phil and their daughter, Malia. Beth gets sicker. Perhaps it’s the flu or a cough or something she ate?

Playwright Ray Z Rivers packs his play with all manner of hot button topics: the musings of Trump supporters, Canada-US relations, climate change, the sarcastic attitude of Malia (a university student) to everything adults say and the various secrets she’s hiding and of course the ever-present virus.

As time passes scenes take place in various rooms in Donna and Phil’s house with various costume changes to suggest the passage of time.

While we, the audience, come to the play with hindsight that perhaps Beth should get tested NOW, I liked that the people in the play were in the middle of it and didn’t have that hindsight, or even common sense until much later. Rivers has created a situation—strangers seeking sanctuary—which is fraught with possibilities, all humourous.

Conspiracy of Michael

Written and performed by Stephen Near

 Directed by Aaron Joel Craig

A man (Stephen Near) sits in a gloomily lit room (it’s a basement we learn later). He speaks with conviction about education and how the government dictates how you should be educated. He speaks about the tyranny of the multiple-choice answers to a question, and who says there is only one right answer? He comments on the tyranny of democracy. He laments that his mother has died and that his sister wants to sell the house, and he’s holed up there (in the basement) not budging.

Initially I wondered who he was talking to. Gradually, as Stephen Near’s play slowly reveals itself through his nicely modulated performance (kudos to director Joel Craig as well), you realize what is going on and who is talking. An interesting piece of writing about a complex situation.

Waiting for Mark

Written by Annie Massey

Directed by Joel Haszard

Cast: Diana DiMauro

Joel Haszard

Annie Massey

Rob Scavone

Harold Tausch  

I’m going to just copy the description of the show from the What the Fest site because it’s wonderfully wild.

Waiting for Mark — an uplifting play about dead people on Facebook. Four strangers meet in a beige half-world. Daisy (a woman of a certain age who knits), Emma-Rae (a flighty actress from Coronation Street), Abel (an older fellah waiting for his own beneficiary cheque) and Devon (a youngish man who is taken with Emma-Rae) are dead, but they don’t know it. All were posting selfies to Facebook at the exact instant of their tragic deaths. Together, they face betrayal, victory, redemption and birthdays. Then comes the mysterious Vladimir – an envoy from the Boss. Mark Zuckerberg is losing billions and dead account holders aren’t buying from his advertisers. Will Vladimir finally delete their Facebook accounts?”

The premise is wild and rather fitting in this techno world that has us all captive to our screens. The people in the half-world don’t know they are dead. They have no sense of time. It’s cold in the room but the thermostat suggests otherwise. Abel has posed as his own beneficiary when he fakes his death and is waiting for his cheque (wild!).

Waiting for Mark can stand a bit of a tightening edit, but I’m just delighted Annie Massey, who plays Daisy with a lovely dead-pan, wrote it!

Sarah/Frank


Playwright: Steven Elliott Jackson
Director: Ryan Graham Hinds

Sound and music by David Kingsmill

Starring Rebecca Perry

Presented as a radio play.

From the program blurb: “In 1800s, when gender roles were clearly defined, Sarah, a young Canadian, becomes Frank, a Civil War soldier; also the only woman to receive a pension. A unique viewpoint from history.”

Sarah was born in New Brunswick. She was an immediate disappointment to her stern father. There were six kids in the family but only one son and he was weak and sickly. When Sarah was born her father wanted a boy, hence his disappointment. Sarah spent her life trying to earn her father’s respect and finally did when she worked hard beside him on the farm and didn’t flinch when the going got tough. She wore pants to work. She felt comfortable in them. While she got her father’s respect it didn’t last long because when she came of age he said that she had to marry and he would arrange it. That was enough for Sarah. She left home. Dressed as a man to disguise herself this allowed her to move freely in society. Sarah became Frank. Frank got a job as a book salesman. He prospered and did business in both Canada and the United States (although that’s not what they were called then). When the American Civil War broke out Frank enlisted and fought. The disguise was convincing.

Sarah/Frank is a wonderful play by Steven Elliott Jackson. (He wrote the equally compelling play, The Seat Next to the King). He has fashioned a play that creates the life of Sarah and Frank that is based on a true story. His language is particularly vibrant because he has captured the formal way of how one might speak in the 1800s when the play takes place, without it seeming stodgy. Sarah’s confliction between being born a woman but feeling more comfortable in her skin as a man is beautifully, sensitively established in Steven Elliott Jackson’s bracing dialogue.

Rebecca Perry (Confessions of a Redheaded Coffeeshop Girl) captures the many layers of Sarah/Frank’s character. As Sarah her voice is light but firm. When Sarah assumes the identity of Frank Rebecca Perry lowers her voice a bit to suggest the masculine voice. And later in life, years after Sarah assumed her feminine identity, her voice has the subtle quiver of a woman in old age. It’s care like this, aided by the fine direction of Ryan Graham Hinds, that make this one of the best plays I’ve ‘heard’ in a long time. Kudos also to David Kingsmill for his effective music and sound effects.

Loved this show.

Prairie Odyssey

Written and directed by Valeri Kay

Costumes by Cast and Valeri Kay

Lighting by Rev. Douglas Moore and Valeri Kay

Performed by: Sondra Learn

Alison Chisholm

Charly Chiarelli

Prairie Odyssey is a story of resilience in the face of grief and hardship in the 1930s. We get the details from the character of Becky on the occasion of the publication of her mother’s journal that chronicled that time.

The family lived happily and in prosperity in the small community of Chesapeake Bay until Bobby, Becky’s young brother died in an accident. The place held so many sad memories that the family moved to Saskatchewan because of the prospect of free land. Becky’s father would take up farming, something he knew nothing about. The play follows the difficulties of that first harsh winter and the drought-filled summer. Through it the family prevailed.

The cast play various characters and nicely differentiate between them by putting on a new hat or a different bit of clothing.

Charly Chiarelli plays various parts and also provides the sound effects and music, all played on a harmonica. At times I thought the music and sound effects overwhelmed the delicate play instead of just leaving the audience to use its imagination to fill in blanks. The amount of music should be rethought.

I appreciated the commitment of the cast.

[inboks/outboks]

Written and performed by Anthony Raymond Yu

Directed by Karen Ancheta

A young man is packing a box with books and other things. He is upset. As he tries to move a box with things on it he loses his balance and the box goes flying. In the mess he finds a letter, reads it, is further upset and crumples it into a ball and tosses it behind him. He then retrieves it, smooths it out and carefully puts it into a box of keepsakes. The doorbell rings. The young man pulls out his cell phone and looks at it for some reason. He puts down the phone and goes to the door (he’s off camera here). He says “Hello” but no one is there. When he comes back into the room music starts to play: Lukas Graham singing “7 Years” (“Once I was seven years old/My mamma told me/Make some friends…”

What followed was a performance/dance piece in which the young man takes an empty frame from the memento box and reacts with joy and love to the photo that might have been there. He also finds a long black scarf that he threads through the frame. The frame and the scarf encase him, bind him, hold and release him. The movement is full of grace, emotion, despair and other feelings as he remembers. The last scene is the man speaking to the camera as if addressing his father, suggesting they have had a falling out and it’s imperative that they come to an understanding.   

I was intrigued by this piece and by the artistry of its creator, Anthony Raymond Yu. There is a mournful elegance to it and lovely symbolism with the frame and the scarf, connecting the two. From the body of the work it’s not clear if it leads to the last line when the man talks to his unseen father. I wanted to know more about the situation and the piece only hints at it.

What was in the letter and who was it from? Am I supposed to assume it was a hurtful letter from his father? I think that must be clarified. Who rang the doorbell? Why did the man look at his cell phone? Perhaps these questions might be answered with further development of the piece.

I was so interested in the story I looked at what the program notes were: “An aging father; an injured son; and a wounded relationship unresolved. Poised between sending and receiving, the memories of a man and his father resurface. Sifting through their history of joy and grief, man measures the nature of his past in relation to his future.” I want to see that show!! I think [inboks/outboks] in its present state is a good beginning. It needs fleshing out so that the performance piece is brought closer to the description of it.

Comment: Anthony Raymond Yu gave an enthusiastic thank you to those who checked in to watch his filmed piece. He welcomed comments if they liked it. He also welcomed comments if a person didn’t like it or had a concern. He said, “I can’t grow if I don’t know how to grow.” How refreshing, an artist who knows and appreciates the value of all feedback both positive and offering suggestions of improvement. Anthony Raymond Yu—I’ll remember that name and look forward to his next show.  

Full festival schedule available at www.hamiltonfringe.ca/schedule.

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What: Monologues from past 4th Line Theater productions.

Where: On the phone.

When: Your chose the time and day(s) when you hear the monologue(s)

Who: A host of excellent actors act out the monologue(s)

Why: Because it’s fun. Because it gives you a taste of the quality of the shows that regularly play at 4th Line Theatre.

Cost: FREE but donations are always welcome.

To select you click the link below:

https://www.4thlinetheatre.on.ca/monologue-series

4th Line Theatre Company in Millbrook, Ont. just south of Peterborough, has been presenting original Canadian plays dealing with the history and true stories of the area since 1992. The performances usually take place on the Winslow Farm that is owned by Robert Winslow the creator and founder of 4th Line Theatre Company.

The audience sits on plastic chairs watching the action take place in the farmyard and in the distant meadows. It’s a beautiful, idyllic spot. I love going there every summer. But alas that’s not possible this summer.

To fill the gap of seeing live theatre, the always creative, inventive Kim Blackwell, 4th Line Theatre’s Managing Artistic Director, has come up with the idea of presenting a series of 27 monologues from many of the company’s past productions. The monologues are delivered by an actor through the intimacy of a telephone call. The ‘audience’ calls the box office and selects the monologue he/she/they wants to hear, when and what time is convenient. All that’s needed is for the patron to answer the phone when it rings and listen and enjoy.

I started with the first four monologues in the provided list:

ATTRITION

By Ryan Kerr

Actor: Tom Keat

A young man talks about how the Great War changed the history of the world forever.

Tom Keat plays a man who remembers the horrors of war, the poignancy of that first marking of November 11 as Remembrance Day and the terrible effect it all had on his family etc. Keat played his character with passion, emotion and sensitivity. Quite moving.

CARMEL

By Ian McLachlan and Robert Winslow

“Ruth”

Actor: Riley Tutert

Ruth is 10 years-old and talks about the challenges of being a child in an adult world. Her mother is sick and the family is struggling to survive.

Riley Tutert plays Ruth with conviction. She conveys Ruth’s consuming worry about her family and her confusion about why her mother is sick with “Infantile Paralysis.” She wonders how an adult can have a disease usually affecting children. I love the genuine urgency of this young character as beautifully played by Riley Tutert.

Crow Hill:  The Telephone Play

By Ian McLachlan and Robert Winslow

“Doc Logie”

Actor: Robert Winslow

The play is about how a local doctor, Doc Logie created a telephone system for his community to keep them and him in contact should there be an emergency. It’s a wonderful play.

In this scene Doc Logie explains how a childhood memory stayed with him and lead him to a life of service in medicine.

It was a thrill to first speak with Robert Winslow who co-wrote the play and starred in the production. He’s personable, socially concerned and responsible, a good neighbour and a welcoming host to his farm when theatre is able to be done there.

As Doc Logie, Robert Winslow conveys the character’s huge heart, his folksy attitude; his concern for his fellow man and his devotion to a life of service. The scene started with a small childhood incident involving a pet. Doc Logie remembered it to such an extent it changed his life. It was also a momentous moment and Winslow gently illuminates just how profound the moment was.

 Crow Hill: The Telephone Play

By Ian McLachlan and Robert Winslow

“Alice”

Actor: Chick Reid

I also chose this scene from Crow Hill: The Telephone Play, this time dealing with Alice who was a young 15 year-old who came to work for Doc Logie as his first telephone operator for his new telephone system. You get the sense of the pluck of that young woman to take on this new challenge from the writing by Ian McLachlan and Robert Winslow and from the sprightly performance of Chick Reid as Alice.

As Alice, Chick Reid is perky, goes off on tangents when telling her story but quickly gets back on track. This is a wonderfully friendly character remembering 30 years as the telephone operator. She is matter of fact and has the confidence of a person who knows everybody’s confidences that she has collected ‘connecting’ their calls. Chick Reid was buoyant, funny and so personable. A lovely performance.  

From these short scenes one gets the flavour of what the plays are like. The characters are well drawn and beautifully acted by actors full of conviction who bring the words to life. Each actor brought a lovely connection in these troubled times; listened and engaged.  And I loved that every single call came at exactly the time that I asked for it. I’ll sign up for more.

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I have written before about theatre people branching out from their usual calling to create in other ways, in these weird times.

I started last month with a post about, Steven McCarthy, a fine actor, musician and screenwriter who decided he would try and recreate the bagels he ate every day in Montreal when he was a student at the National Theatre School.

He made the bagels and sold them to his neighbours and friends in the area. Word got around how good they were. I was able to buy them twice before Steven, his wife Alyx and dog Ben, decided to buy a house and move to Hamilton, Ont. I was sorry to see them go—wonderful bagels.

Then I read a Facebook post from Kim Blackwell, the creative Managing Artistic Director of 4th Line Theatre Company, that Courtenay Stevens was making planters out of repurposed wood skids (I think that last part is right.) She had pictures of the planters she bought. I wanted one.

Courtenay Stevens’ Planter with Autograph

Courtenay Stevens is a terrific actor (his last gig was in the ARC production of OIL) who is very handy with making useful things with wood. He makes planters of various sizes that he lists on Facebook Marketplace. I wanted one of the “regular” ones about 10” long and wide enough and deep enough to plant herbs. I messaged him and yes, I could buy one of the planters. I just got in under the wire as he said he was taking a break from making them because his wife wanted the backyard back and it would give the neighbours a break from the sawing and the hammering.

Am I detecting a theme here: Steve McCarthy sells me his bagels twice and then leaves town; Courtenay Stevens makes wonderful planters and sells me one before he goes on hiatus? Should I be concerned….is the pandemic making me paranoid? No matter. Moving on.

I went to his house to pick up and pay for my planter. There are two neat planters in front of his place in which he is growing flowers, dill and other herbs. He has carefully enclosed the planters in chicken wire so various creatures can’t nibble the herbs.

My planter is in the middle of Courtenay’s living room with a few other planters. They are all sturdy, beautifully made. I liken them to a work of art and so I have Courtenay autograph my planter right on the side for all to see. It’s a thing of beauty and now herbs are growing in it. If Courtenay doesn’t take too long of a hiatus I will seriously consider buying a bigger planter. And of course, have him sign that one too.

Bonnie Beecher is a celebrated, brilliant lighting designer but with all theatre shut down she needed an outlet for her creativity, so she started baking. Bonnie’s Bread Co. was born. A square sticker was designed (by Haui Hinton-Davis) with various loaves of bread on it along with “Bonnie’s Bread Co.” written on it, and a sticker is stuck to every bag of Bonnie’s baking.  

Bonnie’s Bread Co. has a presence on Facebook. Each week there are beautiful postings of the various breads, bagels, scones and now pies that Bonnie is baking and selling. She announces that she is taking orders for the following week etc. and those interested can private message her.

I placed an order. I arranged to pick it up at her house (she does deliver for a small charge). As I was walking up the street near the appointed time, I saw a young man walking towards me with his arms out, as if he was carrying something. He was—two large paper bags were laid across his arms. I saw that the bags said “bread” on them in swirls of blue strokes. He was coming from Bonnie’s house. He looked like The Pieta with his arms out, holding precious treasure and of course he was.

When I got to Bonnie’s I was stopped in my tracks. The front door was open and the fragrance of freshly baked bread wafted onto the street.  The ever-theatrical Bonnie Beecher was setting the scene, illuminating it. I had to smile.

She came down the hallway from the kitchen bearing my treats: a bag with the blue strokes that said “bread” with a challah, a baggie with six bagels and another paper bag with six cherry/blueberry scones, still warm. Each bag had the square Bonnie’s Bread Co. sticker.

It’s interesting that I have never actually met Bonnie before picking up my bread order. I sit in the dark at a theatre; she illuminates it; I go home and write about it without any stops in between to make an acquaintance. That dispenses with any conflict of interest even in a slight way. But a pandemic that shuts every theatre down and has theatre artists segueing into other creative pursuits is another matter.

Bonnie is charming and meticulous—the logo sticker, the paper bags with “bread” written in blue strokes, the care in the baking. She didn’t realize how tired she was working non-stop in the theatre with no time off. Now she bakes bread and sells it and is able to take the weekend off (“Weekend? What’s a weekend?”).

Ahhhh the bread. I ate a scone in the car because they were warm, I couldn’t wait and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity. I did not eat and drive. I sat there to savour the moment. The scones are in plump long triangular shapes. There is a sprinkling of sugar on top so that when the scone is baked the sugar provides a subtle crunch. The texture of the scone is dense without being heavy. It’s flaky and not too sweet. I bit into a blueberry and it was like a small explosion of tart and sweet at the same time. The same thing happened when I bit into one of the cherry bits. Delicious. No crumbs were left behind.

When I got home I laid out my bounty on the table. The half-dozen bagels were an assortment of poppy seed and sesame seed. They were as substantial as a Montreal-style bagel. They were chewing with a slightly crunchy crust without being tough. They also toast beautifully. The challah is beautifully, evenly browned and each ‘mound’ is shiny. The texture is delicate with a hint of sweetness, and I think I detected a touch of salt. The challah also toasts beautifully. It’s the quality of the baking/breads/etc. that makes you stop and pay close attention to every bite. Delicious. I’ll order more from Ms Beecher’s Bread Co. And so should you.

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