Heads Up for what’s coming up this week August 24-30.

Finishing this week at 4th Line Theatre (Millbrook, Ont.):

Farmer’s Market has it’s last Friday Market on Friday, Aug. 28 on the 4th Line Winslow Farm, from 8 am to Noon. (great stuff).

A selection of 27 monologues from past 4th Line Theatre productions. Call the box office to arrange for an actor to call you at home and perform the monologue. FOR FREE.

Box Office Number is: 705-932-4445

www.4thlinetheatre.on.ca

ALPHONSE

A terrific play for the family (and adults) about Alphonse and his adventures in getting home. Wonderful production. Written by Wajdi Mouawad; directed by Alon Nashman; starring: Kaleb Alexander and Alon Nashman who alternate the roll of Alphonse.

My review is here: http://slotkinletter.com/2020/08/review-alphonse

August 27-30 at Dufferin Grove Park (875 Dufferin) Toronto.

For details please go to: theaturtle.com.

HERE FOR NOW THEATRE FESTIVAL In Stratford, Ont.

Six live plays are performed on the back lawn of the Bruce Hotel in Stratford, Ont. They are a mix of serious drama and comedy.

https://www.herefornowtheatre.com

MINISTRY OF MUNDANE MYSTERIES, playdate version for kids.

This is a terrific initiative of Outside the March and TO LIVE to involve children in engaging in solving a mystery of their choosing, via various phone calls. This is the last week.

https://www.tolive.com/playdate?fbclid=IwAR0zANPYRsJTGodfRzDEqE364R1Ynx6SeJzxET3sQOvFJrtXc50_W9D9J9Y

SIDEWALK SCENES

HELD OVER! ROMEO AND JULIET. It’s a lean, mean, clean 75 minute edit of the text, with no comedic embellishment on our part. We’re splashing in the serious end of our work. 😉 version of Romeo and Juliet headed by the incomparable Rebecca Northan and her troupe of gifted actors will be presented from Aug. 25-30 in the safe reaches of the open spaces of the Bruce Hotel in Stratford, Ont.

https://l.facebook.com/l.php?u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.thebruce.ca%2F2020%2F07%2F27%2Fparkade-plays-extended%2F%3Ffbclid%3DIwAR2py1MdD5gsltDbgeBUnpIhsdspMuyvlGSaHtm5_EdUPMGVGcE5hoLlZXk&h=AT3vnnmxB74CF_wN-IsREmt2k74Oc667UuVTygRTdrGkPnAM6yVfhQobBwigrfDCKVkaaziZ6N7cGBEMt3UBAU8vK2qFAFfXWYfSVGb7TUcT_RjtvGgDB_Na0RbgWUY8dysCrA

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Continuing on with SummerWorks Co-presented with Canadian Stage and Mixtape Curations: We Were, We Are, We Will Be

What:  (The Present): The New Office, Please Remain Behind the Shield, Our Secret Plague and (The Future): We Will Be: Rising as a Community.

When: Aug. 18 – Aug. 23. But each event played for only one day (multiple times on that day).

Where: Various outdoor locations.

Who: Gifted artists with something to say.

Why: Because not even a pandemic can cancel SummerWorks if Laura Nanni, Artistic and Managing Director has anything to do with it.

The New Office

Exhibited and Hosted by O’shane Howard.

From the press information: “An art installation showcasing six Black entrepreneurs from the GTA in their elements post-pandemic. Highlighting Black professionals in the arts, fitness, fashion, beauty, food and finance, who all took to strive and thrive despite their closed natural workspaces.”

O’shane Howard created six stations, each enclosed in its own circle, properly distanced over the public park on the Esplanade). In each circle was: a large photograph of the highlighted entrepreneur; a framed sheet of paper with questions for each person asking how nature affected their work in this instance, their thoughts on the importance of trees for example;  a simple table on which were the tools of the trade of the highlighted entrepreneur.

The first entrepreneur was a barber and on the table was a towel on which were various combs, scissors, etc. all beautifully arranged on a slant on the towel. The table for the fashion designer had a puff with sewing needles stuck in it, a measuring tape, scissors etc. The artist supplied a large painting and on the table were paints, brushes etc. The finance person had an adding machine and other paraphernalia. The fitness exhibit had two dumb bell weights on it. And so on.

One observer at a time could stand inside the circle to get up close to the exhibit and read the replies to the questions. When an observer finished and left the circle, the next person could move on as we all circled the exhibit in one direction.

I loved the care, simplicity and meticulousness of the exhibit and the reliance of each entrepreneur to cope with a situation that disrupted their livelihood.

Please Remain Behind the Shield

Created and performed by Chris Dodd.

Directed by Ashley Wright

From the press information: “The world has transformed. It’s a new day…and a new knight. Deaf performing artist Chris Dodd explores the armor that protects us and the armor that separates us through a multi-channel video installation that leads the audience on a path from screen to screen through public space. Performed in ASL, with audio English interpretation.”

The piece was performed in the laneway and courtyard of the Marilyn and Charles Baillie Theatre on Berkeley Street. A yellow arrow directed us to go up the laneway beside the theatre to the playing areas. There were three playing area each with a television screen and ‘setting’ of medieval books, clothing and perhaps a sword or two.

At each station a video came on of Chris Dodd telling us the story. Chris Dodd is deaf and his speech is compromised by it. Consonants and vowels are not distinct so the video has surtitles that express what he is saying. He is also signing while he talks. Initially I found reading the surtitles problematic because the sun was glaring on the screen and I could not see to read properly. This worked out eventually.

Dodd told of the difficulty his character had at his job because of COVID. Zoom meetings were difficult because he could not lipread properly or express himself. He lost his job. His room mate was a medieval scholar—hence the books and medieval artifacts—and moved out to live with his girlfriend. Dodd’s character was alone. Wearing a mask made communication impossible. He could not read the speaker’s lips. He lamented that no one at work bothered to learn ASL to communicate with him. He did speak warmly of a woman who was a cashier at his local grocery story who was kind, considerate and tried to learn some ASL in order to ‘talk’ to Dodd’s character.

Please Remain Behind the Shield is a terrific piece of theatre that speaks of the challenges the quarantine has had on those who are deaf and or hearing impaired. It makes us aware of how hard it is to communicate behind a mask or shield; how marginalized people are without the means of communicating and how people who can hear do little to try and accommodate those who can’t.

I was so impressed with the professionalism of the whole piece. And more than anything I was moved by the tremendous exertion Chris Dodd put into trying to speak clearly so that we could understand him. I listened hard to what he was saying, trying to make out his words. Loved the challenge of this piece.

The Secret Plague

 Written and performed by Rory de Brouwer.

“An exploration of the pervasive nature of organized crime in Toronto, and how it stakes claim on industry and contributes to entrenched systems of inequity.”

We are on the Bentway, under the Gardiner Expressway. A casually dressed man (Rory de Brouwer) pitches us to buy a condo. He talks about the cost of a small studio and the better deal of a two bedroom. He is smooth-talking, confident and lobs statistics and facts to get us to buy. Then he takes a break from the pitch, relaxes and talks about organized crime in Toronto and how it’s tied to the huge condo industry. He talks about buying condos for investments and for shady dealings.

We had been asked to download a video to our phones before the production and then to go to a quiet place surrounded by condos to watch it. The video gave a clear account of how organized crime and real estate work in Toronto. It was chilling. Again, the presentation is accomplished and artful.

The Future.

We Will Be: Rising as a Community

By Eponine Lee, Community Assistant Luke Reece

“Through fun, physically-distant group games, collective art compositions, and interesting conversations about the community we can be. Eponine Lee leads a collective exploration of what it means to be a community and how we reconnect in the wake of a pandemic.”

Eponine Lee is the real deal, a theatre treasure and at 13 years-old, the future. She has created this show with the help of Community Assistant Luke Reece. The show took place at the out-door skate board ‘park’ on Lower River Street. The audience was invited to view various tables with artifacts on them under headings such as: respect, education, communication, determination, the environment, collaboration, people. Some of the artifacts are: a letter to Eponine’s grandparents expressing how much she misses them (for respect); a mirror (under the heading of people); a set of gears that fit perfectly to express collaboration. This is all Eponine Lee’s imagination. Woow.

The audience was invited to engage in games, charades, art projects etc. And they collaborated, worked together and became a community.

I can appreciate that the various offerings in this truncated SummerWorks festival are works in progress that are still exploring and examining. But all works of art are works in progress. I was mighty impressed with the polish, accomplishment, technical proficiency and artistry of the works I saw.

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Review: ALPHONSE

by Lynn on August 21, 2020

in The Passionate Playgoer

Written by Wajdi Mouawad

Directed by Alon Nashman

Translated by: Shelley Tepperman

Sound by: Verne Good

Set and Costume by: Lindsay Ann Black

Cast: Kaleb Alexander or Alon Nashman

Alphonse is a perfect play for these times of isolation and uncertainty. The imaginative direction of the production by Alon Nashman and the multi-layered, vibrant performance by Kaleb Alexander are pure joy giving the audience a wonderful opportunity to applaud.

The Story. The play is about Alphonse, a lost boy wandering a road who spins a series of stories, all while various people are looking for him. There are worried parents and siblings; school friends who are concerned; a cop who looks for him and Pierre-Paul René, Alphonse’s fragile, loyal, (imaginary) friend. Each character has a story and a connection to Alphonse and eventually to each other.

The Production. I saw this in Memorial Park, 22 Little Ave. just off Lawrence Ave. W. The ‘boxoffice” staff was welcoming and very helpful in setting up a chair for me. A few chairs are provided. You can bring your own blanket and sit on the ground or bring a chair. I brought a blanket but the chair was better. Each section of the ‘audience’ area is set off with properly distanced circles into which the audience sits. We all seemed eager for live theatre (although truth be told, I saw a live show that afternoon as part of SummerWorks—still a thrill).

The performance takes place on a stage with an overhang. There is a table with a green drop cloth in the centre of it.  Kaleb Alexander, who plays Alphonse, saunters up to the stage to begin. He’s microphoned so not one precious word is lost. He plays more than 20 characters including: the fit adult Alphonse remembering that time when he got lost on his way home; the diminutive, young Alphonse who keeps walking home and not knowing or worried that he’s lost; his worried mother and his not so worried father; his school friends including a young girl who is his girlfriend; the almost waif-like Pierre-Paul René, the strapping, deep-voiced, caring police officer who goes out looking for Alphonse; the cab driver who takes him home and so many others.

Kaleb Alexander segues from character to character with an elegant ease. Each character has a physicality that precisely defines who that person is, complete with maleable voice fluctuations and accents. With just a variation in his voice and a subtle change in physical stature Alexander goes from being a strapping, fit man, to a fragile imaginary friend, to a fraught mother, to a imposing police officer. This is a wonderful, vivid performance that is agile, nimble, funny and sometimes even heart-breaking. It’s a perfect example of the kind of theatre work we have missed for so long.

The production is directed with winking-imagination by Alon Nashman, who knows a thing or two about this play. He’s played Alphonse across the globe for about 20 years. Now he is directing it (and playing Alphonse as well at some performances). The space is well used. Kaleb Alexander climbs on the table to suggest travel, hovers under the green drop cloth as if in a cave. There is a piece of business involving a vacuum cleaner that is pure joy. And it rains in one scene—popcorn!

Playwright Wajdi Mouawad has created a play that is a journey of discovery, a playful adventure for children and a deeper exploration of life, the world and the universe for adults. It asks simple but challenging questions: where are you going? Why do I exist? His play is full of wild adventure, dazzling imagination, joyful revelations and community. Exactly what theatre is.

Comment. I loved the open-hearted aspect of this production and everything surrounding it. Alon Nashman is the artistic director of Theaturtle. He says that he so missed creating theatre that he couldn’t stand not doing it any long so he engaged Kaleb Alexander to play Alphonse and collaborated with Shakespeare in Action to produce it. Bless them all.

Co-presented by Theaturtle and Shakespeare in Action.

DATES: August 20-23 at Memorial Park (22 Little Ave.)

               August 27-30 at Dufferin Grove Park (875 Dufferin). 

For details please go to: theaturtle.com.

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What: A revised SummerWorks Festival in collaboration with Canadian Stage, to accommodate the shutdown of theatres entitled: We Were, We Are, We Will Be

When: August 18 to 23, 2020.

Where: Virtually in digital performances and in in-person performances, the locations announced to those who registered.

Why: Theatre artists and others create art and need to find a way of doing it in this time of shutdown.

Who: 10 artists from various disciplines producing productions and instillations that express how they are dealing with Covid-19. Curated by Daniele Bartolini and Luke Reece

NOTE: Because so much of these performances are experimental, exploring and entering a new reality, this will be an appreciation of what I saw and heard as opposed to a ‘formal’ review.

Usually SummerWorks is a 10-day festival of performances pieces beginning in the second week of August that covers various performing arts and installations. Most events have five performances spread over the 10-day festival. Except of course for this year.

Laura Nanni, the Artistic and Managing Director of SummerWorks had to adapt the festival to the restrictions of Covid-19 that closed theatres. She and her team have been working hard to present a festival of workshops, labs, performances and instillations that reflect how this pandemic has affected artists and by extension their audiences.

While artistic activity has been going on ‘in house’ since May for young artists to explore, experiment and collaborate, the week of Aug. 18-23 is when performances are presented to the public both virtually (digitally) and in person adhering to safety precautions involving socially distancing for example.

This one week segment of the Festival is entitled: We Were. We Are. We Will Be. It’s curated by Daniele Bartolini and Luke Reece and represents the past, the present and the future.

The Festival opened with We Were (Past) composed of three one-off performances:

story come to town: colonisation tumble down written and performed by d’bi.young anitafrika

Irin Ajomi-My Journey written and created by Philip Precious

Echoes of the Plague Times, created, written and voiced by Alina Pete.

story come to town: colonisation tumble down is a long dub poem written and performed by d’bi.young anitafrika

Wikipedia says of dub poetry: Dub poetry is a form of performance poetry of West Indian origin, which evolved out of dub music in Kingston, Jamaica, in the 1970s, as well as in London, England.

Both d’bi.young anitafrika’s performance and poem are startling. She is filmed outside, in front of a majestic tree with light steaming through its branches, and except for a circular ornament hanging down in front from her waist, she is naked.

She has recorded the poem which is played as she poses in front of the tree or bows in various formations then rises up to full standing. The bracing, bold words gush out, every consonant said crisply, vowels clearly. The delivery is not a stream of consciousness. The words are deliberately scattershot. At first I think d’bi.young anitafrika is saying the sentences backwards, then realize she is not. Regardless, the intention is clear. This is about being black, colonization, slavery, cruelty, blackness, dominance, aggression and opposition among others. The last line is a surprise, almost playful in that it’s a clear, simple sentence.

d’bi.young anitafrika is a fearless performer and vivid poet. Her language is compelling and as a result she draws the audience in and doesn’t let up until after the end.

Irin Ajomi-My Journey is written and created by Philip Precious. It’s facilitated and edited by Tommaso Branconi.

Irin Ajomi means “My Journey” in Yoruba. This film tells the harrowing journey of Philip Precious from Nigeria to Libya to a refuge camp in Italy where he is today. Philip Precious left Nigeria for a better life. The journey was full of hardship, danger, having to think quickly to save one’s life and take every opportunity. His story is so particular to him but reminiscent of so many other stories of being a refugee or being displaced.  At one point he got on an over-crowded bus that was “very, very hot.’ There was no water. He travelled for two days like that. It reminded me of other displaced people packed into cattle cars without food or water that was destined for concentration camps. Then he was put on a crowded boat to cross the Mediterranean Sea for Italy.

The film is a collage of blurry images that give the sense of the chaos of the trip and how fraught it was. Hands reach out from the crowded boat in which he was travelling to people in the water. Other images create a sense of upheaval and uncertainty.

The film has surtitles that are helpful because Philip Precious is not fluent in English. One does get the sense of the urgency of his journey, his tenacity, his resilience.

Echoes of the Plague Times is written and animated by Alina Pete. From the press information: “The past and the present collide in a visual exploration of literal and metaphorical plagues survived by Indigenous peoples and their connections to the current pandemic we all face. Award-winning queer Cree cartoonist Alina Pete combines comic books, animatics and poetry to layer what has been survived before with what must be survived again.”

I appreciated these offerings but Echoes of the Plague Times moved me the most with its poetry, imagery, use of elegant language and Indigenous connection to the earth. Alina Pete’s narration of the animated film it accompanies starts off with words of wisdom from Pete’s family and ancestors: “watch animals acting strange” for that will foreshadow a change in nature or the environment. She talked of how pipelines built in salmon spawning areas destroy the echo system. Her piece shows such respect for the land. She talks of wildlife as “types of people”, “the animal people,” the “plant people” for example.

She talks about her grandmother who as a young teen worked in a hospital in 1959 when there was an outbreak of tuberculosis. That young woman was committed, caring, conscientious and unafraid of working with patients who were so sick. That so impressed Alina Pete and one gets the sense she carried on that commitment in her own work.

The images in her animation are wonderful and evocative. She says we—all peoples—are so tightly woven together, but when there is a hole that fabric is damaged. The image of the unraveling cloth with the hole getting bigger is particularly telling.

At one point she says that she got sick. We aren’t sure if it was COVID-19 but whatever it was was serious. She could hardly move in her bed (the animation for this was particularly vivid). She had a headache that made her see big spots.

When she recovered she said that “the sunshine on her face was like a mother’s kiss”.  That image and the description of it is stunningly beautiful. The image of her hand delicately patting earth in a pot where she planted seeds and then to see the sprouts of growth later also evokes a heartening feeling.

While the subject of Alina Pete’s piece are past plagues—a sobering thought—she is also able to evoke hope for a future because of her care and celebration of life in all forms.

www.summerworks.ca

www.canadianstage.com

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More in the on-going series of Theatre Artists Branching Out during this time of isolation and no theatre. The spotlight for this post is on: Brenda Robins, Monique Lund and Arwen MacDonell.

Brenda Robins

Brenda Robins is a respected actress who has acted across the country at our most notable theatres. The pandemic put a stop to that.  But she also sews. In particular she makes pillows from vintage material. Some are filled with a synthetic material, some with feathers. She says that she keeps the completed pillows in a back bedroom in her east-end house she shares with actor-husband Patrick Galligan and their son Jack. She says the bedroom is now full of those pillows. Perhaps they are mating in the night. (I know for a fact that my books mate in the night, perhaps pillows do too. But I digress).

I try and make a point of buying the stuff that theatre people are making. I said to Brenda I wanted to buy one pillow…I have a few pillows I’ve received on my couch. One more is ok.

I chose an elegantly simple pillow in a wonderfully soft material with large, graceful deep-reddish-maroon leaves mixed with green fern leaves on a white background. It gives the sense of lushness without being busy. The back of the pillow is a very soft fabric (not velvet) in deep maroon. Brenda also put dark blue ‘puffs’ on each corner. The puffs match my couch perfectly. The whole pillow is substantially stuffed with synthetic material that has produced a pillow that is both firm and comfortable. Love it. All the designs are elegant, tasteful and calming in a lovely way.

Brenda does not have a presence on Facebook or Twitter but you can reach her for further information and purchase at:  brerobins@hotmail.com

Monique Lund

Monique Lund was playing in Hairspray in Hamilton, Ont. (she was compelling as Velma Von Tussle) when she got the idea of making earrings on the side. She saw some lovely ‘distressed’ leather and got the idea of fashioning earrings out of metal and leather. She creates three types of earrings: “The Charlotte Collection” are small, delicate earrings named after her daughter Charlotte; medium sized earrings for the ‘conservative’ tastes; and bigger versions for those who are bold.

I don’t wear earrings (Monique’s are for pierced ears) so I did not buy any, but I certainly can appreciate the beauty and artistry of Monique Lund’s creations.  The combination of the delicate metal and the hint of leather creates the most arresting designs that never overpower but always enhance ‘the look.’ Lund hopes to rent a space in Stratford (where she lives) with natural light in which she can work, and from which she can also sell her earrings. Her husband playwright/actor Mark Weatherley and their daughter Charlotte also hope she finds another space in which to work because they want their dining room table back.

https://www.etsy.com/ca/shop/minniebymoniquelund

Arwen MacDonell

Arwen MacDonell was a respected stage manager in the theatre for more than 20 years. Then in 2018 she made a hard decision to shift careers, took the Baking and Pastry Arts Program at George Brown College and graduated a year later with honours. Backstage Bakeshop was born.

The same meticulous care that Arwen invested in stage management is now invested into her baking. Her gallery of baked goods is mouth-watering.

For my first time I ordered:

A Wee Loaf (which is a compressed baguette and comes with this ‘warning’ “dare you not to eat it all in one sitting”).

A Demi-Baguette (not one of those long ones—this is shorter)

Chocolate Chunk Cookies

Biscotti (cranberry, almond)

And I also got a Chocolate Brioche Bun thrown in.

Ordering and paying on line is easy. I arranged to pick up the order at Arwen’s house. (She also delivers). A time and day were set for the pick-up.

When I arrived everything was ready in a pristine paper shopping bag with the baked goods neatly packed inside. We chatted a bit on her porch (as with most people in the theatre I’d never met her formally but we knew of each other.)

I could tell from the warmth of the bag that the Demi-Baguette was freshly out of the oven and still warm. The fragrance of the bread wafted up and that intoxicating euphoria of freshly baked bread hit me. I couldn’t help myself. I tore off the top of the crusty bread and bit into it. There was that wonderful sound of the crunch of the crust that gave over to the soft texture inside the baguette. Substantial, delicate, delicious.  

When I got home I laid out my bounty on the table. I did not eat the whole Wee Loaf in one sitting but savored it over a few days. Again, the crust was crunchy and the “crumb” was soft, chewy and wonderful. The Demi-Baguette and Wee Loaf are terrific toasted.

The Chocolate Brioche Bun has ripples of chocolate inside it. The dough is sweet, dense and fills the mouth along with drool.

Chocolate Chunk Cookies are like a chocolate chip cookie, and then some. Arwen adds a few flakes of Maldon salt to the top-centre of the cookie. The cookie is crispy without being hard and when you bite so easily into one of the many chocolate chunks, you are transported to another level. And when you think it can’t get better, there are the few flakes of Maldon salt. You add salt to a batter to balance the sweetness. In this case tasting the sudden intensity of those flakes of Maldon Salt on the top of the cookie melds with the intensity of the chocolate for one perfect eye-popping experience.

Cranberry-Almond Biscotti. Biscotti are tricky. There are jaw-breakers they are so hard. There are those that crumble all over the place they are so delicate. Arwen’s Biscotti are a beautiful in-between. They are substantial but easily crunchy. They are crumbly in the mouth but still in tact as you hold the other end of one. The cranberries were chewy, almost fresh, but I know they were dried. The almonds crunched and tasted fresh, or perhaps they were freshly roasted.  

I was asked by somebody if I dunked—either a cookie or biscotti in tea, coffee, milk etc.  I did not. The care and meticulousness that Arwen puts into her baking requires that you taste everything purely. That means that when you plan on eating any of these goods you sit at a table with the goods on a plate and concentrate only on the eating—you don’t scarf any of it down while watching TV or talking on the phone or taking pictures of it for Instagram all while you are eating it.

You consider what you are eating. You look at it on the plate, or in your hand. You consider each bite and how it fills the mouth and how the many tastes reveal themselves, gradually and with a punch. You don’t take another bite until the mouthful you are eating is properly chewed, considered, appreciated and swallowed. Pause. Then take the next bite.  

There are no crumbs at the end of eating the bread, the buns or the cookies, because you won’t want to waste one particle of these wonderful baked goods.  

Arwen has a round beige sticker on every package with her black logo of “backstage bakeshop” on it. The logo is of a rolling pin that is horizontal on the sticker with the name of the company across it. Sticking vertically out of the middle of the rolling pin is a spatula, a whisk and a wooden spoon. Below that is the name of the item (Biscotti etc.) and below that are the ingredients, none of which is unpronounceable or made in a chemical lab. It’s all natural. The last ingredient of the Wee Loaf is “love.” (I love that—that ingredient should be added to all the stickers).

Some of the cookies are in cellophane bags that are neatly sealed but are easy to open when your pull the top gently apart. There is no uneven tearing either—it all comes unsealed with a gentle tug. The Biscotti are in a cellophane bag that is tied up in a perfect bow with red and white chord. I nearly got weepy when I saw that—the care that Arwen takes in baking, wrapping and presenting the stuff is quietly dazzling.

And it’s delicious.

And I’ll order more as soon as I finish what I ordered. And so should you.

https://www.backstagebakeshop.com

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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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