Improvised and performed by Stewart Arnott and Susan Coyne

Conceived and directed by Rena Polley

Produced by The Chekhov Collective.

The Chekhov Collective is a group of theatre creators devoted to the teaching method of Michael Chekhov and to the works of the great Russian writer, Anton Chekhov. The collective usually produces a live production a year but of course that’s not possible this year. So Rena Polley, the founder of the collective conceived of this wonderful gem of a show that is improvised and performed digitally by Stewart Arnott and Susan Coyne, in their separate homes, adhering to COVID safety precautions.  

To say that it is Chekhovian, goes without saying, even though I just said it. By that I mean full of subtle, delicate touches of the mundanity of life, humour, sometimes absurdist humour and love.

The premise is simple enough: in the space of 10 scenes that take place over several weeks we see “how a couple grapple with different ways of responding to the pandemic.” (according to the blurb of the show.)  Neil and Brenda are the married couple. By all accounts they are happy and live well. The fridge and cupboards are full.  They live in a house full of books. In Neil’s office there is even a library ladder to get up to the top shelf. That impressed me no end. Brian is a serious book lover.

But something is up with Neil. He brings armfuls of folded clothes into his office. Then writes a note that he tapes to the outside of his office door and quickly closes it when he hears Brenda coming home, calling out to him.

The second scene is “A few minutes later.” And even though Neil and Brenda are in the same house they are communicating through their separate computers by Zoom. She is in the book- filled living-room, looking into her computer screen and asks gently of Neil, “Are you mad at me? Neil seems stricken with remorse at this and assures her he is not.

The problem is that Neil is anxious about the pandemic and he thinks that Brenda can bring the virus into the house. She is the one who goes out into the world, as he says. He’s terrified of getting sick.  She is always careful and adheres to the safety guidelines, but Neil is so paranoid he feels she can inadvertently bring it into the house so he decides not to leave his office.

She leaves his meals outside the office door. When he’s finished he puts the empty plates outside the door and Brenda comes and takes them away. She knows this is irrational but she is kind and patient. Early in the play she just wants to talk face to face to clear this up and he’s adamant that that can’t happen. That he needs to be alone. She tries to reason with him. She asks what will he do all day long? He says that he’s always wanted to get the books in order. This will be a great opportunity. She is supportive and encouraging. He then says, “no promises.”

Matters progress. From his office window Neil sees the neighbour preparing to build a shed with tools Neil loaned him that were never returned.  So Neil is angry at the noise from all the banging and sawing. He frets about the tools. He’s agitated about the noise. He is impatient with Brenda when she plans to go for a walk. And we see her impatience too after a few weeks.

Then Neil buys a cello for himself without telling Brenda; it’s delivered to the house; and he expects her to bring it to him. The negotiations between them have an edge. His practicing of the cello is driving her crazy and he is oblivious.

This is not a steady spiral downward for the two. There is a wonderful scene where they are celebrating something important. Both got dressed up.  Both have their own drinks and nibblies. She dances to the Ramones in the living room and he loves watching her on his computer in his office. At one point in that evening, they are sitting on the floor on either side of his office door, with their backs to the door. Both look happy and peaceful. Brenda slowly raises her hand towards the door handle to turn it and go into his room for the first time in a long time. Neil gently says he’s tired.  The shorthand between the two is clear but not cruel. She lowers her arm but she has a look of wistfulness rather than being devastated.

As a Zoom event I think this is one of the best digital theatrical experiences that I’ve seen in a long time.  Because the characters are communicating by Zoom it also works for the audience who are watching it digitally. The characters are interacting via their screens and the audience doesn’t think it’s artificial.

And in its own way From A Distance is beautifully Chekhovian. In Chekhov’s plays characters are often adults acting childishly, petulantly and selfishly, but with a certain sweetness. Neil is like that. He’s irrationally anxious; selfish in trying to hide in his office and expecting Brenda to cater to him. She on the other hand is patient and kind. She waits for him to come to his senses.

It certainly helps that you have two actors as gifted as Stewart Arnott as Neil and Susan Coyne as Brenda. Arnott has such charm as Neil almost a tenderness when he tries not to hurt Brenda at the beginning.  And even at Neil’s most irritating moments, Arnott does not make Neil cruel, just immature.

Susan Coyne shows Brenda’s almost endless patience and open heart. She constantly reaches out to him because she knows this is so unlike him. These people love each other, but she has to cope with much more than he does and she does it with quiet grace.  When she does lose her patience it’s as an adult with a child. I love that subtle difference.

And Rena Polley’s direction is terrific. It’s full of the most subtle detail. There are pauses, sighs and moments of quiet emotion. And she even gets us to look closely at the books. When Neil says he wants to get the books in order, we look to see if he did. As I peered at one shelf I noted that the library ladder did not move from the beginning to the end of the play, but the positioning of the books did. Perhaps it was a group decision here, but I credit Rena Polley for that wonderful detail. I love it when a director makes the audience look harder and feel smarter when they find a clue.  And it ends with a sly Chekhovian twist that is stunning. I loved this production of From A Distance. I hope everybody checks it out.

From A Distance plays digitally on The Chekhov Collective’s website at:

http://www.thechekhovcollective.com

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Monday, March 22, 2021 at 7:30 pm

A Benefit Reading
GALATEA
by MJ KAUFMAN
Monday, March 22, 2021
7:30 PM EST | LIVESTREAM
GALATEA is a trans love story set against the backdrop of a climate crisis. Loosely based on John Lyly’s 1585 play Gallathea, MJ Kaufman’s new play tells the story of two young women from a village threatened with flooding who escape to the nearby woods disguised as boys and fall in love. This benefit reading is a collaboration with WP THEATER. Directed by Will Davis (India Pale Ale, Men on Boats), this livestream benefit reading will feature Grammy Award-winner Ty DefoeJo Lampert (Hundred Days, Joan of Arc)Eve Lindley (AMC’s “Dispatches from Elsewhere”), Aneesh Sheth (Netflix’s “Jessica Jones”), Futaba Shioda (Rent 20th Anniversary tour), and TL Thompson (Is This a Room)FIND OUT MORE
GET FREE TICKETS

Wednesday, March 24th at 8pm EDT.

Join Playwrights Canada Press in celebrating the launch of five exciting books with an evening of readings! Featuring Daniel MacIvor reading from New Magic Valley Fun Town, Erin Shields reading from Beautiful Man & Other Short Plays, Yvette Nolan and Donna-Michelle St. Bernard presenting Refractions: Scenes, Norman Yeung reading from Theory, and Michael Grant reading from Bare Bear Bones. ASL interpretation and a compilation of the written excerpts will be provided.

Register to attend for free via Zoom at this link.

Thurs. March 25, 2021 7:00 p.m

Undiscovered Sonnets

Stratford@Home

It’s a game; it’s about love; it’s inventive and fun. Rebecca Northan, improv artist extraordinaire and a group of whip-smart sonneteers create a sonnet about a real couple and they do it according to the rules of Shakespeare. Wonderfully inventive.

Check it out on the Stratford Festival website: www.stratfordfestival.ca

THURSDAY, MARCH 25 AT 7PM ET 

LOOKING BACK AT 
CONTACT
Next up in LCT’s SPOTLIGHT SERIES will be “Looking Back at CONTACT,” LCT’s 2000 award-winning musical. Featuring the production’s director and choreographer Susan Stroman; writer John Weidman; and original stars Boyd Gaines, Seán Martin Hingston, Deborah Yates and Karen Ziemba. The event will be moderated by Tomé Cousin, also an original cast member who has subsequently overseen productions of the musical world-wide.
CLICK HERE TO REGISTER FOR THE FREE ZOOM EVENT »

Saturday, March 27-April 11, 2021.

 
This month Nightwood Theatre and Native Earth Performing Arts are honoured to present Embodying Power and Place, curated by Donna-Michelle St. Bernard and New Harlem Productions. In 2019, the federal commission on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls released their final report, Reclaiming Power and Place. In 2020 over a dozen artists from a wide range of disciplines were commissioned by New Harlem Productions to read and respond to specific chapters of the report. This digital iteration of Embodying Power and Place offers twelve audio-visual works that seek to honour the lives of the missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, Trans, and Two-Spirit people and strives to create a sacred space in which to reflect, heal, and find renewed hope. Incorporating text, sound and imagery, Embodying Power and Place features work by incredible Indigenous creators such as Janet Antone, Reneltta Arluk, Tara Beagan, Yolanda Bonnell, Darla Contois, Deborah Courchene, Aria Evans, Eekwol Lindsay Knight, Jessica Lea Fleming, Falen Johnson, Émilie Monnet, Yvette Nolan, Michelle Olson, Natalie Sappier, jaye simpson, and Aqua Nibii Waawaaskone. This digital experience, launching on World Theatre Day (March 27th), will feature twelve 5-10 minute pieces directed by Cole Alvis, Jessica Carmichael and Katie German and starring Cole Alvis, Reneltta Arluk, Tara Beagan, Samantha Brown, Eekwol Lindsay Knight, Monique Mojica, Joelle Peters, Tara Sky, and Michaela Washburn, with Sound Design and Composition by Olivia Shortt and Cosette Pin, and Multimedia Interpretations by Kaylyn and Kassiday Bernard of Patuo’kn. All performances are free to access, though we encourage donations to the Native Women’s Association of Canada – an aggregate of Indigenous women’s organizations across Canada, advocating for Indigenous women, girls and gender diverse people and It Starts with Us – a community initiative that was founded to honour and document the lives of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, Trans, and Two-Spirited people. We hope you will join us March 27 to April 11th for this thrilling collaboration from a brilliant array of artists! (Art work created for Embodying Power and Place: “Water Ceremony” by Natalie Sappier)

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Created by Joel Bernbaum from interviews conducted by Joel.

Directed by Michael Shamata

Costumes by Jeff Chief

Music by Tolen Stokes

Lighting by Sophia Tang

Production Design by Carole Klemm

Filmed and edited by Candalario Andrade

Cast: Ghazal Azarbad

Ustin Eckert

Evan Frayne

Kayvon Khoshkam

Adrian Neblett

Monice Peter

Celine Stubel

NOTE: Because the run for this is so short and I was aware of this wonderful project only recently, and I want people to see it, the review is shorter than this production deserves.

Michael Shamata, the Artistic Director of the Belfry Theatre in Victoria, B.C. has created a season of filmed plays while theatres are shut to audiences.

With Being Here—The Refugee Project playwright Joel Bernbaum interviewed refugees who came to Canada and settled across the country. Bernbaum also interviewed their sponsors and others. There are stories from Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Calgary, Alberta, etc.

The catalyst for the outpouring of money and the eagerness to help refugees was the photo of three-year-old Alan Kurdi lying dead on a Turkish beach. His family were trying to escape war-torn Syria with other refugees when their small plastic dingy capsized.

One of the interviews was of a Canadian woman in Nova Scotia who learned at her father’s funeral that he had sponsored a refugee. The refugee came to the funeral and told the woman of her father’s self-lessness in saving him. The daughter had no idea.  She then decided she would do the same thing. Various things got in the way of her fulfilling her intension but then she saw that photo of the dead boy and she decided the time was right.

There are interviews with various refugees. Two Ghanaian men who didn’t know each other,  found themselves in a bus station in Minneapolis and both wanted to go to the Canadian border. A stranger offered to drive them and let them out in the middle of nowhere. They walked for

hours. It was freezing and the snow was deep. They had no idea where they were going and the frostbite was so severe, they lost their fingers.

A woman from Iraq, a trained veterinarian, had a harrowing journey in which she had to pay for the rescue of her kidnapped son before she could escape through Syria and onward to Canada.

Each refugee was escaping death if they stayed in their home country. Each demonstrated such resolve, character and tenacity to save their lives and those of their families to find a better life, in this case, Canada. One spoke of a ‘second chance at life’ in her journey to Canada.

The stories of the sponsors were interesting. The woman from Nova Scotia wanted to “rescue somebody.” What seemed interesting to me was the tone of various sponsors that those they sponsored should be grateful they were being saved. What seemed to be absent was any kind of understanding at the hardship, horror and desperation the refugees had gone through to come to Canada. There was an expectation of how the refugees should behave: learn English, take any job and earn a living and be a productive member of society in Canada.

One refugee had difficulty learning English because he was illiterate in his own language. Dealing with that didn’t occur to the sponsor.

Initially the film alternated between the stories of sponsors and their intentions and the stories of the refugees so that we got many sides of many stories. It was only at the end of the film did we have the other side of the same story. Hana was the Iraqi woman who paid kidnappers and then fled with her children to Canada. In one heartbreaking story she tells how she asked her young son what he wanted for his birthday, and he said his own pillow. They have been shunted around from so many refugee hotels that he never had the same pillow. That image of such impermanence squeezed the heart.

The sponsor found Hana difficult, feeling she was not grateful enough for their efforts. An obvious miscommunication.  They were insensitive to what Hana needed and wanted in the new life. She was a professional woman who had to momentarily forget she was accomplished.

The project is an example of ‘verbatim theatre’—the actors listened to the actual interviews and copied every inflection, every pause and ‘um’ to the letter. Michael Shamata directed this with sensitivity and attention to detail. Many close-ups were very effective.

I found that there was the subtlest sense of smugness on the part of the sponsors. Perhaps this gives the sense that Being Here—The Refugee Project might be lopsided with the sponsors expecting more than is reasonable. The sponsors want to do well for the other side without seeming to be sensitive to what it cost the refugees to get to Canada.

Doing right. Being humane. Helping when someone is in trouble, wanting a second chance at life, just wanting the opportunity to work, even without fingers, are some of the themes of this eye-opening, heart-squeezing project.

Produced by The Belfry Theatre, Victoria, B.C.

Being Here – The Refugee Project (https://www.belfry.bc.ca/being-here-the-refugee-project/) will be streaming from March 16 – 21.

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Hi Folks,

Apparently when one tries to register for this free event at Lincoln Center Theater in New York, it won’t accept a Canadian postal code under “Zip Code.” I’ve written to them to try and fix this.

In the meantime just put in this zip code: 10023. It’s the zip code for Lincoln Center Theater.

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If you have never seen the Lincoln Center Theater production of Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike with the original cast, here is your chance for free!!!

Membership   LincTix   LCT3   Visit   Accessibility

SHOWS   EXPLORE   SUPPORT   ABOUT
Full-length streams of acclaimed LCT productions FREE! PRIVATE REELS: FROM THE LCT ARCHIVE LEARN MORE »
FREE STREAMING ON BROADWAY ON DEMAND
BEGINS TOMORROW AT 7PM ET
VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKEStream our production of VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE (2012, Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater), by Christopher Durang, directed by Nicholas Martin, featuring Genevieve Angelson, Shalita Grant, Billy Magnussen, Kristine Nielsen, David Hyde Pierce and Sigourney Weaver.

This Tony® Award-winning Best Play (2013) takes 3 mismatched siblings (played to the hilt by Kristine Nielsen, David Hyde Pierce and Sigourney Weaver), adds 1 boy toy (Billy Magnussen), throws in themes from Chekhov, pours it all into a blender and mixes it up. The result? An utterly hilarious, touching work by a master of comedy.

FREE streaming begins TOMORROW (3/18) at 7pm ET on Broadway on Demand!REGISTER NOW »
How to Watch PRIVATE REELS:

VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE will stream for FREE on Broadway on Demand, beginning tomorrow, March 18 at 7pm ET through April 11 at midnight.

1. Click the Register Now button to sign up on Broadway on Demand.

2. If you don’t already have a free Broadway on Demand account, you will need to create one.

3. On the day of the stream, you’ll receive an email with the show link and the promo code VANYAFREE. That will make it free to view!

If you have further questions, view our FAQ here or contact info@broadwayondemand.com.REGISTER NOW »

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From Jack Grinhous of Bound To Create:

I just wanted to let you know our production of Isitwendam (An Understanding) by Meegwun Fairbrother will be LIVE STREAMING from the RMTC Warehouse as a part of their 20/21 Season’s The Bridge Festival using multiple cameras.

This incredible festival will feature many dynamic artists including:

Sandra LaRonde, David McLeod, Ian Ross, Tara Beagan, Waawaate Forbister, Margo Kane, Kevin Loring, Kenneth T. Williams, Michelle Thrush, and Tomson Highway and closes its weekend festivities with a one-time performance of Isitwendam, filmed and streamed lived from the MTC Warehouse in Winnipeg.

The festival is free, as are the panels, workshops, readings and performances.

To receive your free festival pass you can go to:

https://royalmtc.ca/Festivals-Events/The-Bridge/Full-length-play.aspx

From there you can register for Isitwendam.

The one off performance closes the festival on the afternoon of this upcoming Sunday, March 21st at 3:00 pm ET(2pm CT).

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Monday, March 15, 2021

A Benefit Reading
GALLATHEA
by John Lyly
Monday, March 15, 2021
7:30 PM EST | LIVESTREAM
First performed in 1588, John Lyly’s GALLATHEA is a queer love story set inside the landscape of classical myth. In order to avoid becoming dinner for a sea monster, Gallathea and Phillida are sent into the forest dressed as boys. Meanwhile, three shipwrecked brothers set out to seek their fortunes, Cupid stirs up his usual trouble, nymphs fall for mortals, and Neptune–God of the Sea–waits to make his move. This playful pastoral of love, desire, and finding yourself is an affirmation of identity–joyfully reclaimed for 2021. This benefit reading is a collaboration with THE DRAMA LEAGUE. Directed by Emma Rosa Went (Drama League Classical Directing Fellow),this livestream benefit reading will feature Olivia Rose Barresi (Courage! To the Field! at the Tank), Helen Cespedes (The School for Scandal – Red Bull Theater, Timon of Athens – RSC), Nathaniel P. Claridad (Disney’s Mulan), Amy Jo Jackson (The Great Recession – Flea Theater), Christopher Michael McFarland (Measure for Measure – TFANA), Jason O’Connell (Judgment Day at Park Avenue Armory), Layla Khoshnoudi (TMen on Boats – Playwrights Horizons), Aneesh Sheth (Netflix’s “Jessica Jones”), David Ryan Smith (Mankind – Playwrights Horizons), and Zo Tipp (Bundle of Sticks at INTAR). FIND OUT MORE
GET FREE TICKETS

Monday, March 15, 2021.

From Puppetmongers Theatre

Brick Bros. Circus – Streaming now until March 24!

Enjoy Puppetmongers Theatre’s delightfully filmed tongue-in-cheek show from the comfort of your home!

Be amazed by the acrobatic Bildovitch family; awestruck by the lovely Madame Brikaskova on her High Trapeze; astounded by the unbelievable brick Contortionist! This miniature one-ring circus, starring highly trained building bricks, has already warped the minds of several generations of audience: considered a classic amongst puppeteers, the show will expand your concept of puppet theatre.

“Exceptionally funny and imaginative. ” -Edinburgh Festival Times, UK

Tickets are available for free or by suggested Pay-What-You-Can ticket donation ranging from $10-$100. You will receive a charitable tax receipt for the full amount of your contribution!

Your donation will go to support Puppetmongers Theatre’s groundbreaking puppet theatre, workshops, collaborations and training and mentorship initiatives.

You can also enjoy The Miller and His Wife from April 14-28! We hope you will join us online!

Monday, March 15, 2021

From The Mint Theatre

Monday, March 15, 2021

From the Chekhov Collective

From a Distance is a charming play on Zoom Created by Stewart Arnott and Susan Coyne.

Coping in the time of COVID

https://thechekhovcollective.us15.list-manage.com/track/click?u=475a9f436440fcf29b584c8c7&id=9df6524e7d&e=b636d9c638

Friday, March 19, 2021

9:00 am to 10:00 am

CIUT FRIDAY MORNING, 89.5 fm

An interview with Rebecca Northan, comedienne-theatre creator-extraordaire.

Northan and her fellow improv artists have created a program called Undiscovered Sonnets, in which a real live couple talk about their relationship and the improv team fashions a sonnet with that information, following Shakespeare’s strict formula for sonnets. Wonderful and wild.

www.ciut.fm

Friday, March 19, 2021

WIL

Streaming

ERIC MCCORMACK, COLM FEORE, LUCY PEACOK, ERIN KARPLUK

APPEARING IN VIRTUAL READING OF “WIL”

DIRECTED BY SARA BOTSFORD

AN ONLINE FUNDRAISER FOR THE AFC—Postponed from last week.

A virtual reading of Wil, a new feature film project written by Dan Rosen, benefiting The Actors Fund and The AFC (The Actors’ Fund of Canada), will be streamed online March 19-23, 2021.

Sara Botsford will direct and co-produce.

The cast includes :Eric McCormack as Bernie Shylock, Oliver Dench as Wil, Lucy Peacock as Gertrude, Will Swenson as Richard, Colm Feore as Polonius, Jonathan Scarfe as The Narrator, Zuleikha Robinson as Ophelia, Luke Humphrey as Hamlet, Geraint Wyn Davies as Falstaff, Andre Sills as Fortinbras, Christopher Shyer as Edgar, Erin Karpluk as Mistress Quigly and Kendra Leigh as Anne Hathaway, among many others.

Set in 1590, Wil introduces us to 26-year-old Wil Shakespeare – a promising, but floundering playwright with a wife, three children, a ballooning mortgage and a brand-new play, Romeo & Juliet, that just closed on opening night at the Stratford Upon Avon Supper Theater. Things look bleak for the young playwright when his trusted agent, Bernie Shylock, lands Wil his first professional gig – running the summer stock theatre at Elsinore Castle in Denmark. Upon arrival in Denmark, Wil finds a group of less-than-desirable thespians, thieves and murderers and

realizes that putting on a respectable performance of Romeo & Juliet might be the least of his worries. 

Tickets are available at www.muchadoaboutwil.com. There is no admission fee, but audience members are encouraged to make donations to The AFC (the Actors’ Fund of Canada) and The Actors Fund

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bug

Written by Yolanda Bonnell

(not to be confused by the play Bug by Tracy Letts)

ISBN 978-1-927922-66-8

Scirocco Drama

As we have not been in a theatre for a year to see a live performance, I’m reviewing the next best thing, a text of a recently published play. Previously I reviewed Controlled Damage by Andrea Scott. This time I’m reviewing bug by Yolanda Bonnell.  In both cases I bought the text.

From the blurb of bug: “The Girl traces her life from surviving the foster care system to her struggles with addictions. She fights, hoping to break the cycle in order to give her daughter a different life than the one she had. The Mother sits in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, recounting memories of the daughter that was taken from her, and the struggles of living on the streets in Northern Ontario. They are both followed by Manidoons, a physical manifestation of the trauma and addiction that crawl across generations.

bug is a solo performance and artistic ceremony that highlights the ongoing effects of colonialism and intergenerational trauma experienced by Indigenous women, as well as testimony to the women’s resistance and strength.”

The Story.

The text begins with circles (characters in the play will meet in support circles). The sound of a drumbeat. The importance of ancestors and elders is established, as is nature, the searching to understand what one does not understand and metaphor, symbolism and resilience.

The play is about the cycles of despair, trying to overcome it, failing, trying again. The lives of The Mother and The Girl will be entwined (encircled?) because they both experienced the same things, try as they might not to.  The Mother was addicted to alcohol and constantly tried to stop. A saving grace was her daughter. The Mother loved her unconditionally. Eventually her daughter was taken away by the authorities.  A cycle of foster home placements followed for The Girl. She became addicted to alcohol, cigarettes, food and drugs. She found ‘love’ with boys and men. She got pregnant.  When The Girl’s daughter was born The Girl gave her baby unconditional love as well. (The Girl says: “All I wanted was to love my baby the way I wasn’t.”)

But always present were Manidoons, ‘a physical manifestation of the trauma and addictions that crawl across generations.” Their grip was so tight first on The Mother and then The Girl, trying to escape was almost futile. That didn’t mean they didn’t try with all their might.

In one harrowing scene The Girl is bathing her baby daughter in the bathtub and singing to her when Manidoons entices The Girl away. (“At some point in the song, her MANIDOONS hand begins to creep and pull her away. She tries to fight it momentarily but eventually it wins, both hands infected, crawling up her body.”) When The Girl breaks free of the grip of Manidoons she races back to her daughter and finds her submerged in the water. We fear the baby is dead. The Girl saves her. But again, the authorities take The Girl’s daughter from her.

Yolanda Bonnell’s language is vivid, spare and onomatopoeic—the choice of words evokes sounds. For example, in the first of five Manidoons scenes:

“….The sounds of escape

The pitter

 Pitter

Of helplessness

The patter

Patter of despair

The tip and the toe of running towards the thing she loves the most in this world

Of thirst and

Need and

Want and…”

The words sound like drum beats, rhythmic beating. Hypnotizing and commanding. The play is full of such language.  

Yolanda Bonnell’s play is vital, provocative and important in illuminating Indigenous stories, traditions and ceremonies. As with all works of art, the play transcends one specific culture and has resonance in others depending of course on the reader. While Manidoons is so specific to Indigenous culture with its particular definition, that manifestation could also have resonance to ‘the Devil’ in Christianity; ‘the Dybbuk’ in Judaism, the ‘gods’ in Greek mythology, the crow in Australian Aboriginal culture, and many other names in other cultures.   

The Girl is fascinated by fire flies, a recurring symbol, she tries to catch them and their light. They offer her light in her dark world.

bug is both poetic and justifiably brutal in what happens to The Girl and her Mother. Yolanda Bonnell shines a light on issues that should concern us all. Her characters have demons and resilience in fighting them. And in a shining moment the play ends with Hope.

Comment.

The text of bug contains many informative essays. One is “A Decolonial Act of Resistance” which explains why manidoons collective (Yolanda Bonnell and Cole Alvis the director of the theatre production of bug) made the decision not to invite white theatre critics to review the production when it played in Toronto in February 2020. I would be remiss if I did not respectfully address this decision and the essay.

To be accurate, Ms Bonnell writes: “In our process and work of decolonizing theatre practices, centering marginalized voices, particularly BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour) is incredibly important. There is an aspect to cultural work—or in our case, artistic ceremony—which does not align with current colonial reviewing practices. In order to encourage a deeper discussion of the work, we are inviting critiques or thoughts from BIPOC folks only. There is a specific lens that white settlers view cultural work through and at this time, we’re just not interested in bolstering that view, but rather the thoughts and views of fellow marginalized voices and in particular, Indigenous women.”

Ms Bonnell writes they received mixed responses to the request, some supportive, much of it vitriolic. Welcome to my world.  

Conspicuous by its absence in this essay is any Canadian historical context that notes that for at least four decades the theatrical stories, plays and voices of many marginalized peoples, not just Indigenous, were supported and championed by the very people Ms Bonnell wanted to exclude from reviewing her production.

Also missing is any reference that the whole practice of reviewing plays in the media has been decimated over the last several years. There used to be four daily newspapers in Toronto, all of which reviewed shows regularly. Now there is only one newspaper (The Globe and Mail) that thinks theatre is important to review regularly. NOW Magazine used to review every professional production. Since ownership changed hands reviews are few and far between. CBC Radio used to review theatre, dance and music (Where I reviewed theatre weekly). That stopped completely about 11 years ago when ‘their demographic changed.’ This ushered in the world of the (unpaid) blogger who had something to say and created a platform for themselves to say it.  Welcome to my world again. I am also fortunate to review theatre for CIUT FRIDAY MORNING, 89.5 for CIUT FM a radio station that caters to other voices, with its multi-racial, multi-ethnic shows. Again, we volunteer and don’t get paid.

Also decimated were criticism programs at Universities, colleges etc. to learn the craft of arts reviewing.

New, culturally diverse voices are always welcome. Room is always made in the circle for a different point of view. What Ms Bonnell seems to be espousing is exclusion. And equating a person’s perceived skin colour (white) with the lens with which they view anything, suggests racism to me. It’s as if the perceived skin colour negates a person’s life experience, character, education, theatre going experience, perception, curiosity, embracing of other ideas, observations, analytical abilities and all the other myriad aspects that go into looking at theatre and forming an opinion. This blinkered attitude cuts off discussion, respectful disagreement and exchange of ideas. It renders any kind of desire to understanding the other side of the story as hopeless.

But them Ms Bonnell has the wonderful essay: “Decoding Manidoons—An instructional manual” in which she explains the five Manidoons scenes in the play. Most important for our purposes is the first paragraph: “I initially wrote this manual for our design team so they would grasp a deeper understanding of Manidoons’ text—their needs and wants hidden within the poetry. So I give this here, but also understand that whatever you, the reader, feel any of these words mean to you—you are correct. Nothing only means one thing in this story.”

Hallelujah!

For years, for every theatre discussion group I have led; every theatre workshop or reviewing workshop I’ve conducted, I have always said that there are as many different opinions of a play as there are people in the audience watching it. And those opinions are all valid. They aren’t equal, but they are valid. It is so heartening that Yolanda Bonnell has arrived at this realization—that all opinions are valid. Discussion and understanding is possible and Ms Bonnell gives us that most important word used at the end of her play, HOPE.

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Written by Andrea Scott

ISBN 978-1-927922-63-7

Scirocco Drama

While we have not been able to go into a theatre in a year, I am reviewing the next best thing in this case, the text of Controlled Damage by Andrea Scott. It’s a fascinating play about Viola Desmond, the Canadian civil rights icon, that was produced last year at the Neptune Theatre in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Its run was hugely successful, selling out before it even opened, and of course everybody wants to see it here.

From the blurb on the text: “Controlled Damage explores the life of Canadian civil rights icon Viola Desmond and how her act of bravery in a Nova Scotia movie theatre in 1946 started a ripple effect that is still felt today. An ordinary woman forced to be extraordinary by an unyielding and racist world. Desmond never gave up—despite the personal cost to her and those who loved her. Andrea Scott’s highly theatrical examination of Desmond and her legacy traces the impact she has had on our culture, but also casts light on the slow progress of the fight for social justice and civil rights in Canada.”

One of the positive aspects of Viola Desmond’s fight for justice is that her story is now known across the country and she is commemorated on the $10 bill.

Some Details:

Viola Desmond had a rich and varied career. What was consistent with each change is that she excelled in whatever she tried. She was tenacious, determined, inventive, creative and independent. She trained as a teacher in Halifax, Nova Scotia. As Andrea Scott establishes in Controlled Damage, Viola was compassionate, gifted and understanding towards her students. As a Black woman she was fully aware of the world of subtle racism to which those students were subjected.  In 1932 Viola Desmond was an eighteen-year-old Black woman when a white teacher made advances on her that were unwanted.  In this situation she stood her ground with resolve.

By 1936 she left teaching to study in Montreal to become a beautician. Her dream was to have her own beauty parlor and create a line of cosmetic products for Black women. She was also in love with Jack Desmond also from Halifax, a man who typically wanted his wife to stay at home and tend her household ‘duties’ while he made the money.  She wanted to finish her studies. Viola got her way. Jack had his own barbershop and eventually Viola opened her own beauty parlor; created her line of beauty products for Black women and also taught other Black women how to be beautician. Viola began travelling all over Nova Scotia selling and delivering her beauty products.

It was on one of those trips to Sydney, Nova Scotia that her car broke down in New Glasgow. The repair job required that Viola stay the night. On Nov. 8, 1946, Viola went to the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow to see a movie. She bought a ticket and sat downstairs, as she always did in Halifax,  to be close to the screen because she was short sighted. 

A female usher told her she had to move to the balcony because she was not allowed to sit downstairs. Viola showed the usher the ticket and was prepared to pay the difference. That was not the issue. The usher said, “Coloureds don’t sit down here.” Such a policy didn’t exist in Halifax. There were no signs to that effect in the Roseland Theatre. 

Viola understood immediately. She sat there, quietly defiant and continued to watch the film. The Manager came and she would not move. Then the police came and forcibly removed her from the theatre. She was injured in the transaction. No one in the theater did anything to help her.  She spent the night in jail. The charge was that she did not pay the proper one cent tax on the ticket. She was found guilty. There were appeals that went badly.  Her church reverend wanted her to fight the case and try another appeal. It went to the Supreme Court and was denied because of that technicality of the tax instead of the veiled/unspoken racism of having Blacks sit in the balcony. There were consequences after the trial. Both Jack’s barbershop and Viola’s beauty parlor suffered losses of business. Life was difficult. The marriage suffered.

The Play.

Controlled Damage is not about the trial as the central theme. It’s about the world that Viola Desmond lived in, the racism she endured and the kind of determined woman she was.

The first scene takes place on Dec. 6, 1917, when Viola is 3. Two ships are in the narrow Halifax Harbour. Neither wants to give way. One is carrying 2925 tons of munitions. They collide and explode. The blast killed 2000 and injured hundreds. Viola was in her highchair in the kitchen, with her back to the window. When her father rushed in to see how she was, she was slumped over, the window blind fell on her head and she was covered in glass and she was not moving.  But she was alive. Her father James said: “It’s a miracle, Viola survived that blast. She was spared because the Lord had big plans for my little girl.” Her mother said, “Viola Irene Davis. The girl who lived.” Indeed that steely resolve at three years-old, imbued her character for her whole life.

The second scene jumps to 1946 and the incident in the Roseland Theatre. Then Andrea Scott fills in what happens in between and the kind of person Viola was. In her quiet way Viola Desmond (née Davis) was a pioneer as a Black business woman leading the way for others. She was not only a beautician, she created products for Black women and build a business that sold them. It’s noted in the play that a you would not find a Black beautician working in a white beauty parlor. But such was Viola’s ability and reputation that she had white and Black customers.

Andrea Scott has written a compelling, thought-provoking, complex play. She explores the racism a Black person had to endure, certainly as it pertained Viola in that theatre. But Scott also explores the politics of skin colour. Viola was light-skinned. A young student of Viola’s who was darker skinned challenged her about how they were treated differently. There are also pointed comments on wanting to straighten hair to look ‘whiter’. The source of the title Controlled Damage is also interesting. A cream is applied to Black hair to straighten it. “…what we’re doing is breaking down the natural strength in Black hair in order to make it smooth and manageable, which is called controlled damage.” The same could be a metaphor for racism to keep a person down, under one’s thumb and ‘manageable.’

Scott has fashioned the play as if it was Greek in nature—huge issues are explored—with a Greek chorus that represents the people. Her dialogue is sharp, smart, and vivid. That comes out loud and clear in the scene in the Roseland Theatre when she offers to pay the difference in the ticket price and the usher said: “Coloureds don’t sit down here.” The stage direction is simple and stunning: VIOLA understands. Puts the change back and snaps her purse shut. She stares forward at the screen: the opening credits music continues to play. That snap of the purse is resounding.

Viola’s case was taken up with her minister and his wife who said: “Everything is not fine. Being tolerated isn’t enough….As long as we stay silent and let people disrespect our right to live with dignity we’re going to our graves unhappy, dissatisfied and broken.”

Viola Desmond only got her due after she died (in 1965 in New York City when she was only 50). Others carried on her cause. But because of the racism she experienced Viola got people to notice and fight for a change. Having her face on the $10 seems a small victory, since racism is still with us in all its ugliness. Still Controlled Damage is an important, necessary play that informs us of how much further we need to go in race relations.

Controlled Damage, the text of the play by Andrea Scott is available for order from your bookstore or from Scirocco Drama.

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Streaming from Steppenwolf Theatre Company until August. 31, 2021.

Written  by Vivian J. O. Barnes

Directed by Weyni Mengesha

Cast: Sydney Charles

Celeste M. Cooper

A stunning play about learning the rules and losing one’s voice.

Duchess! Duchess! Duchess! is a two-hander play by Vivian J.O. Barnes, that was filmed as part of the Steppenwolf NOW series of filmed dramas. This one is about two duchesses who we are very familiar with.  And it’s just an interesting coincidence that this play began streaming so soon after The Oprah, Harry and Meghan Interview. Vivian J.O. Barnes began writing the play in 2018. The streaming of the play was announced before the interview was set to be broadcast.

From the blurb about Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!:

“A Royal Wedding is looming.  The Duchess and The Soon-to-be-Duchess are meeting face-to-face for the first time to go over everything you ever needed to know to become a duchess. There are rules. There’s a way of doing things. Remember, everybody is watching. And you don’t want to know what happens if you step out of line.”

In case we need to know in future, here are some of the rules from the play:

One can’t sit before the highest-ranking person in the room sits. One cannot cross one’s legs at the knee. One always sits with the knees tightly together and crossed at the ankles.  One is not afforded the luxury of independent thought. If the higher ups in the organization don’t think you look good in green, green is removed from your wardrobe. The Soon-to-be-Duchess was told she could not eat an ice-cream cone on the street because the public must not see her tongue. And it was more advantageous to be beige than cocoa.  

The play caught my eye for many reasons. Certainly the subject matter was of interest. Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago is one of my favourite companies. It’s actor created and driven. But more than that, the director is Weyni Mengesha, Canadian, and the artistic director of Soulpepper Theatre Company, which also started out as an artist created and run theatre company. The play is written by a young Black American playwright named Vivian J. O. Barnes. She’s in her third year of her MA program in playwriting at the University of California at San Diego. She has several produced plays under her belt already so to say that this young woman is a force to be reckoned with is an understatement. 

The play is less about the Royal Family or any Royal Institution, and more about having a voice and being able to use it as Black women. Both The Duchess and The Soon-to-be-Duchess are played by Black actresses. Sydney Charles plays the very prim, proper, straight-backed Duchess. Celeste M. Cooper plays The Soon-to-be-Duchess who is lively, familiar, enthusiastic and friendly when she meets the Duchess. Both actresses bring a sense of power and detail to each role. Vivian J. O. Barnes has written the part of The Duchess as a woman who has just given birth, is obviously in pain ‘and leaking’  and all she needs and wants is rest. That of course is out of the question because there are rules and duties. And she has to tell The Soon-to-be-Duchess her responsibilities.

As The Duchess, Sydney Charles is perfectly coifed and composed. She sits straight and stiffly in her chair, knees tight together, ankles practically wrapped around each other. She but is in obvious pain from the recent birth—a week before. For all her coolness, The Duchess has lost her name, literally. When The Soon-to-be-Duchess asks what her (The Duchess’) name is Sydney Charles is all cool composure and says, “The Duchess.”  She is a representative of an organization—the Royal Family-and her opinion is not wanted. She is silent except for waving and passing on the rules to the Soon-to-be-Duchess.

As The Soon-to-be-Duchess, Celeste M. Cooper is feisty, friendly, easy-going and irreverent. She sits forward in her chair a bit hunched over, her knees are together but her feet are not, until she is told how to sit. She thinks she can change the institution.  One sees what will happen to her after seeing how the Duchess acts and treats her.

The production is terrific and so full of telling detail for which I credit the creative team and mostly director Weyni Mengesha. For example, The Soon-to-be-Duchess wears a short skirt and a wild printed sleeveless blouse opened at the throat for a few buttons. Even us commoners know that would be frowned on. Too much skin and flamboyance. Blending in to invisibility except for smiling and waving is the norm.  The Duchess wears a longer skirt and a blue long-sleeved blouse with a pussy-bow—subtext is everything—that is loosely tied at the neck as if she is on a leash.

You can see from careful direction when The Duchess is reacting with concern and disapproval  to how The Soon-To-Be Duchess crosses her legs. Sydney Charles looks slightly down with a start and we know her gaze has been caught by the way Celeste M. Cooper crossed her legs as The Soon-to-be-Duchess.

There is a moment of startling drama towards the end that certainly drives home the lack of voice these women will have to express anything let alone an opinion.

I loved the chutzpah of the piece and the gripping sense of claustrophobia and diminishment that Vivian J.O. Barnes has created regarding these two Black characters and the world they are living in.

Duchess! Duchess! Duchess! streams until Aug. 31, 2021 at

www.steppenwolf.org

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