Review: Universal Child Care

by Lynn on February 20, 2024

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Marilyn & Charles Baillie Theatre, Toronto, Ont. Created by Quote Unquote Collective commissioned by BroadStage, Santa Monica, in association with Nightwood Theatre, Why Not Theatre and the National Arts Centre’s National Creation Fund, presented by Canadian Stage.  Playing until February 25, 2024.

Book by Amy Nostbakken and Nora Sadava

Music and lyrics by Amy Nostbakken

Story by Akosua Amo-Adem

Vicky Araico

Seiko Nakazawa

Amy Nostbakken

Norah Sadava

Stephanie Sourial

Jokes by Mónica Garrido Huerta

Director, Amy Nostbakken

Choreographer, Orian Michaeli

Music director, Alex Samaras

Set by Lorenzo Savoini and Michelle Tracey

Costumes by Christine Ting-Huan Urquhart

Lighting by Andre du Toit

Addition sound design and sound consultant, Matt Smith

Projection designer, potatoCakes_digital

Cast: Joema Frith

Mónica Garrido Huerta

Germaine Konji

Norah Sadava

Alex Samaras

Fiona Sauder

Takako Segawa

Anika Venkatesh

Although earnest and well-intentioned, Universal Child Care is a relentless bombardment of data and lamenting stories passing themselves off as a concert and/or a theatrical event and it’s neither.

Amy Nosbakken and Norah Sadava who comprise Quote Unquote Collective, are certainly gifted theatre creators as exemplified by their award-winning play Mouthpiece about coping with death, finding one’s voice and dealing with who you are. It played internationally and was celebrated everywhere it played.

What then to make of Universal Child Care? Amy Nosbakken and Norah Sadava have created a show that shines a light on how four of the richest countries in the world–Japan, the United Kingdom (UK), the United States and Canada–deal with health care. In all cases it’s dire.

In Japan Takako Segawa plays a dancer who is married and therefore is not eligible for child care. She ponders divorce but needs to dance to feed her art but it doesn’t pay enough for child care. A vicious circle.

In the UK a lesbian couple (musicians/singers) have a child and want another one but can’t afford to live in London if that happens. They would have to move and that does not guarantee child care. A vicious circle.

In the US a loving couple have a baby and the husband works two jobs and it’s not enough money to pay for child care. A vicious circle.

In Canada a woman is on maternity leave, her husband works, and she finds out that the person taking over her maternity leave will be doing her job permanently. She has lost her job. There is either not enough money for child care or there is no space in a day care facility for another child and the wait time for a space is years. A vicious circle.

The despairing stories of the various couples are depressing. For 90 minutes we are bombarded with statistics and data projected onto the screened walls of the two levelled structure of the set, each painting a darker story than the last. In one case we are told 16% of the people on maternity leave will lose their jobs; 4% will file an appeal. Are we to assume that 16% of the people on maternity leave that lose their jobs work for unethical bosses with little regard for the law? Is that wishful thinking? Little information is offered.

Lorenzo Savoini and Michelle Tracey have designed this two leveled structure that is divided into four sections, each section representing a couple’s dwelling. There are no stairs joining the two levels. One wonders how the hard-working actors manage to go from the stage to the upper level of the set. The actors scurry up and down that structure by ladders affixed to the outside walls of the structure. It seems a perverse way of providing an actor with a 90 minute-workout as well as a performance, but I digress.

A stream of information of the cost of child care and other expenses in the US is projected so fast on the set one can’t register it properly. Fiona Sauder playing one of the UK couple sings a dense rap song so deliberately quickly, itemizing the many and various problems of child care, one had trouble processing the torrent of information. Is that the point?

The US character played by Joema Frith recites a poem to parenthood that is poignant, moving, beautifully spoken with passion and it was electrifying—at last—something one could consider, ponder properly and appreciate. But then the character receives a letter (about a job???) that again is projected in a scroll on the uneven walls of the set that the result is unreadable. Is that the point, that we are not supposed to know what the letter said—at least from my seat? Frustrating.  

Amy Nostbakken has directed this show that involves songs (which she wrote), choreography (Orian Michaeli), a cast that sings background sounds when others characters are talking, and generally a sense that it’s all a deliberate swirl of activity to create the breathless sense of losing one’s grip. Really?

The always compelling Germaine Konji begins the show by re-enacting giving birth in the most compelling scene of pain, screaming and doubled-over agony only to have relief when she ‘delivers’ a glowing orb of light that is gently passed from character to character, scene to scene (clever).

Mónica Garrido Huerta plays an undocumented immigrant who does stand-up and acts as the emcee of the evening, delivering jokes that are not funny and generally don’t land because they are overplayed.

One can be caught up in the manipulative emotion of these characters and their situations, but that does not translate into a viable theatrical endeavor. Aside from being a polemic about the failed social services in four rich countries, what is the point of this sprawling, unfocused bombardment of facts and data? It’s not a concert of compelling songs or a play with dramatic tension. Frustrating.

Comment. The irony has not escaped me that Universal Child Care is playing at a 144 seat subsidized theatre in which the top ticket price is $99 and the cheapest seat is $29 in the last row of the balcony, and is being seen by an audience in which child care is not an issue. It’s heartening to know that the companies that are co-producing the production (Nightwood Theatre, Why Not Theatre, the National Arts Centre’s National Creation Fund and Canadian Stage) are providing child care for the cast while they rehearsed and perform the show. Now if they can also offer the same child care to the audience who needs it, they might attract the next generation of theatre goers.

Created by Quote Unquote Collective commissioned by BroadStage, Santa Monica, in association with Nightwood Theatre, Why Not Theatre and the National Arts Centre’s National Creation Fund, presented by Canadian Stage.  

Plays until Feb. 25, 2024

Running time: 90 minutes (no intermission)

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