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University of Toronto’s Drama Festival 2019

Another year of excellent student theatre

University of Toronto’s Drama Festival 2019

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The beginning: Hart House hosts the annual U of T Drama Festival

Ranking from best to worst: The 2nd Annual 2018 McGill Drama Festival took centre stage, with An Other Tries To Speak: A Theatrical Mixtape and Jews in Baseball: The Musical following closely behind.

The U of T Drama Festival is a wonderful showcase of student talent, with one-act shows entirely written, produced, and performed by students, who give up whatever free time they have outside of classes to create dramatic art. But, as often as such restrictions produce incredible creativity, the three shows that kicked off this year’s festival did not rise to the occasion.

Jews in Baseball: The Musical — independent submission by Angelo O. O’Leary and Lenny Rosenbloom

The first show of the night and of the festival was Jews in Baseball: The Musical, an independent submission from audience favourites Tristan Bannerman and Leo Morgenstern, operating under the pseudonyms of Angelo O. O’Leary and Lenny Rosenbloom. The show functions in the realm of metatheatre, beginning with the musical’s ending, and morphing into a pseudo Q&A with the playwrights, led by New York Times theatre critic Noah Goldman (Funké Joseph), who does a good job of keeping his cool while Morgenstern and Bannerman play comedians. If it sounds a little messy, that’s because it is.

There are funny moments, certainly, but Morgenstern and Bannerman’s comedic efforts are overall hit-and-miss, and it is unclear what the show is ultimately about, if anything at all. Is there a comment on Judaism and Judaic identity buried somewhere within? If so, it is truly buried. A misplaced Holocaust joke that could have functioned as commentary on the lack of knowledge that millennials polled about the genocide display merely served as yet another attempt at generating rather inappropriate laughter. Perhaps the show is meant to be ‘theatre for theatre’s sake,’ in which case it has its funny moments, but even those feel forced.  

Morgenstern and Bannerman are clearly talented writers and actors who work well together, but this show fails to exhibit the full extent of their abilities. While Jews in Baseball can be funny and creative, it can also feel like a vanity project. Overall, it feels like the show needs more time in the workshop stage before hitting the stage stage. In terms of production, there are no notable elements; the set is sparse save for a few chairs, a table, and a carpet for the interview portion of the show. A brief shining moment is the appearance of Gianni Sallese as the charismatic mayor in the musical Jews in Baseball that opens Jews in Baseball: The Musical. I know — it’s confusing.

An Other Tries To Speak: A Theatrical Mixtape — Ember Island Players

Following the attempt at metatheatrical comedy was the Ember Island Players’ drama, An Other Tries To Speak: A Theatrical Mixtape. This performance was composed of a series of vignettes, each of which seemed to question the grander theme of identity — particularly, Asian identity. Unfortunately, the Ember Island Players chose a very difficult form to portray on stage. Vignettes function well if there is a clear overarching theme that comes through, such as in Amazon’s TV series The Romanoffs, or if they are given a framework within which to make no sense. Of these vignettes, Nam Nguyen’s “F*ck the Ch*nks” and Sam Zhu’s “PTA” most clearly asked questions of how past experiences and other people’s actions influence our own identities while Wilfred Moeschter’s “Clean Whites” provided an amusing commentary on the often racist content available on networks like Fox News. Although their attempts to portray the intangible aspects of identity are appreciated, Priyam Balsara’s “Farramoor” and Shi Yi’s “Cafe au Lait” were the most confusing by far.

While An Other Tries to Speak is commendable for its attempts to embody the grand themes of identity and belonging, it falls short of this goal and leaves the audience in a state of confusion instead. The production does not clearly ask questions of yearning or discovery, thus failing to induce such self-reflection in the audience. Perhaps with some refinement, these questions could come through more clearly. Staging is overall strong, with a good use of sparse props. An enjoyable musical performance concludes the show, and perhaps most clearly articulates what it means to be Asian-Canadian: a phenomenon of both knowing and not knowing your own culture — the song is sung in an Asian language that the onstage narrator admits he cannot understand. A strong performance by Moeschter stands out, but is lost in the overall confusion of the drama.

The 2nd Annual 2018 McGill Drama Festival U of T Improv

Concluding the evening was a production by U of T Improv titled The 2nd Annual 2018 McGill Drama Festival. It must be noted that it is challenging to compare improvisational theatre performances with other productions that have been written and repeatedly rehearsed for the purpose of this festival. Improv is, well, improv. Nonetheless, this show managed to rise to the top of the evening. Another metatheatrical commentary, this time on the drama festival itself, the show was structured as an evening at the McGill University Drama Festival, where three dramas would be performed.

The show began with a welcome from the McGill Drama Festival coordinators, mimicking the very opening of this year’s U of T Drama Festival. As is typical of improv, the audience was enlisted to determine what the three performances would be. “Lesbian Speed Date from Hell,” “The Bottomless Pit in the Back Corner of Nick’s Speak Easy,” and “Arcadia” were selected from the six possibilities listed in the program, although none of these titles were in any way suggestive of their content. Regardless, each skit was quite funny, and the performers played off each impressively. Backgrounds were projected onto the screen at the back of the stage for a rough idea of location, although these settings were prone to change, as is the style of improv. Apart from these projections, the show did not make use of any props — again, in the style of improv. The performers mimed any necessary props, a tactic that functioned perfectly well and left no yearning for stage props.

Due to the nature of the show, nonsense was to be expected, and it overall worked quite well. The skits were followed by pseudo-adjudications, cementing their metatheatricality in a coherent and amusing manner. Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine this production qualifying for any of the awards that will be presented to festival performances. Best direction? It’s there, but merely as a guiding framework for the performers. Playwriting? Again, pretty minimal. The reproducibility of this show is highly questionable. Best performance, maybe? No one is on stage long enough! It is perhaps ironic then that The 2nd Annual 2018 McGill Drama Festival still managed to rise to the top in terms of quality for the evening.

So, the Drama Festival began with a few bumps along the way, but what truly matters is that it exists as a platform for students to showcase their creative energies. There are strong elements in all of these shows that could find a better outlet in a different production.

— Hannah Lank, Varsity Theatre Critic


The middle: three new productions took to the stage Friday night for the festival

Ranking from best to worst: After Icarus, Statistics, Outstretched

The second night of U of T’s annual drama festival was held at Hart House Theatre on Friday, with three new one-act plays performed.

For one weekend every February, the drama festival provides a showcase for young talent to present original work by writing, directing, producing, and performing their own plays. It is an important and accessible way for students to see their ideas come to life and showcase them to an audience on a large stage. In this way, inspired young artists are able to create and share in a remarkable few evenings of art.

This year, the festival was adjudicated by Autumn Smith, an artist, innovator, director, curator, educator, and former adjudicator of the National Theatre School. As a professional in the industry, Smith was on hand every night to offer valuable feedback for each performance. Smith also conducted the awards ceremony after the final performances on Saturday night.

The shows are competing for a number of awards, including the IATSE Local 58 Award for Technical Achievement, the Donald Sutherland Award for Best Performance, the Robert Gill Award for Best Direction, the Robertson Davies Playwriting Award, the President’s Award for Best Production, and Awards of Merit. There is also a Viewer’s Choice Award, which gives the audience the chance to vote for their favourite production from each night.

The three hour-long plays featured on Friday were Statistics, Outstretched, and After Icarus, which covered a range of topics and themes, from scientific discovery and perseverance in Statistics, to loss and relationships in Outstretched, and resilience and the fight for freedom in After Icarus. Identity and memory played large roles in all of the plays.

After Icarus — the UTM Drama Club

Written by Max Ackerman and directed by Mackenzie Burton, this show is a parable on captivity and how it can be both a blessing and a curse. In After Icarus, the two main characters, Abe (Kael Buren) and Moe (Mo Zeighami), leave the dystopian regime that they’re living in to pursue a life of freedom in the outside world, while recalling the good and bad memories of their old home.

The show feels more like a movie than a play and is reminiscent of post-apocalyptic films like the Hunger Games. It portrays the struggle for power between people and government through war and death, and effectively demonstrates how, in some situations, we must leave the comfort of our homes to be safe. The actors were confident and comedic in their roles, while a moody set design and sound effects added interactive elements that made the audience feel like a part of the story.

Of the performances on the second night of the festival, After Icarus stood out as the most noteworthy show overall. The production was cinematic and captivating from beginning to end, with incredible performances by Buren and Zeighami. I believe it deserves to win the Donald Sutherland Award for Best Performance for its high quality in delivery, character development, interaction, and overall performance.

Statistics — SMC Troubadours

Where Shreya Jha’s script and gorgeous score were accompanied by Anastasia Liu’s direction, Statistics tells two interconnecting stories. At King’s College London in the 1950s, scientists work to discover the structure of DNA; the scientists are mostly male, apart from bright female scientist Rosalind Franklin (Violet Allmark). In 2017, U of T students Rose (Chloé Gétaz) and Angie (Elena Matas) are dealing with medical school applications and other university responsibilities. Rose looks to Rosalind as inspiration, as both are faced with the pressures of learning, growing, and pursuing science.

The show was performed as a musical, complete with a full orchestra at the back of the stage and characters singing for much of the dialogue. The storyline was a familiar one for university students, especially for those studying life sciences. Accurately reflecting the misogyny of the previous era, the script was smart and empowering, paying close attention to the details of its scientific subject matter while also proving that science students can do art too.

With its relatable story plot and musical components, Statistics was the second-best show of the night . I predict that this play will receive the Robert Gill Award for Best Direction for its achievement in artistic and technical quality of direction and transitions, as well as its clearly articulated storyline.

Outstretched — Trinity College Drama Society (TCDS)

Structured in five memory monologues, Outstretched was directed by Jennifer Dufton and written by Emily Powers. It follows Hyatt (Ezera Beyene), who delves into the past of his late sister Diana (Tuhi Sen) to learn more about her and find closure after her death. This leads him to Kate (Hannah Fleisch), Diana’s first love, and both characters are forced to come to terms with the death of their loved one.

Centring on loss and how we grapple with loss as human beings, the play was well-written and poetic in its use of language, although it could have integrated some more upbeat and lighthearted tones. While Outstretched was enjoyable and well done, it came in last out of the three plays for its repetitive scenes and overall lack of entertainment.

—  Khyrsten Mieras, Varsity Theatre Critic


The end: And just like that, it’s over

Ranking best to worst: Lone Island Lovers stood out alongside the magical Cordelia and the heart-wrenching Honey Lemon Green Tea

Alongside its clear skies, Saturday night marked the end of the trilogy of evenings dedicated to the showcasing of ambitious young talent eager to make their debut upon the Hart House Theatre stage.

Rather than the throat-cutting clash one might expect from the offspring of our university, the modest gathering of actors and audience assembled as a community in a commendable effort to support artistry.

Abby Palmer, one of the two festival coordinators, began with a land acknowledgment for the ground upon which Hart House Theatre stands. She spoke about the importance of the drama festival to encouraging students to find their voices and giving them professional tools to make their ideas accessible and understandable to a wider audience.

When asked in an interview by The Varsity afterward about the importance of the event, Palmer wrote, “Each show has so much heart bursting out of it, and that feeling alone is worth dozens of tickets. Additionally, shows that have been in the festival have gone on to have long and flourishing lives outside of U of T, so it’s actually pretty great theatre, too.”

Cordelia — UC Follies

Director Nicole Bell and playwright Lauren Lacey invite the audience on a journey of dynamic interpersonal relations where we encounter our first protagonist, Cordelia. A young woman with questions that come to burden every being endowed with reason, Cordelia is concerned with the burden of choice in the face of the inevitable tensions created by a culture of responsibility and agency constantly confronted by uncertainty and endless possibility.

Likewise, the minimalism of the setting as well as the easygoing humour both support the essence of the production to reflect the culture of a time when the fleeting nature of every moment propels one along, with eyes to the stars, all the while trapped on the ground with constrained motion. Perhaps it is from this that the necessity to appeal to perspective and constellations arises; it is an attempt to locate substance and depth upon the plane of reality.

Scene after scene, each is acted with enough presence to capture the audience’s attention for an instant, none endowed with the power to make them stay — intermission is almost reminiscent of a further installment of the play.

Lone Island Lovers — SMC Troubadours 

Following the short break, we come face to face with five figures seated before a self-designed space demarcated by white canvas tents, each a segregated island with a resident desperate to forge an identity of their own by establishing relations with the world outside themselves.

And yet, in spite of the relations we cultivate through ties of time and space, ultimately, we remain but islands of our own, loose clusters of sand drifting along the waves, yet never entirely in control of what is to come our way. Lone Island Lovers reflects this reality through the exploration of desire in the form of repressed sexuality.

Mick Robertson’s intricately woven writing illustrates our innate desire to extend our possibilities and surpass the limits of the individual. Through the collective, one hopes to inherit the abundance of the other as well. One after the other, through their rapport with one another and in passionate confession, Lady and her loved-ones unveil their longings and attempt to negotiate a space for themselves once unrooted from their dormant states.

Honey Lemon Green Tea — Victoria College Drama Society

The festival concludes with similar sentiments in Honey Lemon Green Tea, an exploration of mental illness and identity written by Bailey Irene Midori Hoy. Despite these sombre themes, the audience remains cheerful as warm applause fills the auditorium; the merit of the undertaking and the significance of its participants supplants that of the content itself.

Yet, beyond mere entertainment, if we are to notice the concerns addressed by each production and take into consideration their intentional selection, we may gain a clearer perspective into the concerns of the youth of today. Viewing these youth beyond the millennial imagery, a neat justification for symptoms that have only come to take shape from an environment over which they have little control and did not create comes to form.

Through theatre, we may amend the perceptions acquired from representation through representation itself, for art alone expresses the inexpressible and offers a voice to those who seek to convey that which goes beyond speech. Amid this shared language, perhaps we can at last begin to forge a path towards understanding, of both ourselves and that which lies outside us, to eventually establish new possibilities surrounding a reality in which we find ourselves in a constant struggle to find place.

AND THE AWARDS GO TO…

  • IATSE Local 58 Award for Technical Achievement: UC Follies’ Cordelia
  • Donald Sutherland Award for Best Performance: Frosina Pejcinovska — Lone Island Lovers
  • Robert Gill Award for Best Direction: Will Dao and Ahlam Hassan — Lone Island Lovers
  • Robertson Davies Award Playwriting Award: Emily Powers — Outstretched
  • President’s Award for Best Production: Lone Island Lovers

The highlight of the night, Lone Island Lovers, directed by William Dao and Ahlam Hassan, brought home three of the five awards, including best direction, best production, and best performance to the electrifying Frosina Pejcinovska. SMC Troubadours’ triumph leaves little surprise, for the application of every aspect of the production suggests that they have much deserved their prize, instilling the audience with hope that one day we may recover some of the texture sacrificed in our everyday haste.

Past politics and theory, lamentation and ideology, the drama festival hosted by the university is the coming together of a community, an assembly of individuals from across the nation to pursue a shared passion for theatrical expression — a conglomeration of actors, directors, writers, and artists to whom a chance to speak is at last granted. In the end, the festival reflects the very necessity of establishing relations in a world that has come to prize individuality and offering spaces within which one may pursue one’s exploration of boundaries.

— Elaine YJ Zheng, Varsity Theatre Critic

Theatre review: Hart House’s The Penelopiad

Atwood successfully captures the unheard voices of Homer’s The Odyssey

Theatre review: Hart House’s <i>The Penelopiad</i>

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Since 2002, Hart House Theatre has staged a Shakespearean production every winter, alternating between a comedy and a tragedy each season. This tradition was replaced, or simply suspended, this year, but it is a loss that is noticed minimally, if at all, if only for the reason that Shakespeare has been replaced by a more contemporary bard: Margaret Atwood.

Atwood’s The Penelopiad is a drama on the level of Shakespeare. It is a retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey from a female-centric lens: that of Penelope, wife of Odysseus and the titular character. In typical Atwood fashion, audiences receive the story of The Odyssey through Penelope’s voice and experiences.

The Penelopiad is composed of an all female-identifying cast of 13, and a mostly female-identifying production team. They are a wonderfully large and diverse troupe, who tell the story of Penelope’s life, her marriage to Odysseus, his absence for 20 years, his eventual return, and its implications.

At the beginning of the play, Penelope, who often speaks to the audience in a painfully honest fashion, reveals that her 12 maids were murdered and that she is to blame. The remainder of the play seeks to expose the culmination of such an event, in turn questioning female agency and the importance of female narrative, and perhaps most importantly, the silencing of women. This play is saturated with typical Atwoodian motifs and themes; it is a wonderful replacement for the often male-centric drama found in Shakespeare.

Apart from Amanda Cordner, who plays Penelope, almost all members of the cast play multiple characters. Each is both one of Penelope’s maids as well as a male character, such as Odysseus himself, or a minor character, such as Helen of Troy. The multiplicity of roles for each actor not only challenges typical gender stereotypes, but reinforces the multiplicity of narratives that Atwood emphasizes in her feminist retelling of this myth.

Director Michelle Langille’s staging of The Penelopiad is unsurprisingly exciting and inventive. Soft and dreamy background music can be heard almost constantly throughout the play, an unusual detail that perhaps emphasizes the uniqueness of the female voice. The set itself is mystical and well-occupied by the large cast, who move about frequently, employing props, such as large ropes, which at one point are used to mimic Penelope’s famous weaving.

Hart House Theatre productions almost always make excellent use of the entire theatre, not just the stage, and this production is no different. Even the lighting is memorable and even physical at times, used to blind the audience in an unusual and powerful effect.

Ultimately, The Penelopiad is an excellent production and well worth seeing. Stand out performances include Cordner, whose strength and dedication to her character truly carry the show. Much of the rest of the cast are appearing in their Hart House debuts, and one can only hope that they will be on this campus stage again soon.

Of course, one can also hope that the U of T alum herself has seen this excellent production. As a U of T student myself, it is particularly exciting to see such an epic work written by an alum and staged in a campus theatre. If such pride is not enough for you to enjoy the show, its own merits should do the trick.

Theatre review: Hart House’s Heathers: The Musical

Theatre review: Hart House’s <i>Heathers: The Musical</i>

Hart House opened its 20182019 season with a bang, or rather, a series of bangs, followed by an explosion. Adapted from the darkly comic teen film of the same name, Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy’s Heathers: The Musical premiered in Los Angeles in 2013. Released in 1988, Heathers became a cult classic for its violent characters, disturbing story, and morbidly cynical take on bullying and suicide. One can only assume that the demand for a musical adaptation was unanimous and vehement.

Director Jennifer Walls did perhaps the only reasonable thing to do with such an absurd, violent, and irreverent story: a lot. Heathers throws everything it can at the audience, seldom letting up. I entered the sold-out auditorium to the warm embrace of late-’80s pop hits, and the first thing that greeted me was the extravagant set. A brightly coloured and nightmarishly skewed vision of a high school hallway, it looked something like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari meets Hairspray, like how a row of lockers might look if you were on a seesaw and acid. It was impressive, and immediately set the tone for this energetic and disorienting show. A barrage of bright, colourful, categorically ‘more-is-more’ sights and sounds were to come.

Our protagonist, Veronica, is a 17-year-old nobody at the fictional Westerburg High School, who is later indoctrinated into the school’s most popular group of girls, the Heathers. There are three of them, and they’re called the Heathers because each of them is named Heather. Get it?

Veronica is played by Emma Sangalli, whose enthusiasm makes the coming-of-age scenes a joy to watch. Sangalli especially shines in the smaller moments, like Veronica’s brief asides to the audience, where she takes what might have been forgettable lines or inconsequential bits of exposition and infuses them with a genuine sense of charm and spontaneity. She greets new experiences — donning her Heather outfit, getting drunk at a party for the first time — with a sort of giddy disbelief that makes her character eminently likeable.

Justan Myers has the perfect look for his character, Jason “JD” Dean, and he nails the suave punk ethos. He nails it — perhaps, a little too much though. Especially during the beginning of the show, Myers wears an almost permanent smirk, which stifles and flattens the underlying pain implied by his lines. However, he more than compensates for this in his final song “I Am Damaged,” as he explodes into a fit of seething, spitting rage that genuinely terrifies. It’s exciting to see an actor become so truly monstrous onstage and, aided by creepy chiaroscuro-like lighting, which provides a strong contrast between light and dark, Myers’ face in these moments may be the most memorable image from the show.

PHOTO BY SCOTT GORMAN, HART HOUSE THEATRE

Oddly, Heathers succeeds most in its darkest moments. Becka Jay makes a remarkable impression in her relatively small role as Heather McNamara — the third most senior Heather, for those keeping score at home. After a series of comical and absurd murders that are framed as suicides, this Heather is the first character to actually attempt taking her own life. Jay makes the character seem truly unstable. Heathers is extreme and impassioned, but watching these scenes, I realized that I’d been somewhat starved for moments of genuine intensity. Jay’s raw, visceral agony — and JD’s similarly fever-pitched meltdown — seem to be the only answer to the bubblegum-craziness of the rest of the story.

I haven’t yet mentioned the music, because it is not very memorable, but the choreography is beautiful. It’s dynamic without being excessively complex, and most numbers end with a tableau silhouetted against a single-colour wash of backlight, which is, honestly, just cool. The band, led by Jonathan Corkal, is also excellent, particularly in more rock and funk-driven songs like “You’re Welcome.”

Despite the enjoyable instrumentation, however, “You’re Welcome” struggles to strike a balance between the comedic tone of the show and the attempted rape in the accompanied scene. It replaces a song from an earlier version of the musical, “Blue” — as in balls — which drew some criticism for making light of sexual assault. Here, the real peril of Veronica’s situation is clear, but it’s a difficult emotional balancing act for the viewer to also laugh at the jokes.

I must also mention the song “My Dead Gay Son.” There is a twist in this song, which I won’t reveal, except to say that it truly exemplifies the balls-out absurdity that the show constantly strives for. Throughout Heathers, there is an attempt to mix senselessly tragic situations with excessively cheerful pageantry to create an irreverent sense of absurd humour. The musical pulls it off with mixed success, with “You’re Welcome” in particular struggling against this tension. But “My Dead Gay Son” is such a fantastically silly culmination of so many ridiculous plotlines that I wish that the characters it focuses on had a show of their own.

When Heathers was over, I wasn’t quite sure how to feel. The play ends in a chaotic rush of so many events, increasingly outrageous, resolved and unresolved and resolved again, that you’re given no time to think anything except, “Why did they dedicate an entire song to Slurpees?” Suddenly, curtain call. I clapped for the lovely actors, staggered out of the auditorium, and tried to figure out why O’Keefe and Murphy wanted me to see what I just saw.

Something to do with inclusion? Something to do with the power of friendship?

For the discerning viewer, I’m sure there are scores of powerful messages to be drawn from this story, which touches on so many urgent and timely themes. I’d try to find just one to highlight for you, but if I think about the show much more, I’ll get brain freeze.

Heathers: The Musical ran from September 21 to October 6.

Heathers: The Musical: the first production of Hart House’s 2018–2019 season

The cult classic tackles themes of rape culture, eating disorders, teen suicide, and gun violence

<i>Heathers: The Musical</i>: the first production of Hart House’s 2018–2019 season

From September 21 to October 6, the dark teen comedy Heathers: The Musical will be performed in Hart House. Heathers celebrates its 30th anniversary this year; when it was first released in 1988, it was groundbreaking with its discourse surrounding contemporary topics.

The Varsity sat down with Justan Myers and Emma Sangalli to discuss character development, gun violence, and performing in the historic Hart House.

The Varsity: For both of you, this is your first time working at Hart House Theatre ­­— what is that like? It’s a historic space; how has the process been?

Justan Myers: Working in this space is incredible. I’ve been mostly in Toronto working in smaller blackbox­-esque theatres, so it’s great to have this wide open space. There’s so many different ways to use it, and with our incredible set, just finding so many cool ways to bring the audience into the world has been really fun.

Emma Sangalli: It feels like a real established theatre. It’s old, you can feel the history, and that’s beautiful ­­ just knowing there have been so many passionate artists in this building doing what we’re doing. And our director has been using it very creatively.

Justan Myers: It’s really cool to have that juxtaposition of how old and how experienced the space is versus how many emerging artists are in this production —­­ kind of that combination of youth and freshness, but then also this foundation.

TV: Can you tell us a little bit about the characters you’re playing?

JM: So, I play Jason “JD” Dean. He’s the typical social outcast —­­ he’s moved schools a lot and he doesn’t have any friends, so Veronica sort of captures his attention. Little does she know that he has a lot of unresolved problems from both his childhood and the way he’s grown up that leads him to influence her into some bad decisions later on in the show.

ES: Yeah, Veronica is not popular at the start of the show —­­ she’s kind of dorky, very smart, a little bit of an old soul. She ends up becoming popular and her whole story is kind of discovering the cost of popularity, I would say, and realizing it’s not worth it.

Emma Sangalli. PHOTO COURTESY OF HART HOUSE THEATRE

TV: This play is based on a film, the 1988 cult classic, Heathers, which many people say played a role in defining its generation. Are you looking to the movie, or past productions, to inform your rehearsal process?

JM: Yes and no. The characters are so much more fleshed out in the musical that it’s really its own work in a sense. I know my character changed a lot, because in the movie he’s a little 2D. ­They don’t give him a lot of super relatable moments. In the musical, they gave him more backstory, something for the audience to grab onto. So, in a sense, yes, because there’s so many of those iconic lines they took from the movie that you want to nail because the audience just knows them, but the character work itself had to come more from our own basis.

ES: At the end of the day, the part of you that’s an actor and the part of the character that you find through research just sort of come together, and you’re able to find the thread. It’s a little difficult, because the movie was quite a bit different from the musical in terms of, I would say, undertone. In the movie, there’s a little bit of ambiguity on whether [Veronica] is a good guy or a bad guy until closer to the end. Whereas in the musical, she’s kind of the belle of the show, as our director likes to say. ­­It’s pretty clear that she’s got a strong moral compass from the beginning. So definitely we had to look at as much source material as we could find, but you also have to dive into the text that the writers of the musical give you and flesh out the characters on the page, because it really is quite a bit different from the movie.

TV: Was there any moment during rehearsals when you had to really step out of your comfort zone or do something you’d never done?

ES: One of the most famous songs in the show is “Dead Girl Walking.” For me in terms of comfort it was definitely a step, because I have never played a romantic role and it’s basically a full, simulated sex scene onstage. So, it’s very much like, we had to come into rehearsal with all our guards down ­­— throw those fears out the window, be a professional actor, and just do it. But it’s so nice working with Justan, because I’m so comfortable with him.

Justan Myers. PHOTO COURTESY OF HART HOUSE THEATRE

TV: This show deals with a lot of really pressing contemporary issues like bullying and suicide —­­ who do you hope sees this show? What would you want them to take away from it?

JM: I think it is very important for teens to see this show, especially with increasing gun violence and hate crimes and things like that. It’s so easy to become desensitized to that because of media and everything, so to just get a real —­­ I mean, ‘real,’ it’s a musical —­­ but [it’s] a more grounded perspective of what these issues are.

ES: It’s funny because when you think about Heathers, you wouldn’t think of words like ‘solution’ and ‘hope,’ but that was something I really took from the writers’ notes of the musical ­­— that’s really what it’s about, solutions and hope, and it really tries to answer all of the problems that it brings up. I think it’s important for anyone to see this show. There are people that maybe shouldn’t see this show, because there’s a lot of heavy stuff in it, but it is cushioned by humour and by good-­heartedness. I think it’s an important story for this day and age, and for this city specifically. For Toronto in the last year, a lot of stuff has happened and because of social media we all know about it right away. It’s hard when you go on social media and all you see is another shooting, another truck driver. We all care, and want to do something, but sometimes we don’t know what to do ­.­

JM: It feels bigger than us.

ES: I think the beauty of this show is that it boils it down to a very simple solution:­­ be kind to the person next to you, offer them a hand, and include them. That’s a big one in this show. Be a friend, you know? That’s something very tangible, that we can all do every day, that will hopefully help change the amount of bad things we see happening. So, in that case, I do think it’s really important for anyone who can handle this type of subject matter to come see it, because it really does give you some inspiration, and also some tools to go out into the world and make it beautiful.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Theatre review: Hart House’s Titus Andronicus

One of Shakespeare’s bloodiest plays straddles comedy and tragedy

Theatre review: Hart House’s <em>Titus Andronicus</em>

Hart House made a bold choice for its annual Shakespeare production this year with Titus Andronicus, one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest and most gratuitously violent plays. It’s neither as beloved as Hamlet or Macbeth, nor as technically sophisticated, but it deals with similar themes of revenge and power. Hart House’s production is able to balance the play’s comedic and dramatic elements without overemphasizing either.

Titus Andronicus also straddles the boundary between comedy and tragedy. Director James Wallis’ vision for the play was to create the sense of a carnival, of funhouse mirrors and the dual world of the grotesque and comedic, a promising vision that played well with the themes and tones of the play. While Wallis’ production occasionally edges close to giving in to the tragedy, on the whole it balances the two modes well, leading to a funny, horrifying, and thought-provoking performance.

The production also shines in its enthusiastic acceptance of the play’s natural horrific, comedic, and tragic dimensions. The grotesque fully plays out on stage, while the comedic horror of some moments, like when Titus’ daughter Lavinia holds a dismembered hand in her mouth, manages to elicit both laughs and squirms from the audience.

At the same time, the trauma of sexual assault, the fear and grief of losing a child, and the heartbreak of a lover’s death are all portrayed with full respect for their tragedy.

The casting of female performers in some of the originally male roles also adds a layer of depth and insight. The show’s first on-stage death becomes the death of a female child, making the later rape of a female character in revenge more powerful for its parallels. Lavinia’s lover is portrayed by a woman, also providing for deeper engagement with the theme of sexuality.

The production also features some electrifying performances. Shalyn McFaul and Tristan Claxton, who play Tamora and Saturninus, perform with particularly great gusto and liveliness and play off each other well, constantly contributing to the comedy of the performance. David Mackett, who plays Titus, comes alive in the second half of the performance, enthusiastically embracing Titus’ descent into silliness.

Titus Andronicus relishes and revels in the violence it portrays, but it also has touching and startling moments. It’s a horror story on the surface with a surprisingly meaningful deconstruction of revenge underneath.

Any production of the show must grapple with these competing strands. Done well, the play can be fascinating; if it succumbs wholly to either the comedic or the tragic, it can be profoundly disappointing.

Hart House’s production manages to handle these dual elements well — both over-the-top and darkly humorous — while also showing the devastating effects of sexual assault, murder, and the tragic consequences of revenge. The result is a fun, exciting, and thoroughly enjoyable production — one well worth attending.

Titus Andronicus runs at Hart House Theatre until March 10.

Titus Andronicus set to open at Hart House in March

Director James Wallis discusses diversity in theatre and Shakespeare's continuing relevance

<i>Titus Andronicus</i> set to open at Hart House in March

From March 2–10, Shakespeare’s most gruesome tragedy will play out on the Hart House stage. Set in Rome, Titus Andronicus deals with themes of sexual violence, justice, and, ultimately, revenge.

The Varsity sat down with James Wallis, the director of the production, to discuss diversity in theatre, the relevance of Shakespeare in 2018, and the crux of what makes an effective director.

The Varsity: Do you have a set structure or idea that you tend to implement when directing a Shakespeare play?

James Wallis: I’m interested in how the text tells the story, characters, and the situation. You get that through three things: clarity, intention, and pace. If you have clarity, you will know what you’re saying and why you’re saying it. To me, acting is action — so you have to have intention. What am I doing to the other person on the stage? What are they doing to me? How does that affect the situation?

And then, because Shakespeare’s plays are mostly written in verse or in stilted prose, there is a rhythm to them, and you have to keep the pace moving forward. Shakespeare’s plays always move forward; they never go back. So those three things — clarity, intention, and pace — are my number one priorities whenever I do any work of Shakespeare or his contemporaries.

TV: Why Titus Andronicus?

JW: I’m always investigating Shakespeare. As I always say comically, it’s gone beyond obsession at this point! To me, it’s the fact that these plays exist in a realm of questions, which is what I find so fascinating. That is what I am constantly after — being able to ask those questions through my work. So, with Titus Andronicus: what does violence do to us? Why does it horrify and entice us? What do we do when we want to revenge ourselves on a person? Should we? Do we have the right to?

TVTitus Andronicus is another tragedy about revenge, but it is slightly more removed from reality. How have you been able to link this back to our current political climate?

JW: I think at times, taking relevant topics and putting them right in front of an audience can almost destroy the ambiguity of the piece. So my goal is always to allow the play to ask questions and not to give answers. With that being said, Titus Andronicus is a play that is about revenge, about a society at its peril, and a society at the height of its former history that is at a breaking point.

It’s about the violation of a young woman and how that affects the people around her — the play is about the consummation of taking vengeance on a person. My interest was, ‘How do we view revenge now? Is vengeance something we believe in? Is it an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth?’ I don’t know. I think it’s different for everybody. In a society that is as divided as ours, I think vengeance acts as a catalyst for how that divide is brought forward.

TV: Diversity in theatre is so important, especially in Shakespeare — were you conscious of this when casting?

JW: My goal is always to bring more diversity into Shakespeare from the ground up, especially with the actors. There are a lot of great actors out there. [Titus Andronicus] was relatively successful. This play has a racial dynamic — it is about an individual who is an outsider, not only because of his race, but also because he is an individualist, an atheist, and a person who believes he can take this opportunity and roll with it.

He is the smartest person in the play, and he knows how to manipulate information and power over people. It’s an interesting dynamic that sits in the play, this idea of the outsider because of their race and ideas. How do you cast within that? You cast them on what they look like, but you are also bringing in more diversity because that is what you should be doing.

I try to do that, I don’t know if I succeed. To be frank, colour consciousness is something we have to be very aware of — how the idea of casting is affected by who the person identifies as, not just racially, but also in terms of gender and sexuality. We have to be very conscious and considerate of what people are trying to bring humanly to themselves, because it is effective and it is telling when it’s on stage and people are watching.

TV: Shakespeare’s been done to death, but I noticed that there are carnival elements to the production — what else is different about your version of Titus Andronicus compared to others?

JW: The play lives in the grotesque, it lives in the horrible and the comic, and I really wanted to use this idea of a broken being — something that reflects back but is also distorted. One thing that came to my head was a hall of mirrors at a carnival. The carnival aspect is a thematic and design idea that brings the play closer to that comic and horrible place. Titus Andronicus is like a distorted satire of the revenge trope. The tragedy is taking the genre of horror and subverting it a little bit.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Hart House’s Putnam County Spelling Bee is D-E-L-I-G-H-T-F-U-L

The ensemble cast portrays their roles with humour and sincerity

Hart House’s Putnam County Spelling Bee is D-E-L-I-G-H-T-F-U-L

“My parents keep on telling me just being here is winning, although I know it isn’t so!” sings Chip, a character in the charming musical comedy The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which opened at Hart House Theatre on Friday, November 10.

The show is set in a high school gymnasium, where contestants compete in the Putnam County Spelling Bee and for a place in the national competition. The story is told across nearly two hours, with the contestants taking turns to spell words that range from easy, like ‘cow,’ to more difficult, like ‘Weltanschauung.’ As the show progresses, the spellers are eliminated one by one, until a single contestant is left. They reveal their backstories between rounds.

The contestants consist of an eclectic and quirky mix of characters. Former spelling bee champion Rona Lisa Perretti (Amy Swift) and Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Art Carlson) are introduced as the host and pronouncer of the competition, respectively, alongside a mix of overachieving student competitors.

Leaf Coneybear (Kevin Forster) is the only student who didn’t make first place in his district’s spelling bee and spells his words in a trance, and Marcy Park (Braelyn Guppy), who speaks six languages and skipped fourth and fifth grade, has high expectations for winning the competition.

William Barfée (Hugh Ritchie) exudes confidences, using his “magic foot” to spell out words before giving an answer, and the determined Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (Erin Humphry) faces severe pressure from her two dads in the audience, frequently ranting about the state of politics in America.

Chip Tolentino (John Wamsley), last year’s champion, is back to defend his title amidst some raging hormones, and Olive Ostrovsky (Vanessa Campbell), a somewhat nervous newcomer, is best friends with her dictionary and the only contestant without parents or supporters in the audience.

Finally, Mitch Mahoney (Carson Betz) is present at the spelling bee in order to complete his community service by comforting the eliminated contestants with a hug and a juice box.

The ensemble portrays these roles with both humour and sincerity. The audience often erupted with laughter at the production’s endless jokes, but attendees were also moved by heartfelt moments like “The I Love You Song” sung by Olive and her parents. Another unique aspect of the show is its audience participation, with several theatergoers brought onstage to participate as contestants in the spelling bee. These unscripted scenes make for hilarious moments.

Throughout the story, the characters learn that winning isn’t everything. This is especially true in a scene near the end, when Marcy asks Jesus himself (Wamsley) if he’ll be disappointed if she loses, to which he replies, “Of course not… I also won’t be disappointed with you if you win… this isn’t the kind of thing I care very much about.”

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee will play at the Hart House Theatre until November 25.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is hilarious and heartbreaking

Spectacular performances from James King and Lauren Mayer add to the show's immersive experience

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is hilarious and heartbreaking

On September 22, Hart House Theatre kicked off its new season with a bang, opening with an amazing production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Its themes of gender and sexual identity are very relevant today.

The show’s premise is especially creative: rock star Hedwig Robinson, played by James King, and her band, The Angry Inch, played by Giustin MacLean, Iain Leslie, Erik Larson, and Robert Purcell, are on tour, and Hart House Theatre is one stop along the way. The audience is integrated into the show, encouraged to sing along and raise their hands.

The musical was also customized for the setting of both Hart House and Toronto. Jokes were made about the theatre’s subterranean setting and the lobby’s ‘funeral home’ quality. This blend of fiction and reality made the story much more engaging, funny, and personal for the audience.

Hedwig’s husband and back-up singer Yitzhak, played by Lauren Mayer, opened the show by reading the theatre rules, her skillful acting helping her draw laughter just by clearing her throat. With only six cast members, four of whom were non-speaking band members, the show’s success rested largely on Mayer and King’s shoulders — and both delivered spectacular performances.

From Mayer’s comical opening to belting out bars of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” to soloing “The Long Grift,” her powerful voice — in contrast with her quiet character — made for an impactful presence onstage. King’s performance was phenomenal. Even dealing with minor technical malfunctions and stumbling over lines, he recovered flawlessly and did not break character for a second.

Despite the lack of intermission, the audience remained completely immersed — and, in the case of the man sitting in front of me who received a very enthusiastic lap-dance, maybe too much so.

Since the musical is supposed to be Hedwig’s concert, the band and their instruments dominated the set. There was nonetheless room for creativity in the production’s design, especially in Hedwig’s marvellous costumes and wigs and in the sets of certain songs, such as “Origin of Love.” The lighting details were also noteworthy, especially the shadows cast during the penultimate song, “Wicked Little Town (Reprise).”

I found myself blown away by the show’s attention to detail and its stellar performances, which managed to be both hilarious and heartbreaking, sometimes simultaneously. Despite being familiar with the plot, I was on the edge of my seat the entire time. My friend, who came in knowing nothing about the show, felt similarly. The curtain was met with an immediate and much-deserved standing ovation.

This story is sincere and touching, and the sheer emotional display by the actors — when delivered as well as it was in this production — is its strongest feature. Hedwig’s life is so unusual that almost no one can relate on a superficial level, but as King noted in an interview with The Varsity last week, everyone can relate to the feelings of heartbreak and the desire for acceptance that lie at the core of the show.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is playing at Hart House Theatre until October 7.